Bengal Bypolls: How the rise of BJP has forced TMC to change its strategy
In 2014 LS polls, the shocker for the TMC , was that the BJP did not even have a major presence in West Bengal until then, even though its origins have a Bengali connect: Syama Prasad Mookerjee had founded the Bharatiya Jana Sangh, the predecessor...
While the TMC won 22 seats, from 34 in 2014 Lok Sabha, the BJP won an astounding 18 seats, from two in the previous polls. The Congress bagged two and the CPI(M) drew a blank in the elections to 42 parliamentary seats from the state. The TMC couldn’t even congratulate itself on wiping out its principal opposition, the CPI(M), as it suddenly had another formidable opponent to deal with. With just 14 MLAs in the 295-member West Bengal assembly, the BJP now has more MPs than MLAs (seven) in the state.
The shocker for the TMC, which has 204 MLAs, was that the BJP did not even have a major presence in West Bengal until then, even though its origins have a Bengali connect: Syama Prasad Mookerjee had founded the Bharatiya Jana Sangh, the predecessor to the Bharatiya Janata Party. Given this situation, and that the state will vote in by-polls to three Assembly seats (Kharagpur Sadar, Kaliaganj and Karimpur) on November 25, TMC has shifted its strategy to reclaim lost ground. A major part of this initiative — led by party chief and Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee, fondly called Didi by party workers — was to reach out to the masses through programmes such as Didi Ke Bolo.
The tone of her tweet on August 30 was telling. “I am humbled by the overwhelming response of the people on the Didi Ke Bolo platform. In the last 30 days, over 10 lakh people have reached out to us with their words of appreciation for the initiative, valuable suggestions and grievances,” Banerjee tweeted — humble words for a fiery politician known for her sharp comments.
Didi Ke Bolo is a state government initiative where people can call on dedicated phone lines or log into the website to lodge complaints or concerns. The government promises a quick response. The feedback collected through this platform would be used to determine which TMC functionary would get an election ticket for the 2021 general elections. “The inputs we receive will also be used for preparing the party’s 2021 manifesto," says a core committee member of Indian Political Action Committee (IPAC), which has been roped in for the transformation exercise.
Some 350 part-time and full-time workers are involved with I-PAC, started by election strategist Prashant Kishor, in the Bengal project. Kishor is credited with creating winning election campaigns for leaders such as Narendra Modi, Nitish Kumar and YS Jaganmohan Reddy.
“There was a feeling that Didi and her legislators have lost contact with the masses,” says the I-PAC core committee member. “As a strategy, more than 1,000 party workers — from MLAs, MPs to block-level functionaries — have been visiting 10,000 villages and spending time with locals, irrespective of political affiliations, to understand their problems.” Apart from launching the mass outreach programme, Banerjee has also asked her legislators to return “cut money” or bribes taken by them from locals and to apologise to the people.
For someone known for her off-the-cuff and snappy remarks, the chief minister has been sticking to the script. “This means no more comments such as ‘chaukidar chor hai’ or ‘Modi should get a tight slap of democracy’ in either speeches or tweets. No direct attack on PM in any way; focus is only on state politics and policy,” adds the I-PAC official.
TMC Rajya Sabha MP Derek O’Brien refused to comment for the story, saying the party’s focus now was on the upcoming parliamentary session, which starts November 18.
But the importance the party is placing on the by-polls is unmistakable. In a first, the TMC released a local manifesto for the by-elections based on the feedback received from the mass-contact programmes. It is also highlighting the BJP’s threat of imposing the National Register of Citizens in the state “which will turn legal citizens into refugees”, says a senior TMC leader.
Both TMC and BJP workers are leaving no stone unturned during campaigning in Kharagpur Sadar, Kaliaganj and Karimpur, which are held by the BJP, Congress and the TMC, respectively. BJP state president Dilip Ghosh was the MLA from Kharagpur Sadar. But he resigned after getting elected to the Lok Sabha from the Medinipur constituency. Elections are being held in Kaliaganj as the legislator, Parmathanath Roy of the Congress, died. In Karimpur, an MLA has to be chosen as its lawmaker, Trinamool’s Mahua Moitra, won the Lok Sabha polls from Krishnanagar.
BJP workers say the party will win all three seats as they had an “overwhelming response in the 2019 Lok Sabha polls”. “People have now gained the confidence to raise their voice against the TMC. The BJP will win all three seats,” claims Ghosh.
The TMC says BJP’s chances are bleak owing to its lack of organisation and cadre strength in Bengal. “The BJP could win in 2019 only due to a deliberate transfer of CPI(M) votes,” says Saugata Roy, TMC’s three-time Lok Sabha MP from Dum Dum. “Otherwise, it has at the most 10% vote share in Bengal. We are confident of winning all three.”
It is not clear if Banerjee’s outreach programmes will yield political dividends for the TMC, though it has become a point of discussion in the state. “Mamata’s call to repay cut money culminated into a social movement,” says Samir Kumar Das, professor at political science department of the University of Calcutta.
However, some voters say her appeal to party men to return bribes might be counter-productive. “Take my instance,” says a resident of Lake Town, Kolkata, who voted for the BJP for the first time in 2019. “I asked my area representative of TMC to return the cut money he took for the repair of our society gate. He replied the bribe was distributed at several levels so how can he alone pay it back.”
BJP’s Ghosh says Banerjee’s outreach programme is an eyewash. “Neither her MLAs nor she is accessible to the public. There is still so much corruption. Wherever they go, people hound them, asking them to return cut money. People are saying ‘nikalo paise’, making life difficult for legislators,” says Ghosh.
BJP leaders have also been critical of the chief minister’s “Muslim appeasement policy”. The state has a Muslim population of 27.01%, according to the 2011 Census. BJP leaders say an honest appeal to the people to not fear TMC has worked in their favour in a state with a predominantly Hindu population that had shunned Hindutva until 2019. “People of West Bengal have always liked us,” says Ghosh. “We are doing what the people want. We will get a majority in the 2021 assembly elections also.”
The state, where political violence is common, has seen several such incidents. “There was a lot of gundagardi by the TMC goons. We were stopped from unfurling our flag or filing nomination papers for elections. We lost 87 karyakartas since 2013 to violence. There used to be a murder every week. Now we are giving them a reply in the language they understand,” says Ghosh. “When even the police is not with us, we have no option but to take revenge.”
TMC’s Roy refutes these charges of murder. “These are false allegations. The BJP has been more aggressive after the Lok Sabha results, after they got good results.”
BJP has become a formidable opposition to the TMC, says Das of Calcutta University. "It is too early to assess whether Mamata's recent schemes will have an impact in 2021 assembly elections. What is more likely to work for her is the issue of "Bengali nationalism". A lot of Bengalis committed suicide fearing the NRC. Her argument that she will support a Bengali irrespective of whether you are a Hindu or a Muslim will be the ideological peg to counter the BJP," adds Das.
In the meantime, it is a restrained Mamata versus a resurgent BJP.