MISSION KOLKATA: DECIPHERING BJP’S WEST BENGAL PLAYBOOK - The Daily Guardian
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MISSION KOLKATA: DECIPHERING BJP’S WEST BENGAL PLAYBOOK

Shiv Sehgal

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Union Minister Prahlad Singh Patel of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) claimed last week that the voters of West Bengal were angry and dissatisfied with the Mamata Banerjee government and the saffron party is likely to win 200 out of the 294 seats in the upcoming Assembly elections.

“Bengal is a victim of the state government’s negligence,” he added in a statement. As the political battleground of West Bengal heats up, all parties are campaigning actively and aggressively, with voter registration drives and rallies across the state.

Until 2011, the BJP was merely a fringe party in the state, managing to secure merely 4.1% of the vote share. However, just 8 years later, during the 2019 Lok Sabha elections, the party managed to secure roughly 40% of the votes, as well as 18 out of the 42 seats.

Several political analysts and commentators attribute the BJP’s victory to the Modi wave, the rise in religious polarisation in the state and several other factors.

However, the exponential rise of the party in the state, including the growth in its internal party machinery in the state, are also equally important factors.

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HOW DID BJP BECOME A FORCE TO RECKON WITH IN WEST BENGAL?

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With the West Bengal Assembly elections dates due to be announced any day now, the political battleground in the state has heated up. Although the election will be a three-way contest between the Trinamool Congress (TMC), Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the Left Front (in alliance with the Indian National Congress), undoubtedly all eyes are going to be on the tough fight between the BJP and the TMC.

The BJP has been pursuing an aggressive campaign in West Bengal, roping in national leaders, along with effective on-ground campaign machinery in a bid for power in the state for the first time in history. Till 2014, BJP had always been a distant marginal player in West Bengal politics. It had, in fact, contested the Lok Sabha polls as a junior ally of the Trinamool Congress (TMC) in 1998, 1999 and 2004. In 2001 and 2006, TMC chief Mamata Banerjee chose the Congress over the BJP as the party’s ally for Assembly polls. Even during the watershed moment of the 2011 Assembly polls, which marked the end of the 34 years of Left rule, the BJP ploughed a lonely furrow, securing only 4.1% of the vote share.

However, since then, the picture of BJP’s role in Bengal’s electoral politics has changed drastically. Since 2014 during the Lok Sabha polls, when the BJP managed to secure 10.3% of the vote share, it has been constantly growing its support in the state. In fact, during the 2019 Lok Sabha polls, the party secured a whopping 40.6% of the votes, just 3.1% less than that of state leader, TMC, and secured 18 out of the 42 seats. So what is the reason for BJP’s unprecedented growth in the state in the past 6 years? How has the BJP turned West Bengal, a state where they had minimal support, into a two-faced battle in eight years? Let’s find out.

HOW BJP DOUBLED ITS VOTE SHARE IN 2019

The BJP managed to secure 40.2% of the votes, more than doubling their vote share from 2014 (17%). The party managed to secure a victory in many constituencies in the Northern and Junglemahal belt. Their losses were confined to places such as Kolkata and Central Bengal, which have a significantly higher Muslim population. In fact, the BJP managed to break into the Junglemahal region-stronghold of the then TMC strongman Suvendu Adhikari (now in the BJP). BJP’s victory in 2019 was very similar to that of TMC in 2009, when TMC (a rising party then) managed to secure 19 votes, while the ruling CPI(M) managed just 9. Some political analysts also attribute the victory of the BJP to the rising religious polarisation in the state, which lead to a consolidation of non-Muslim votes behind the BJP.

TMC’S BIG TICKET DEFECTIONS: ADVANTAGE BJP

In December 2019, 10 former TMC, Left and Congress MLAs were welcomed into the BJP by Home Minister Amit Shah. Undoubtedly, the most important defection was that of former TMC heavyweight Suvendu Adhikari, who spearheaded the 2007 Nandigram movement, which triggered the cycle of events which led to Mamata Banerjee’s victory in 2011. He is a key leader in the Jangalmahal region with support bases in – home Purba Medinipur, Bankuria, Purulia and Paschim Medinipur. In fact, defection was not limited to the heavyweights of the TMC such as Jitendra Tiwari and Shilbhadra Dutta, several other district level leaders, including elected officials from Panchayat and Municipal bodies have also joined the BJP in the past few months.

