By: Moitree Bhattacharya
In the 2014 Lok Sabha elections, West Bengal witnessed a massive surge in the BJP’s vote share — 16.8 per cent, from about 6 per cent in 2009. The party finished third, close on the heels of the CPM, which managed a vote share of 22.7 per cent. The BJP bagged as many as 2,47,461 votes in Kolkata North, compared to 37,044 in 2009, 2,95,376 votes in Kolkata South, compared to 39,744 five years back, and 2,16,180 votes in Maldaha Dakshin. In some of the seats where it placed third, it had lost second place by a narrow margin of around 50,000 votes. Mention may be made of Alipurduar, where the margin is of about 5,000 votes, of Barrackpore, where it is about 42,000 votes, and of Howrah, where the CPM got only 43,000 votes more than the BJP. These are the areas where the party could do well in the next assembly elections and pose a challenge to the TMC and the CPM. There is also reportedly a rapid rise in BJP membership. For the first time, the BJP has emerged as a party to be reckoned with in Bengal, and it shows signs of becoming the major opposition force in the state.
The BJP has won Lok Sabha seats in Bengal on only three occasions. First, in 1998 (Dumdum), and then in 1999 (Dumdum and Krishnanagar). On both occasions, the party was in alliance with the TMC. The third time was in 2009, when the party won the Darjeeling seat with the backing of the Gorkha Janmukti Morcha. But the party failed to get a substantial vote share in the seats it could not win. In 1991, it managed a vote share of 11 per cent but could not win any seats. So the BJP’s electoral impact in West Bengal has traditionally been limited. The party’s rising graph became visible about two years ago. In the 2012 Lok Sabha by-elections in Jangipur, Murshidabad, the BJP emerged third and polled 85,867 votes, an 8 per cent rise from 2009. The municipal polls of 2013 also reflected an improved performance by the BJP. A major breakthrough was the defeat of the incumbent mayor, a Left candidate, by the BJP in the Howrah municipal polls. In the 2014 by-elections to the Vidhan Sabha, the party finished third with 13.2 per cent votes. That the BJP could contest all 42 seats in the recent Lok Sabha elections was an indicator of its rising relevance in the state.
Party leaders are trying hard to expand the BJP’s influence in all possible ways. Reportedly, the ABVP as well as the party’s minority and women’s wings have witnessed a surge in membership. Minorities constitute about 27 per cent of the state’s population and wield considerable electoral influence. The expansion of the BJP’s minority wing and Muslim families reportedly signing up at “yogdaan” ceremonies will definitely give the party a foothold in the state’s politics. The RSS is also growing in the state, not only in terms of membership but reportedly also in the number of shakhas. Only time can tell whether the party can sustain this expansion and convert the political support into more seats. But the Left and the TMC certainly have cause for concern. After the fall of the mighty Left, which is more used to playing the role of ruling party than of opposition, a real opposition has been missing in West Bengal. It is this space that the BJP is aiming to occupy by the 2016 assembly elections. This looks likely, if the party can consolidate its growth.
What made this sudden turn of fortunes possible? A state which resisted and cautiously guarded against the rise of the BJP all these years, a state that has seen the rage of communal violence and Partition in the past, now witnesses a steady rise of the BJP. Is it the “Modi factor” and the hope that Modi will bring industrialisation to the state and give its educated youth the employment that they need? Does Bengal aspire to the dream of a “vibrant Gujarat”? Is it a backlash against the state’s political culture of organised violence and intimidation? The BJP does not carry this baggage as it has not been a prominent player in the state in the past. Or has the BJP’s campaign against illegal immigrants caught the fancy of a section of the Bengali gentry? Maybe it is true that the TMC’s allegedly blatant appeasement of minorities did not go down well with a section of the state’s population. It is probably a combination of all these factors. What remains to be seen is whether the BJP can sustain this momentum or whether it goes down in the history of West Bengal as a one-election wonder.
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The writer teaches political science in Daulat Ram College, Delhi University