Fortress Bengal was considered invincible. So in the run-up to 2019, when BJP president Amit Shah said his party would win 23 of 42 seats in West Bengal, few took him seriously. But Shah and his lieutenants, party general secretary Kailash Vijayvargiya and joint general secretary (organisation) Shiv Prakash, kept chipping away before the BJP launched its final onslaught, breaching the Trinamool Congress citadel and making deep inroads.
Turning the TMC war cry on its head, the BJP replaced “chupchap phule chhap” (quietly vote for the flower) — it had been used by Mamata Banerjee to end 34 years of Left rule in Bengal — to “chupchap kamal chhap” (quietly vote for the lotus).
By 1 am Friday, the BJP had won 15 seats and was leading in 3 of 42 constituencies, doubling its voteshare in the state from 18 per cent in 2014 (when it won two seats) to over 40 per cent. The TMC had won 17 seats and was ahead in 5 constituencies — in 2014, it took 3 seats.
Confirming their worst fears, the Left parties drew a blank and the Congress managed only two seats. The CPM vote share in Bengal plunged from 22.96 per cent in 2014 to 6.54 per cent. But the shock and dismay was greater in the TMC, its cadres still coming to terms with the BJP penetration into their home turf.
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Two-term MP Dinesh Trivedi of TMC was trailing first-time contestant and former Bhatpara MLA Arjun Singh of BJP in Barrackpore and in the Congress stronghold of Malda North, BJP’s Khagen Murmu (a former Left MLA) was ahead. Singh joined BJP weeks before the Lok Sabha elections — the assembly seat he vacated was won by his son on a BJP ticket, defeating TMC strongman Madan Mitra in a prestige bypoll.
In these electoral swings lies the story of the BJP’s rise in Bengal, one of assiduous planning, poaching and standing strong in the face of the TMC might — the political violence that rocked the state during the polls was not witnessed elsewhere in the country.
The BJP left no stone unturned to provide legal, other support to its besieged workers who fought TMC cadres and a slew of FIRs. “Do not run away, no matter what happens.” That’s the message Vijayvargiya sent his party men who were handling booth managers Wednesday evening.
In the build-up to 2019, the BJP made most of the perceived resentment against Banerjee’s “appeasement” politics. Aware of what the BJP was up to, the TMC chief tried to introduce her own version of the Hindutva narrative, one that invoked the culture and traditions unique to the state — from blowing conch shells to “uludhwani” (ululation at Hindu rituals); from invoking Ma Durga to targeting the BJP over tax notices sent to community puja clubs in Kolkata, and the chanting of mantras.
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For the BJP, winning Bengal was more an ideological dream than an electoral victory. Many in the BJP consider it the party’s birthplace because its founder Syama Prasad Mookerjee hailed from the state. Also, the Bharatiya Jana Sangh, the BJP’s predecessor, had won two Lok Sabha seats and nine assembly seats in Bengal in 1952.
The BJP started working in Bengal ever since it was swept to power in 2014. Vijayvargiya and Shiv Prakash were sent to oversee party efforts in the state in 2015. The 2016 assembly elections were a dampener because their vote share fell to about 10 per cent from 18 per cent in 2014. Unfazed, they stuck to their plans.
Both Shiv Prakash and Vijayvargiya worked on social combinations, resolved internal issues within the organisation and scouted for the right people to work on the ground. The growth was meteoric. From 452 mandal committees in 2015, it went up to 1,280. In four years, it was ready with 12,407 shakti kendra, 10,266 shakti kendra pramukhs and 58,084 committees. The state was divided into five segments for managing the Lok Sabha constituencies.
The party won 18 per cent votes in the panchayat elections in 2018, despite the TMC’s uncontested wins in 33 per cent of the panchayats. This gave a new momentum to the party and became the pivot for a concerted campaign associating TMC with violence. “When we started working, we did not even get people to work with us. They were either scared or disliked us. But our consistent campaign that started from the mandal-level gradually changed the situation,” Vijayvargiya said.
Both Shah and Prime Minister Narendra Modi devoted a major part of their campaign time to Bengal. They addressed 15 rallies each in the state. Both sought to take advantage of the “disenchantment” among Hindus over the growing population of Muslim migrants, a “threat” to the state’s development and security.
To widen its net, the BJP tapped the Left cadres who were being hounded by the TMC. According to a BJP leader, groups of Left cadres would approach BJP leaders to pledge support. “It is evident that all votes of CPM have gone to BJP. Our party chief has always said that Baam (Left) and Ram (BJP) are working together in Bengal,” said Sougata Roy, TMC candidate from Dum Dum who was leading over his rivals.
These are still early hours but if the leads are anything to go by, this battle has been a semi-final of sorts for the TMC before the 2021 assembly elections. Two years is a long time in politics but Banerjee has much to introspect about. As the leads increased, she tweeted: “Congratulations to the winners. But all losers are not losers. We have to do a complete review. And then we will share out views with you all. Let the counting process be completely fully and VVPATs matched.”