The series of defections have been indicative of the erosion of senior leadership in the party and an overall dissatisfaction with the internal party structure. As per media reports, many senior leaders from the party have expressed their resentment towards the political strategy firm led by Prashant Kishor, which has been hired by Mamata Banerjee to run the 2021 campaign. Several political analysts also believe that the series of resignations from the TMC has been a direct result of the reorganization in the party stricture, which has reduced the influence of senior party leaders. This reorganization in the party structure has been undertaken as a result of on ground surveys carried out by Prashant Kishor’s team to decipher the grassroots-level image of various TMC leaders across districts. The infighting in the TMC has proven to be beneficial to the BJP, who have not only gained important political leaders, but their supporter base as well.

LEAVING NO STONE UNTURNED TO WOO VOTERS

Under the leadership of BJP State President, Dilip Ghosh, the party has been leading an aggressive campaign across districts in the state. The BJP’s campaign has been focusing on the misrule of the TMC, law and order and corruption issues as well as the state government’s mishandling of the COVID-19 crisis. In November 2020, the party began an extensive internal tour of West Bengal to collect feedback on the working of the party’s state unit, and has extensively been collaborating with district and block level representatives to ensure smooth functioning of their cadre.

During a rally in the state last month, Home Minister Amit Shah requested West Bengal voters to join forces with the BJP’s “Aar noi anyay” (no more injustice) campaign and support Prime Minister Narendra Modi in BJP’s commitment to give a good administration to the people of West Bengal. Additionally, just last week, the BJP has also launched ‘Krishak Suraksha Abhiyan’ and ‘Ek Mutthi Chawal’ campaigns in West Bengal’s Bardhaman, also known as the state’s rice bowl, in an attempt to woo farmers in the state. The schedule of national leaders, including Amit Shah and party President JP Nadda is filled with events in the poll bound state in the upcoming months. While it would appear that the BJP is leaving no stone unturned to woo voters in West Bengal, it is yet to be seen whether its tactics will transform into votes for the party.

Contributing Reports by Damini Mehta,New Delhi

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TAMIL NADU’S TRYST WITH CINEMA AND POLITICS

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In Tamil Nadu, movies and politics have had a very close association in the past, as two of the state’s former Chief Ministers Dr. M.G. Ramachandran and J. Jayalalithaa (AIADMK) were both actors. Another late Chief Minister M. Karunanidhi, started his career writing films and dialogues for movies. During his time, M.G. Ramachandran (popularly called M.G.R.) enjoyed popularity and stardom in Tamil Nadu that was both unheard of and unseen before. Even in his films, he played only holier than thou roles of a fisherman, peasant or rickshaw puller, all of which contributed to building his image as the ithaya deivam (lord of the hearts) of the Tamil masses. He always played the role of a savior in his movies, and avoided any image of elitism, which resulted in his immortalization on screen and in the hearts of people as a demigod.

Despite his raging popularity which exists even today, during this 10 year tenure, there was an over dependence on state subsidies and half the state remained below the poverty line. In fact, similar observations can be noted about the tenure of his successor, Jayalalithaa. However, Jayalalithaa’s schemes such as thallikku thangan (gold for mangalsutra), Amma canteen and cradle baby scheme have paved the way for women’s and children’s development across the country.

The most recent and prominent actor-turned politician is Vijayakant. He was made the leader of Opposition in 2011 after guiding his Desiya Murpokku Dravida Kazhagam (DMDK) to 29 seats and 8% of the vote share, when even the DMK was at a distant third. He however lost his plot after having a fallout with the then Chief Minister Jayalalithaa and was later mocked and ridiculed by the media . He was known to be a clean politician with the potential to become the next Chief Minister, but it would seem that things were not meant to be.

No other state in India has the unique relationship Tamil Nadu politics has with actors. Electoral politics in Tamil Nadu have in many instances played the role of skyrocketing an actor into a political superhero. However, at present, even a superstar of Rajinikanth’s stature needs to think twice before making a formal entry into politics. Perhaps, this goes to show the changing dynamics of the state, whereby, being a popular actor alone does not qualify one to sit in the Chief Minister’s chair. The rise to power of current Chief Minister Edappadi K. Palaniswami, who comes from a farmers background, can also be viewed as a sign of the changing mindset of Tamil Nadu voters.

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IS THE CINEMA-POLITICS CONNECT STILL STRONG IN TAMIL NADU?

