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Bengal : Need for a middle path between complacency and despair

It is easy to freak out and give in to the negativity. Likewise, it is also easy to find consolation everywhere and hope that things will turn favorable soon. The hard part is to take nothing for granted, acknowledge both strengths and weaknesses, fear as well as hope and keep going.

Perhaps you were deeply emotionally invested in the outcome of the elections in Bengal. And now that the results are out, do you feel like wiping your digital footprint and getting off social media? For what, exactly? Do you dread online trolling or perhaps calls and messages from people you know, laced with taunts and ridicule? If that is all, you can just laugh it off or at least learn to do so. For there is no better place to learn about failure than by observing politics. Ask Mamata Banerjee, who had won just 30 seats in the West Bengal elections of 2006. And second, spare a thought for the lakhs of BJP karyakartas in West Bengal, who are fearing for their lives right now, even as the sword of Indian “liberalism” descends on them.

When struck by a setback of this magnitude, it is natural to reach out for bits of consolation. Indeed, there are more than just a few. The BJP won handsomely in Assam. It broke into new territory in both Tamil Nadu and Puducherry. Despite the big hopes and the big efforts, the party did indeed start from just 3 seats in Bengal and go up to 77%. Meanwhile, the Congress was routed on all fronts. The party drew a blank in Bengal. It was humiliated in both Assam and Kerala. It lost Puducherry. In Tamil Nadu, they won a smattering of seats as part of the winning alliance.

But the problem with consolation seeking behavior is that those who think like CPM or Congress will become the next CPM or Congress. The CPM, which ruled Bengal for 34 years, is currently celebrating. Don’t ask me why. At each step of the way from 200+ seats to 0 seats, they found some excuse to console themselves. The Congress is thrilled that they had an official reason to withdraw from the campaign. They did not have to show their face on TV channels on counting day. Big win.

For the BJP, any kind of consolation seeking behavior is even more dangerous. The CPM and the Congress may not have won any seats, but they have enough seats in media, academia, NGOs, think tanks, bureaucracy, foreign governments and so on. For the left, electoral politics is only a small part of their machine. For the BJP, electoral politics is everything. This is not likely to change any time soon.

If the left has any weakness, it is their tendency to make excuses. You might remember that about 3 months after the 2014 elections, there were bypolls in several states. The BJP did not do very well in them. Since that day, the left has been convinced that the Modi wave is over. Since then, they have found a new icon every six months to take on Modi, each more shiny than the last. It has not done them any good. If the BJP starts making excuses as well, they risk dropping their only weapon.

In Bengal and in the rest of the nation, the BJP now needs to walk a middle path between complacency and despair. Consciously fight the urge to make excuses, while still picking up the pieces. Constantly thinking, planning and engaging for whatever comes next.

So let us inspect one by one, the pieces that the BJP has in its hand. It appears that Mamata’s “outsider” jibe against the party did stick. Since success has many fathers and failure is an orphan, it may now seem like BJP made a mistake by bringing leaders from everywhere else to campaign in Bengal. This is very well, but one has to wonder what the alternative was. They had little local strength and too little time. They needed campaigners from other states to raise cadre morale. But now they have five full years. It is not every day that a sitting Chief Minister loses in a wave election. People have rejected BJP for the time being, but promised to give the party another look next time. The people have also resolved the BJP’s leadership crisis in Bengal, appointing a clear first among equals.

Just like the BJP had to import campaigners from other states, they had to import candidates from other parties. Again, the BJP has five years to absorb the leaders that it has inducted in haste. It has time to grow its membership and to identify talent at the grassroots.

The party also has time to reflect on Mamata Banerjee’s political trajectory. Until now, the charge of Muslim appeasement was one that worked well against her. Until now, she was competing with Congress for Muslim votes in several pockets of the state. But the Muslims have now fully consolidated behind her and have no other options. This means Mamata Banerjee does not need any more to engage in Muslim appeasement. The fear of BJP will keep them in TMC ranks. Instead, she can afford to give the party a Hindu face of sorts, a bit like Kejriwal in Delhi, subtly poaching on the BJP’s turf.

But the TMC has an exposed flank elsewhere. This is Mamata’s nephew, who is now clearly the anointed successor. In a striking move, TMC leaders yesterday made sure to obeisance not just to Didi, but to “AB.” With many second rung TMC leaders moving to BJP, the dominance of “AB” is going to be a big feature of the next five years of TMC.

This has many advantages for BJP. While Mamata Banerjee is a highly capable politician, the abilities of “AB” are unknown. Quite simply, he does not know the kind of adversity and political struggle that makes Modi or Mamata so tough. He is likely to have a lot of power, though. Chances are, he won’t use it well. And voters will never connect him to Bengali pride nor to feminist pride, just entitlement.

And finally, there is nothing that TMC can do to address this weakness. They are just another family run regional party now. The sycophancy towards “AB” is likely to grow. In fact, this is going to be their main ideology. It is likely to create resentment. The BJP has a lot to work with here.

At the national level, the anger against the Center over the second wave of the Coronavirus has been visible for all to see. Luckily for the BJP, this anger still appears raw. It has not shaped itself into a full-fledged anti-incumbency wave. Yes, these results in Bengal probably don’t have much to do with Covid. But, why take chances? A sense of paranoia could be a great help.

This means the next two weeks are crucial. If the second wave comes under control, this sudden anger is likely to dissipate quickly. In its place, there will likely be a feeling of euphoria that comes with having survived a great danger. We have seen the public react like this all over the world. Once the wave subsides and people are getting vaccinated in droves, the panic turns into celebration.

Overall, the BJP needs to bring to governance the same philosophy that it brings into elections. As it stands, the BJP has gained ground in all five states that went to polls. But the party and its supporters appear devastated. Because they fell short of expectations. In evaluating themselves, they don’t even compare themselves to parties like the Congress or CPM. They see the BJP in a league of their own. So why not bring this hyper-ambition to all aspects of governance? As in Bengal, there are likely to be lots and lots of failures. But at least the goals were set extremely high.

It is easy to freak out and give in to the negativity. Likewise, it is also easy to find consolation everywhere and hope that things will turn favorable soon. The hard part is to take nothing for granted, acknowledge both strengths and weaknesses, fear as well as hope and keep going. Now my words are too poor to capture the essence of the Bhagavad Gita, but I believe I am on the right track here.

Ayodhra Ram Mandir special coverage by OpIndia

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Abhishek Banerjee
Abhishek Banerjee
Abhishek Banerjee is a columnist and author.  

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