OPINION: Why the lotus bloomed in Bengal & Odisha under Modi?

Shekhar Iyer

Representational Photo

Representational Photo

The super bloom of the lotus in West Bengal will be remembered as the most enduring aspect of the mandate won by Prime Minister Narendra Modi in the polls of 2019. Similarly, a split mandate appears to have helped the BJP in the Lok Sabha elections and the Biju Janata Dal (BJD) in the assembly polls in Odisha. People seemed to indicate that they wanted “Modi at Centre, Naveen Patnaik in Odisha.”

Prime Minister Narendra Modi was right when he stated that the people of West Bengal always wished the BJP to come to power in the state as they aspired for development, like what has taken place in Gujarat.

“I watched a social media interview of an elderly woman in Bengal where she kept on repeating Modi-Modi. But when asked who she will vote for, she said she will vote for the Communists. When she was asked why, since she wanted Gujarat like development, she said this is Bengal, we can’t say all this publicly, you never know what happens to you,” Modi said during his first speech in Gujarat after the 2019 landslide victory in the Lok Sabha battle.

Modi recalled that ever since the 2014 elections, the story of Gujarat’s development initiatives had reached all corners of the country even before he reached various places for campaigning. Bengal was desperate for a change and wanted to send out a message across to the ruling Trinamool Congress (TMC).

There are 42 parliamentary constituencies and eight assembly constituencies in West Bengal. The TMC won in 22 Lok Sabha seats but the BJP stunned them in 18 others. The Congress, however, got two seats. In the assembly constituencies where by-polls were held, the BJP won four, the TMC three, and the Congress one seat. The Left Front appears to have disappeared.

In terms of vote share, the TMC won 43.3% of the vote share (compared to 45% in 2016) and the BJP 40.3% (compared to 10% in 2016 and 17% in 2014). On the other hand, the Left Front’s vote share has been gone down from 34.04% in the 2016 assembly elections to 7.01% in 2019. And they have secured zero seats.

For those who will not believe as to what has happened in Bengal, it will simply be about the traditional votes of the Left shifting to the BJP. It is a fact that the BJP got help from the CPI(M)’s cadres from whom physical survival had become a big issue because of the ruthlessness of TMC goons. But, beyond the shifting of the votes, there is a story of an aspirational Bengal that is seeking a way out of the economic and political morass caused by the domination of Mamata Banerjee-led Trinamool Congress.

Geographically speaking, the BJP swept northern and southwestern West Bengal, particularly the tribal belt of Jungalmahal. The TMC retained control of southern Bengal and Kolkata and its adjoining areas. The loyalists of Mamata emphasise that she has always been stronger in southern Bengal compared to the north. They hold that the traditional TMC voters have once again shown their trust in Mamata. She remains a favourite in her traditional stronghold while conceding defeat in other areas. It is the Left voters who have mostly gone to help with the BJP, according to them.

Kolkata: BJP leader Mukul Roy flashes the victory sign to celebrate party's victory of Lok Sabha election 2019, at state  BJP party headquarters, in Kolkata, Thursday, May 23, 2019. (PTI Photo)

Kolkata: BJP leader Mukul Roy flashes the victory sign to celebrate party’s victory of Lok Sabha election 2019, at state BJP party headquarters, in Kolkata, Thursday, May 23, 2019. (PTI Photo)

How BJP Worked in Bengal

But, behind the success of the BJP is the anger of people built up against Mamata’s governance of the state. A culture of extortion and muscle power had left the voters in a state of fear. Since she came to power, Mamata’s brand of “secular politics” saw her wooing of the state’s 27% Muslim population, which resulted in many Hindu voters consolidating behind the BJP.

The BJP saw this resentment building up as several incidents showed a partisan approach by the state administration. Whether it was the attack on Kaliachak Police Station by a Muslim mob or the death of two Hindu youths at Daribhit High School in Islampur, Mamata was seen unwilling to act against the culprits. The curbs on Durga Puja immersion processions and Ram Navami celebrations added to the saffron fodder against her rule.

The BJP was also able to cash in on the manner in which Mamata unleashed the TMC muscle power in the 2018 panchayat polls, where 34% of the seats went uncontested. Many people were upset they were not allowed to vote. They wanted to show that, under the watchful eyes of the central police forces, they can exercise their choice freely.