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As 2020 drew to a close, so did the political ambitions of superstar actor Rajinikanth. However, what is interesting is that this journey ended without having ever started, as Rajinikanth never officially entered the arena of Tamil Nadu politics. After a wait of nearly three decades, on December 3rd 2020, Rajinikanth announced that he would officially launch his party at the end of the month, and would contest the Tamil Nadu Assembly elections in 2021 from 234 seats. However, things took an unexpected turn prior to the announcement, as on December 29th, citing ill-health and the COVID-19 pandemic Rajinikanth announced that he will no longer be launching his party.

In a three page statement that he posted on Twitter, Rajinikanth detailed several reasons for his decision. The actor has suffered from fluctuations in his blood pressure, following which he was hospitalised in Hyderabad on Dec 25. The doctors issued an advisory stating that he should avoid any activity that increases the risk of contracting COVID-19, including participating in film shoots. “Nobody can understand my pain in making this decision,” the actor stated.

Media, fans, and political analysts alike had been awaiting a response from Rajinikanth about the launch of his political career for almost three decades. In fact, he became notoriously known in the media for his famous one-liner “only time will tell” as a standard response to all questions about the launch of his political career and party. While fans were hoping 2021 would mark the start of his political journey, it has in fact marked its end. The question that arises now is, why did one of the most popular actors in Indian cinema, decide to join politics? And more importantly, why did he constantly delay this decision for over 25 years? Let’s take a deeper look at the political leanings of Rajinikanth since 1996, reasons for this constant delay and Tamil Nadu’s connection with politics and cinema over the decades.

RAJINIKANTH’S ‘POLITICAL ACCIDENT’

The start of Rajinikanth’s political leanings can be traced back to 1996. Perhaps this is a fact not very well known to most people, but the former Prime Minister of India, Narasimha Rao offered to make Rajinikanth the Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu if he contested as a Congress candidate in the 1996 Assembly elections. However, declining the offer, Rajinikanth ended up instead offering his support to G.K.Moopanar, the founder of Tamil Maanila Congress (TMC) who were set to ally with the DMK.

Rajinikanth campaigned against the AIADMK- Indian National Congress (INC) alliance especially targeting the then incumbent Chief Minister J.Jayalalithaa by stating that if she were to become the CM again, only god would be able to save Tamil Nadu. His speech against her ended up humbling the AIADMK-INC combine, as they could muster up just four seats. In fact, Jayalalithaa herself could not retain her seat and lost from Bargur.

However, Rajinikanth’s support for the DMK and TMC was short-lived. During the 1998 general elections, the party sought the actor’s support, managing to win only 9 seats out of 39. Years later speaking at a press conference, the actor said that his support for the DMK was a political “accident”. “About 21 years ago, I was involved in a political accident. It was during the time that I announced my support to a political party. It was the support of my fans and the people of Tamil Nadu who ensured victory for that party. I realise it was a mistake,” the actor said.

In 2004, yet again, Rajinikanth’s political allegiance changed yet again, as he announced his support for the AIADMK and BJP alliance for the General Elections. The actor did not apologize about his earlier comment on Jayalalithaa and her governance and instead said he was supporting the AIADMK-BJP alliance due to their resolve to find a solution to the state’s growing water crisis. However, this time his support did not yield any benefit for the alliance, and they failed to secure even a single seat in the Lok Sabha.

TAMIL NADU ASSEMBLY ELECTIONS: 1991 VS 199619911996SEAT SHARESEAT SHARE

1991

WHAT COULD HAVE BEEN RAJINIKANTH’S POLITICAL TRAJECTORY? POPULARITY VS POPULAR VOTE

A fan wears a shirt printed with actor Rajinikanth’s photo. ANI

Rajinikanth’s touch with politics in 2021, however, should be seen as a completely different affair. He has been open to the idea of a formal political entry since 2017. The actor mentioned that his party would embark on a path of “spiritual politics’’ which would be “honest and corruption free.” He created the Rajini Makkal Mandram (RMM) in 2017 as a platform to facilitate his entry into active politics. He has been a vocal supporter of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Home Minister Amit Shah, and his natural inclination since 2017 has been towards the BJP. In fact, Rajinikanth was one of the first to congratulate the BJP leaders after the announcement of the scrapping of Article 370 in 2019.

However, with all that said, Rajinikanth’s political endeavours would be dependent on his own identity and the members of his fan club (RMM) rather than the BJP itself. The BJP, which was looking into gaining a foothold in Tamil Nadu, would use Rajinikanth’s popularity to propel their image into the state. Undoubtedly, the actor’s entry would have broken the pro-caste and cash for votes system common in Tamil Nadu electoral politics. He would have been driven by his identity as a larger than life superstar actor creating ripples in ways similar to former Tamil Nadu Chief Minister and AIADMK supremo Dr. M.G.Ramachandran.

