The BJP may well have shot itself in the foot in Bengal, courtesy a pliant Election Commission. The EC played into Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee’s hands with its openly partisan decision to curtail the campaign for the final phase in the state by a day, but only after Narendra Modi completes his scheduled rallies.
Mamata has been on a roll since. She’s invoked Bengali pride. She’s lashed out at Narendra Modi and Amit Shah in the strongest possible language, getting downright personal with both. And she’s masterfully played the victim card, positioning herself as David fighting not one, but two Goliaths.
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Mamata Banerjee needed this burst of oxygen for the final phase of a bitterly fought election, which has been peppered with sporadic violence before exploding in a pitched battle between Trinamool and BJP activists in the heart of Kolkata.
TMC Sure to Gain From BJP’s Bengal Drama
There are nine seats left to poll in the last phase. The BJP has hopes of winning at least two – Dumdum and North Kolkata – where they have contested strongly, riding on a wave of support from the large migrant non-Bengali population in both constituencies. Analysts say the EC crackdown could gift Mamata all nine seats.
There is little doubt that the feisty Trinamool Congress boss is the major gainer of the unexpected turn of events in Bengal. And the BJP is probably the loser. Consider the following.
One, by consistently attacking her through the entire election, Modi has inadvertently elevated Mamata to a status higher than that of a mere regional leader. She may be only the boss of Bengal, but today, she stands head and shoulders above other challengers for the prime minister’s post, should Modi fail to make the grade.
She highlighted this with sharp personal attacks on Modi and Shah at a press conference, shortly after the EC announced its decision to cut short the last leg of campaigning in Bengal. There were only three people in the frame as she lashed out – Mamata on one side, taking on two biggies – Modi and Shah – as her equals.
Many Takers For Mamata’s Bengali Nationalism Narrative
Two, the spat has only helped paint Mamata in ‘victim’ colours. Everyone loves an underdog, and she is playing the part with dollops of emotion to garner as much sympathy for herself as she can. ‘Conspiracy’, she cried, as she slammed the EC’s decision to use Article 324 for the first time since Independence.
Surprisingly, she is finding many takers for the theory. However hard it tries, the BJP cannot divorce itself from the EC’s decision. By allowing Modi to complete his tour of the state before the campaign ban comes into effect, the Commission has raised doubts about its intentions and its independence. This particular decision certainly seems to favour the BJP.
Three, Mamata has finally found takers for her Bengali nationalism narrative. The battle for Bengal is no longer limited to ‘Modi versus Mamata’.
There are new dimensions now: New Delhi versus Kolkata, a non-Bengali party (read BJP) versus a Bengali one (Trinamool Congress).
There was little or no traction for this narrative earlier, although Mamata and Trinamool leaders tried desperately to sell it. But after Bengal Renaissance icon Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar’s bust was vandalised during Shah’s roadshow in Kolkata, the nationalist in every Bengali seems to have awakened. Intellectuals of all shades joined the protest rally in the state capital, the day after the vandalism.
Bengal ‘Storm’ Fallout: BJP May Find It Hard to Get Allies, In Post-Poll Scenario
Suddenly, Mamata’s sub-nationalism pitch has takers. The BJP lacks a strong local face to fight back. Modi alone may not be enough to counter the Bengali nationalism surge in the light of recent events.
But more worrying for the BJP (than the loss of a few seats in Bengal) is the possibility that the clampdown by the EC may reverberate beyond the state’s borders, with serious implications for the post-poll scenario. Regional leaders across the country will be monitoring the unfolding battle in Bengal. Modi, Shah and the BJP will come out poorly, looking more and more like bullies rather than a combine capable of running a coalition.
Should the BJP fall short of a majority and should Modi need new allies to make up the numbers, they may find themselves battling the after-effects of the storm in Bengal. Regional leaders resent the ‘big brother’ attitude of national parties.
Remember Vajpayee in 1996? Despite leading the largest party in the Lok Sabha, Vajapyee failed to make up the numbers he needed to form a government. It took him two more years to convince regional satraps that he had the consensual skills to accommodate their interests in a coalition.
NDA allies like Nitish Kumar of the JD(U) and Uddhav Thackeray of Shiv Sena are already restless, even before the results are out. Nitish has registered his protest against the Modi-Shah combine’s high-handedness on two occasions during the campaign. He did not stand up when BJP workers sang ‘Vande Mataram’ at a joint NDA rally in Bihar. And he refused to release the party manifesto after the BJP insisted that he exclude references to Ram temple, Article 370, and uniform civil code.
Modi may find the shadow of Bengal looming large on the horizon long after the polls are over.
(The writer is a Delhi-based senior journalist. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)
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