The gains of the Lok Sabha elections have not left the BJP as comfortably placed as it would have liked in the upcoming municipal polls in Bengal, particularly in Kolkata.
It finds its campaign outmatched by that of the Trinamool Congress, which has put in an extra effort after taking note of the BJP’s Lok Sabha surge. The BJP is suffering infighting to the extent that its members came to blows and attacked one another with sticks outside the party headquarters. Its candidates complain of lack of funds and the absence of top leaders, its manifesto came late, and it suffered an embarrassment when the election office rejected its mayoral candidate.
“You set your house in order first, then come to fight the Trinamool Congress,” a confident Mamata Banerjee said at one of her election meetings.
The BJP too seems to have read the signs, with some leaders saying the municipal polls cannot a barometer for the 2016 assembly polls. This comes after the party had grown to a 25-per-cent vote share in both Kolkata North and Kolkata South in the Lok Sabha elections. Kolkata votes on Saturday, followed by over 90 other civic bodies across Bengal the following week.
In the 2010 municipal board, the BJP had merely three wards of 141, scoring in the central business district of Burrabazar. Its surge in the Lok Sabha polls, however, gave it leads in 26 wards (out of now 144) and second position in another 31.
Four of the 26 wards it led are, significantly, in Bhabanipur, Mamata’s assembly constituency. She then ordered an internal inquiry to find out why the leads were conceded, and has now fielded ministers such as Firhad Hakim, Subrata Bakshi and Arup Biswas in Bhabanipur to “reclaim” those wards.
One of these four wards, number 86, highlights the difference in effort between the Trinamool Congress and the BJP. The BJP candidate, Tishta Biswas, an MA and a B Ed in Bengali, says no senior leader has visited her ward yet. “How do I mount a vigorous campaign with just Rs 10,000 in cash and 2,000 party flags given to me? I have heard my Trinamool opponent has got over Rs 2 lakh in cash and life-sized banners,” said Tishta, who is banking on the votes of central government officers in the area’s residential flats, and on residents of bastis where water is scarce.
Tishta felt the clashes outside the BJP’s state office in central Kolkata, which was over the nomination of candidates, would damage her prospects as well as those of other BJP candidates.
Sidharth Nath Singh, the BJP’s national observer for Bengal, acknowledged the widely telecast clashes have had a negative impact, but insisted the trouble was limited to four seats. There have been allegations of tickets having been “sold”. BJP sources said the central leadership has been flooded with complaints against the state leadership. Though these sources expect the central leadership to act, it will likely be after the results, by when the harm will have been done.
The BJP’s manifesto came only on April 10, barely a week before the polls. It was uploaded over three successive days and called for public comments. State leaders have defended the “e-manifesto”. “There have been 30,000 hits. Do you think a printed manifesto would have reached voters’ homes? Don’t you think the e-manifesto was a more pollution-free way to reach voters?” says Sidharth Nath Singh.
Mamata too has mocked the e-effort. Referring to the BJP’s claims about a nine-crore membership drive making it “the world’s largest party, she said at a rally: “One mobile call to become a member of the party. Is it so easy? It is like a gas balloon. When the reality check comes, the numbers will evaporate in the air.”
The BJP also suffered an embarrassment with the selection of its mayoral candidate, actress Rupa Ganguly. The state election commission rejected her nomination as she is not a voter within the municipal limits of Kolkata. Party leaders say she is campaigning in any case.
Another noticeable feature of the BJP campaign for an election that covers over 90 municipal bodies has been the absence of Amit Shah, who had otherwise shown a keen interest in the BJP’s growth in Bengal. Party insiders said Shah had, in fact, told them he would camp in Bengal, and they admit they don’t know why he hasn’t.
There has been no campaign either by Smriti Irani, who too used to take a lot of interest in the Bengal BJP, or by Nirmala Sitharaman who, BJP sources say, was recently assigned the responsibility of looking after West Bengal.
“The national president usually does not come for local body polls. He has sent us as his representatives,” said S S Ahluwalia, MP. Asked about the BJP’s prospects, he said: “I am not a fortuneteller. But should there be a free and fair poll, a vibrant BJP will emerge. Our internal assessment says Trinamool will get uprooted if there is fair poll.”
Sidharth Nath Singh echoed him. “Why is so much violence happening? This is an undemocratic election, not fair and free,” Singh said. “Municipal poll results will never be a true reflection of the real picture. Bengal remains a state where the BJP is rising, if one goes by the people’s pulse. If anyone feels it it sliding, it is a problem of perception.”