All said and done, what could have been the ramifications of Rajinikanth entering the 2021 Assembly Elections? Firstly, if Rajinikanth had chosen to contest alone, he would have not only eroded DMK’s vote bank but also played spoilsport for both the AIADMK and BJP. The main regional players- the DMK and AIADMK have a constant vote share of about 18-20% which would’ve been dented had Rajinikanth made a formal entry. The two other regional parties – Seeman’s Naam Tamizhar Katchi (NTK) and Kamal Hassan’s MNM would also have faced a similar situation. Although Seeman was set to rely largely on the anti-Rajinikanth vote bank, Kamal Hassan expressed more than once his willingness to join hands with Rajinikanth.

Secondly, fixing and sustaining an alliance with Rajnikanth could have become a major stress factor for the AIADMK-BJP combine. The AIADMK which has been marred by twin-leadership issues courtesy of Chief Minister Edappadi Palaniswami and Deputy CM O.Panneerselvam had just resolved the issue with Edappadi Palaniswami being chosen as their CM candidate. If the BJP were to add Rajinikanth to the alliance , AIADMK’s leadership would’ve seen that as a direct threat to their grip on power. BJP on the other hand lacks an independent and a powerful CM face and thus their only option would have been to go with Rajinikanth.

Thirdly, Tamil Nadu’s electoral politics and other dynamics in the state have changed significantly in the past few years. While Rajinikanth’s cross-cutting popularity is still paramount in 2021, the changes in vote bank politics and social media over the years would have gravely affected his ability to consolidate a major vote share. Political campaigning in Tamil Nadu in the recent past has been rife with using political consultancies and IT Wings to run smear campaigns against any opposition. In fact, Rajnikanth has faced the brunt of such smear campaigns in the past, and it would gravely affect his ability to consolidate his vote bank.

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THE ROAD NOT TAKEN: SUPERSTAR RAJINIKANTH’S TRYST WITH POLITICS

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As the Tamil Nadu Assembly elections are getting closer, discussions over the political dynamics within the state have been on the rise. The Bharatiya Janata Party’s influence has been growing steadily throughout the country and the party has been looking to make inroads in the state with Home Minister and former party president Amit Shah ready to visit Chennai on Pongal next week. The party is expected to conduct major rallies with many party leaders to strengthen the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) sway in the state led by All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK). On the other hand, after 2 terms in the Opposition, the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) has been gearing up for a fierce battle for the state even conducting regular cadre meetings during the pandemic which have been bringing in large followers at a village level through the state. While it remains to be seen how Congress will perform this time, given its recent history with alliances in other states it’s vital to see if the national party will help or hurt the DMK.

Even as the potential entry of Rajinikanth turned a lot of heads, it’s speculative at best how much impact his presence would’ve had in the final results. For now, party leaders will have to settle for an endorsement by him which can go anywhere, including to actor Kamal Haasan’s Makkal Needhi Maiam (MNM).

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2021: WHAT DOES THE FUTURE HOLD?

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While the TMC has continued to dominate politics in West Bengal in the past decade, and the Left Front has declined in importance, another party which has become electorally important in the state is the Bharatiya Janata Party.

The BJP, which is now touted as the top opposition party to the TMC for the upcoming Assembly Elections, has never been in power in the state. In the 2019 Lok Sabha elections, it won 18 out of the 42 seats in the state, and its vote share increased by almost 30% when compared to the assembly elections of 2016. Senior leaders of the BJP have already been partaking in roadshows across the state. Several TMC senior leaders, including Suvendu Adhikari and Mukul Roy, have also left the party to join hands with the BJP.

Although West Bengal will witness a three-way contest in the Assembly elections between the TMC, BJP and the Left Front (in alliance with the Congress), all eyes will definitely be on the fight between the BJP and TMC.

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UNCOVERING POLITICS OF WEST BENGAL ELECTIONS FROM 1972 ONWARDS

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In the past few weeks, All India Trinamool Congress (TMC) supremo Mamata Banerjee and Bharatiya Janata Party Senior leader Amit Shah have been leading roaring rallies across the state of West Bengal. The upcoming West Bengal state elections expected to be held April 2021 are likely to witness a three-way contest in the Assembly elections between the TMC, BJP and the Left Front (in alliance with the Congress).

