To say that the BJP is in a tough spot in Bengal right now would be an understatement. On the one hand, there is large scale violence on BJP workers unleashed by the TMC. Of course, liberal bias in media will ensure that state-sponsored violence in Bengal never gets the kind of saturation coverage reserved for every crime in say BJP ruled Uttar Pradesh. But can the world’s largest party really afford to look like they cannot even protect their own workers? What message does this send to BJP workers and supporters everywhere?
Add to this the fact that much of the public, including large numbers of BJP supporters, are unhappy with the handling of the second wave of Coronavirus. Could it get any worse for the BJP?
Unfortunately, it does. Like any scenario in game theory, the opponent is aware of the BJP’s dilemma and will play their hand accordingly, to take full advantage of it.
Fundamentally, the BJP has two kinds of options. The first kind consists of being proactive. At a most basic level, it could be party leaders speaking out all across the country against atrocities in Bengal. At its most extreme, there are “power moves” such as imposing President’s rule. The second kind are passive options, playing the role of a typical opposition party. In real terms, this means letting grim fate playout for the hapless BJP workers across the state.
But Mamata Banerjee knows what to do should the BJP try to get proactive. She doesn’t really care all that much what the rest of India thinks of her. She just needs to keep Bengalis convinced that there is a conspiracy by “outsiders” to malign the legitimately elected Chief Minister and by extension, the culture of Bengal. After 70 years, Bengal does not have much to show except for obsessive self-admiration. They will guard that fiercely.
Right now, with BJP leaders across India holding dharnas, BJP supporters fuming on social media, it all plays out exactly the way Mamata Banerjee would have wanted. The outsiders are attacking Bengal. See?
I am not saying that the path of outrage is wrong. I am just saying that it will serve no purpose. We have to contend with regional sentiments. We cannot wish them away.
After losing miserably in the 2012 Assembly elections, Congress began a nationwide campaign to shame the Gujarat model. It made the party deeply unpopular in Gujarat. In the next two Lok Sabha elections, all 26 seats in the state went to the BJP. Now, BJP supporters might be enraged by the comparison. But perception is everything. Right and wrong come much later.
If such an approach did not work for Congress, it would work even less for BJP. The Congress has long made peace with its shrinking footprint. Even in the UPA years, it made no serious attempt to expand its presence across India. So Congress strategists in 2012 probably did not even mind the prospects of losing all 26 seats in Gujarat. For the Congress, it is about one family staying in power by cobbling together just over a hundred seats from across the country. In Kerala this time, they did not even try. They handed the state on a platter to the CPIM. But is that how the BJP approaches elections?
Not at all. The BJP has just acquired huge stakes in Bengal. Once the euphoria fades, even the bhadralok will have to contend with a 75 plus contingent of opposition BJP MLAs in Bengal. The BJP leads in North Bengal and controls entire swathes of territory stretching from the border with Jharkhand to deep inside Bengal. The BJP even had a healthy show in Muslim dominated Malda and Murshidabad regions of Central Bengal. The nucleus of the TMC’s win is the Greater Kolkata region, where they won 99 seats to the BJP’s 9. The BJP faces stiff resistance here. But surely they hope to make headway here, not beat a retreat. They could ill afford to ruffle the delicate ego of Bengalis.
Moreover, the BJP has nothing to gain by attacking Mamata Banerjee’s image in the rest of the country. Because her image is terrible anyway. In fact, if Mamata Banerjee wants to lead the opposition as a PM candidate in 2024, it would be a huge positive for PM Modi. It would make Congress jealous of its regional allies and the regional parties jealous of each other.
So all the “proactive” options for BJP seem kind of pointless and self-defeating. But, in a classic game theory style riddle, Mamata Banerjee understands this too. If the BJP stays passive, she can just crank up the violence till the BJP is no longer able to tolerate it. If the BJP still does nothing, she gets to destroy the morale of BJP workers and supporters everywhere. And in Bengal, she can get BJP workers to leave the party in droves if only to save their lives.
In other words, there are a number of ways in which Mamata Banerjee can win. The BJP has very few. This imbalance comes from the fact that success means two different things to the two groups. For the TMC, holding on at the state level, even incurring small, manageable losses, is a victory. Anything beyond that is just gravy. The BJP, on the other hand, needs to expand massively in both Lok Sabha and Assembly elections. Everything else is defeat.
There seems to be just one way for BJP and it isn’t easy. It has to criticize the TMC government aggressively but through Bengali voices and Bengali accents alone. It may feel like the Bengal BJP is not sufficiently powerful yet for the criticism to make an impact. That is exactly what makes it so hard. But it is the only way. In Bengal, the TMC sets the rules. The BJP will have to play by them and defeat the CM in her own den.
Amid all the doom and gloom, you cannot take one thing away from BJP. They have just been through trial by fire. Their leadership, much of it acquired from other parties, is new to the ways of the party. But they can settle down. Already the people of Bengal have left a door open by defeating the sitting CM in Nandigram. This is not something that happens everyday. It is for the BJP to buckle down in Bengal and refuse to give up. That is what Mamata Banerjee did decades ago.
This was the BJP’s first real election in Bengal. The shock and awe tactics did not work. The hard drilling begins now.