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View: The Bengal verdict has ramifications beyond the state


Tathagata Roy isn’t known to hold back. Last week, the BJP leader let it fly at his own party — the point men of BJP’s central leadership were a ‘substandard, uninspired, mercenary bunch’ who had ‘sullied’ the party’s name by dishing out tickets to ‘incoming garbage from Trinamool’. Roy’s frustration is fuelled by TMC’s superlative show that has now catapulted Mamata Banerjee to the national stage. Now that they have discovered that Narendra Modi and Amit Shah are not invincible, the ‘secular liberals’ Roy so hates are mocking his ilk. And Mamata is their new-found icon.

If you are Roy, whose Twitter bio describes him as ‘unabashedly right-wing Hindu’, there’s much to be angry about — but only if you are taken in by your propaganda of BJP as a shoo-in. Contrary to the reportage of the ‘drubbing’ BJP has supposedly received, it has actually done phenomenally well, coming second in a state where it has been a non-entity for ever. Only, you wouldn’t know from the specious election analysis, such as comparing the assembly seat count with leads in the 2019 general elections.

That state and national elections have different dynamics is a truism. And it’s never been truer than in Modi’s India in general, and BJP’s 2019 campaign, in particular. The people of West Bengal, like the rest of the country, were electing a prime minister two years ago, in a heady campaign of aggressive nationalism. This time it was for a chief minister of a state, under the cloud of Covid.

As party and government are now basically an extension of Modi’s personality, with no state-level party leader anywhere close to his stature, BJP tends to do much better in parliamentary elections. In the 2019 national elections, for example, BJP secured a 58.2% vote share in Haryana. Just five months later, it plunged to 36.2% in the assembly elections.

A similar trend was evident after the 2014 national elections. In almost all states that went to polls soon after, BJP’s vote share fell — most notably in Rajasthan (down 16.1 percentage points), Delhi (14.1), Gujarat (11), Madhya Pradesh (13) and Chhattisgarh (15.7). So, constituency-wise performances in national and state elections are not a like-to-like comparison.

An appropriate yardstick of BJP’s performance would be the 2016 assembly election. From three seats in 2016, BJP’s tally has increased to 77. In terms of vote share, it has jumped from 10.16% to a stunning 38.13%. (True to the trend, it’s slightly lower than the 40.7% in the last parliamentary election.)

So, BJP has, in fact, done very well. So well, that it now occupies the entire opposition space in the state, having gained just as much as Mamata from a bipolar election. With Congress getting just 2.94% of the vote and CPI(M) 4.72%, BJP is now in pole position to reap the benefits when incumbency begins to weigh on Mamata next. And it will — as it always does – once the euphoria fades.

The Bengal verdict has ramifications beyond the state. Mamata’s sweeping victory has recharged the opposition. There are talks of a united front of regional parties as the answer to Modi-Shah’s monopoly on power, with Mamata as a possible prime ministerial candidate. Lionised on the national stage as never before, she’s even threatening to challenge Modi in his own constituency.

Should this worry BJP?

The only thing worrying for it is the coronavirus. We do not know how exactly the Covid damage will impact the party. Going by the Uttar Pradesh panchayat election results, BJP is clearly hurting at this point. Modi’s image as a steady hand on the tiller has taken a beating that will take a lot of work to restore, if at all. Much of it will depend on how much longer the pandemic drags on and the virus mutates.

But general elections are still three years away. If Modi survives to fight another day and recovers even some of the lost ground, a ragtag band of provincial satraps headed by a leader who is not exactly a picture of prudence is just the sort of thing that could put Modi back in the game.

‘If not Modi, then who?’ may sound like a cruel joke to those living the nightmare of the second surge. But if and when all of this becomes a painful but distant memory, it may begin to resonate again — if a Mamata-led front is his only viable alternative. For, that would be Congress-mukt Bharat.

The writer is co-author of To Kill a Democracy: India’s Passage to Despotism

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