As the number of COVID-19 cases in India crossed the 10 million mark, the Election Commission has announced that various lessons learnt from the Bihar Assembly Elections will be applied to the West Bengal polls. Sources within the Commission have said that there will be 28,000 more polling booths during the elections to ensure social distancing is observed. Additionally, due to the prominence of electoral violence in the state, the Commission announced that all polling booths could be declared as ‘sensitive’ if warranted by the law and order situation.

Since Independence, the Indian National Congress dominated the politics of West Bengal, until its last term in 1972. The Left Front rose to power from the ashes of the 1972 elections, promising to bring about change and stability. The Left Front ruled the state for 34 years, and political violence continued to be a part of everyday news.

This culminated in the rise and victory of TMC’s Mamta Banerjee, a leader who had started her career with the student wing of the Congress. As the West Bengal polls edge closer, and political analysts and pundits try to predict a winner, let us delve into the various eras of political rule in the state and what they indicate.

1972-1972: THE LAST CONGRESS ERA

For several years after Independence, West Bengal had continued to be ruled by the INC. Although the CPI(M) emerged as the largest party in the state in the 1969 elections, after the Naxalbari uprising in1967 and the subsequent President’s rule declared in 1970, the Congress came back to power in West Bengal for one last time, under the leadership of Siddhartha Shankar Ray.

Scholars and political analysts believe that the trend of using state resources to target opposition parties and members—which has become synonymous with politics in West Bengal—started with Ray’s regime. The 1972 elections were rife with electoral and political violence, and the Congress was accused of rigging the polls.

Ray has been thought to have led the “Hoodlum Years” in West Bengal, where police and Congress Youth Wing members killed both Communists and Naxals. During this period, the then Prime Minister of India, Indira Gandhi also proclaimed a nationwide Emergency in 1975. Academics and historians widely proclaim that the culture of competitive political violence which has now become a well known part of West Bengal politics, started during this period.

1977-2011: LEFT FRONT RULES IN WEST BENGAL

During the 1977 state elections, the Jyoti Basu-led Left Front took control of the state from the Congress, marking an end to over three decades of Congress governance.

The Left Front rose to power with a promise to end the reign of terror prevalent in the previous regime. However, political and electoral violence continued in West Bengal in the 34 years of the Left’s rule.

In the 1977 elections, the Left won 243 seats in the Assembly Elections, and the CPI(M) emerged as the largest party in the state.

Other founding parties of the Left Front included the All India Forward Bloc, the Revolutionary Socialist Party, the Marxist Forward Bloc, the Revolutionary Communist Party of India, and the Biplabi Bangla Congress. Soon after coming to power, the CPI(M)-led government launched Operation Barga, which finalised land redistribution.

Along with this, they instituted a Panchayati Raj system in the state — this meant that the party could now exercise power in all of rural Bengal.

THE FORGOTTEN MASSACRE OF MARICHJHAPI

Countless incidents of violence took place in West Bengal in the 34 years the Left was in power. One of the most important incidents was the Marichjhapi massacre in 1979. Just two years after coming to power, the CPI(M) was accused of forcing the eviction of hundreds of Bengali Hindu Dalit refugees who were occupying protected forest land on Marichjhapi, an island in the Sundarbans. The Left Front believed that refugees were a burden to the state, as they were not citizens of West Bengal. Eyewitness accounts from the massacre claim that gunfire by police and Communist workers, blockade and subsequent starvation, and disease, killed thousands (the number of those killed is estimated to be in thousands — no official numbers are available).

MA, MATI, MANUSH: 2011-2020: TMC DOMINATES WEST BENGAL

The ultimate demise of the Left Front in Bengal and the subsequent rise of Mamata Banerjee can be attributed to the events of the Nandigram and Singur agitation. In 2007, the Left Front attempted to set up a mega-chemical hub in Nandigram. However, due to a strong movement against this by peasants, the TMC and Maoists, there was violence in the area. Due to police shootings, it is estimated that 14-50 people died in the region.

Similar to the rise of the Left Front in Bengal after the violence in the 1970s, Mamata Banerjee and the TMC promised to bring about “parivartan” in West Bengal in 2011. Using the Nandigram and Singur agitation, and coupling it with widespread anti-incumbency, TMC’s slogan of “Ma, Mati, Manush” (mother, land, people) resonated with the Bengali electorate. Banerjee sold a vision of development to the Bengali people. Clad in a simple cotton sari and her rubber chappals, she became the leader of the state.

She was elected having given a promise to lead the state to stability and non-violence. But the reality begs to differ. The TMC’s regime in West Bengal has so far been far from this. Violent clashes continue between party members and Banerjee has often been criticised by many for being a very “authoritarian” leader.

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