As Prime Minister Narendra Modi travels across the way of Bengal on Wednesday to address two rallies, one in the north in Siliguri and the other in the south in Kolkata, the BJP would be hoping that the apparent enthusiasm of the party workers on the ground would convert into Lok Sabha seats.
Although the BJP has come a long way since the blooms of the Left when it was less than a fringe force, the rising votes may still fall short of that required by the party to win sufficient seats in the state where the Trinamool Congress (TMC) has a stranglehold.
But Modi’s party is in a hurry and party president Amit Shah has repeatedly emphasized that he will not be happy with anything fewer than 23 of the 42 Lok Sabha seats in the state.
That the BJP’s votes will increase in Bengal this time is widely acknowledged. But will that be enough to beat each opponent in the race and in about two dozen seats, is the moot question?
Over the past two Lok Sabha and two assembly elections in Bengal, the vote share of the party has remained at a level that is way behind that of the ruling TMC.
TMC chief Mamata Banerjee is full set to take on the prime minister on her own turf. To counter Modi, she has tweaked her schedule and brought forward her rally at Dinhata by a day. Though her election campaign was to begin on April 4, she will now be asking a rally today immediately after PM Modi’s address in Siliguri gets over.
While the PM will address the rally around 1 pm in Siliguri, Mamata’s rally at Dinhata will begin at 3 pm. Dinhata goes to polls in the first phase.
“The Chief Minister will address the rally at Dinhata on Wednesday at 3.00 pm,” TMC Coochbehar district secretary Rabindranath Ghosh replied.
In 2009 Lok Sabha elections the BJP won 6.14% of the votes and secured only one seat. Five years later, the figures scaled to 17.02% and two seats. In comparison, TMC secured 31.18% of the votes and 19 seats in 2009 which rose to 39.79% votes and 34 seats in 2014.
In the 2011 assembly polls, the BJP won 4.06% of the votes but failed to win a single seat in the 294-member state legislature. In 2016 assembly elections, the BJP won 10.16% votes and three seats. Mamata Banerjee’s party, on the other hand, won 38.93% votes and 184 seats in 2011 (in which it swept the 34-year-old Left Front government out of power). In 2016, its numbers rose to 44.91% of the votes and a whopping 211 seats.
These numbers symbolize the uphill task the BJP is facing.
To win elections in Bengal, booth-level committees are important. These committees provide the base of the vote machinery and on polling day they try to ensure that faces who are known to be party sympathizers in the area can smoothly cast their votes.
But there are severe doubts whether BJP has been able to build a booth-level network, so crucial for turning fragmented support into solid votes for a candidate. West Bengal has about 77,000 booths and building a five-member team for each is a challenging task. Until a few years ago, state BJP leaders used to mention the necessity to build a booth-level committee, but over the past two years, they have gone silent on this much-needed machinery in the state that was perfected by the Left and later assimilated by the TMC.
Political observers feel that the BJP leaders’ insistence on declaring all booths in Bengal hyper-sensitive and be manned by central forces is an indication that they lack the booth-level machinery which the TMC has. This is an organizational gap that the BJP has to overcome if it has to reach anywhere near its stated goal of 22-23 seats.
Political observers also feel that Narendra Modi is likely to focus on four points in his speeches. These are corruption, law, and order, lack of industry and citizenship screening exercise.
In the past, Shah has alleged in public meetings that some scams in the state directly lead to the first family of the TMC. BJP leaders have been alleging deteriorating law and order situation in the state with the BJP national president claiming in a press conference in New Delhi that Bengal accounts for 26% of the political murders in the country in a year.
Lack of democratic space is another pet point for BJP leaders. All of them invariably mention how muscle flexing by the ruling party ended in TMC candidates winning more than one-third seats without a contest in the three-tier panchayat elections in Bengal in April-May 2018.
Lack of big-ticket investments in the industry is believed to be a failure in Mamata Banerjee’s rule and Modi is likely to point it out.
Modi can also promise a citizenship screening exercise in Bengal to weed out infiltrators (read Muslims who have crossed over from Bangladesh to Bengal). He had earlier said that infiltrators were consuming a share of the economic pie.
Modi has another sentiment to tap. The Trinamool Congress government has been in power since May 20, 2011, and in the past eight years, anti-incumbency has started creeping in. The violence and strong-arm tactics of the ruling party in the panchayat polls have added to pockets of discontent.
Some signs are quite evident. In roadside tea stalls and markets, whispers of the ruling party’s acts of omission and commission are growing louder.
But the BJP may not be able to capitalize on it because its own house is not in order. Some state BJP leaders also apprehend another factor that may be silently working against them – the discontent among a section with some of the candidates nominated from different seats. It was difficult to imagine BJP workers vandalizing their district party office protesting against a Lok Sabha candidate – something that took place in Cooch Behar on March 22.
In Basirhat and Malda, party workers stuck posters and festoons criticizing the choice of candidates. A few district presidents openly admitted that they had no idea about who the candidate was. At least eight party candidates are those who have come from the TMC, Congress and the Left in the past few months.
With the party facing the formidable TMC machinery and Mamata Banerjee’s charisma, factionalism and half-hearted support for the official candidates are the last things that the BJP needs in Bengal.