Among a clutch of states going for Assembly elections next year is West Bengal, which is expected to witness a keen contest between Mamata Banerjee’s ruling Trinamool Congress and the Bharatiya Janata Party. That the BJP central leadership is placing immense importance to this election is evident from the way it has taken direct control of the party’s poll preparations in the state. The core team, which has been formed at the central level, has, among others, leaders such as Arvind Menon, who played a major role in the BJP’s high-voltage performance in the 2019 Lok Sabha elections, helping it win 18 seats in Bengal, compared to TMC’s 22, and Sunil Deodhar, one of the main architects of BJP’s victory in Tripura. Home Minister Amit Shah is likely to lead the battle from the front, along with party president J.P. Nadda. BJP may go to the polls without a Chief Ministerial candidate, and instead have the Prime Minister as the face of the campaign. Such high-profile attention by the BJP central leadership to an election in Bengal was unthinkable even in 2016, when the last Assembly elections took place. Until recently, the BJP in Bengal was a ragtag bunch of part-time politicians who were no match to Mamata Banerjee’s grassroots connect and her political acumen. There was some unhappiness against her rule in 2016, but the state BJP, torn, divided and too weak a force, could not put up a challenge to her and was happy that it managed to come second on some seats. It was only from the end of 2017/beginning of 2018—in the run-up to the 2019 Lok Sabha elections—that the BJP got its act together, building up a cadre base and attracting to its fold TMC and Left leaders who matter. If the 2019 performance is taken as an indicator, there is a good chance of the BJP doing well in 2021, not just in “North Bengal”, where the party has a strong presence, but also in “South Bengal”, the heartland of state politics. There is major anti-incumbency in Bengal. Rampant corruption and criminality have eaten away at the innards of the state. The industrial landscape is barren. There is no growth. Jobs do not exist. Kolkata is a greying city as the young leave for other states for higher education and jobs. Bengal is in a state of deep despair. If in 2016 the general refrain was that the incumbent should be given five more years—it came to power in 2011—this time the talk is that the state may not be able to survive five more years if things continue as they are. The anger is real, bubbling just below the surface. That the wind is not favourable for the TMC is clear from the churn taking place on the ground, with one of its biggest leaders, Shubhendu Adhikari openly rebellious against Mamata Banerjee and her nephew, Abhishek Banerjee. In fact, there is a strong buzz that the nephew factor may prove costly for the TMC as there is unhappiness not just within the party but also among voters over his rise. There is Prashant Kishor, of course, strategizing for Mamata Banerjee and her nephew, but it remains to be seen if the “Prashant magic” works when anti-incumbency is roaring. Bengal looks ripe for the picking. However, given the infighting in the Bengal BJP, the central leadership had to take control of the state unit.
Bengal does its politics differently. Caste is not a factor here. Religion is, to an extent, because of the “appeasement politics” practised, but not caste. The real issues are industry, jobs, opportunities, infrastructure building, and eradication of corruption and criminality. Since 1977, with the beginning of the Left rule, Bengal has gradually fallen out of the national mainstream, as other states have raced ahead. If Bengal goes the BJP’s way in 2021, it will be because the state wants to catch up. The lack of a Chief Ministerial face may cause problems for the BJP, but then the lack of a CM face did not stop the Congress from coming to power in Chhattisgarh in 2018, to give an instance. It’s all about the tipping point—if the tipping point has arrived, people do not bother about a CM face. The BJP believes that the tipping point has arrived in Bengal, and has come up with an audacious slogan: “Ebar Bangla, paarle shamla (This time it will be Bengal, save yourself if you can)”. It looks like the undisputed “queen” of Bengal may have a fight on her hands.