The BJP had set its eyes on Bengal soon after 2014 verdict that brought Modi to power in Delhi. Under Amit Shah, the party wanted that the birthplace of Jan Sangh founder Shyama Prasad Mukherjee should not remain out of its influence. A proud son of Bengal, Mukherjee had resisted many Hindu-areas being transferred to East Pakistan at the time of Partition in 1947. He had also fought for the integration of Jammu and Kashmir with the rest of India. The Jan Sangh could not expand its influence after Mukherjee’s departure from the scene. The Congress and its off-springs held their sway in the state politics from 1947 till 1977 when the Left swept to power for 34 years. Mamata ended the Marxist rule when her party successfully rode to power in 2011.

For the 2019 polls, the BJP did a lot of planning right from the beginning. BJP strategists worked on each constituency in a systematic manner, identifying the fault-lines in the TMC support base.
Apart from opening offices in each of the 38 organisational districts, the BJP set up committees for 72,000 booths. Bengal has a total of 77,000-odd booths.

In November 2017, the BJP inducted Mamata’s right-hand man Mukul Roy. He played a big role in getting over many unhappy TMC leaders to the BJP side, some of whom were named BJP candidates. Even as they were busy in other states, Modi and Amit Shah addressed 17 rallies each, despite several hurdles put by Mamata’s administration. As a result of wooing different sets of voters, the BJP won the Lok Sabha seats of Darjeeling, Alipurduar, Jalpaiguri, Coochbehar, Raiganj, Balurghat, Malda North, Ranaghat, Bongaon, Barrackpore, Hooghly, Bankura, Bishnupur, Purulia, Jhargram, Medinipur, Asansol, Bardhaman-Durgapur.

Sambalpur: Prime Minister Narendra Modi being garlanded by BJP leaders at the party's Vijay Sankalp Sabha, ahead of 2nd phase of general elections, in Sambalpur, Odisha, Tuesday, April 16, 2019. (PTI Photo)

Sambalpur: Prime Minister Narendra Modi being garlanded by BJP leaders at the party’s Vijay Sankalp Sabha in Sambalpur, Odisha on Tuesday, April 16, 2019. (PTI Photo)

Odisha story of BJP is voters’ search for alternative

Since 1999-2000, Naveen Patnaik-led Biju Janata Dal (BJD) has had an unchallenged winning spree in Odisha. The decline of the Congress and its inability to revive itself had left a vacuum in the state. In 2009, Patnaik had snapped ties with the BJP to chart his own course. A shocked BJP had to find its own way and eventually emerge as the alternative before the voters.

Odisha has 21 Lok Sabha seats and 147 Assembly constituencies. This time too, the Lok Sabha and Odisha Assembly elections were held simultaneously. The BJD won 12 Lok Sabha seats while the BJP won eight and the Congress one seat. In the state assembly elections, the BJD bagged 112 seats while the BJP won 23 and the Congress only nine. In the 2014 polls, the BJD had bagged 117 seats and 20 of the 21 Lok Sabha seats. As for the vote share, the BJD’s support reduced marginally – from 44.8 per cent in 2014 to 42.8 per cent in 2019. The BJP got 38.4 per cent of the total votes as against 21.9 per cent in the previous election.

Definitely, for 72-year-old Patnaik, who has served as chief minister for four successive terms, these polls have been the toughest.

The people have shown that they still trust his leadership when it comes to running the state government. But they want Modi and the BJP to rule at the centre. The pattern of split voting was clearly visible in Bhubaneswar and Bargarh Lok Sabha constituencies. While not a single MLA candidate of BJP won from the assembly constituencies coming under the two Lok Sabha seats, both the parliamentary constituencies voted in favour of the saffron party.

In the prestigious Bhubaneswar Lok Sabha seat, former IAS officer Aparajita Sarangi, who contested as a BJP candidate, got the benefit of split votes. She defeated her BJD rival and former Mumbai Police Commissioner Arup Patnaik by 23,939 votes. This is despite the fact that BJP did not win in any of the seven Assembly seats under the Bhubaneswar Lok Sabha constituency.
All BJD candidates were elected in the assembly seats of Bargarh Lok Sabha constituency. Naveen Patnaik contested from Bijepur Assembly seat, which comes under Bargarh Lok Sabha seat. However, his presence did not have any impact on the voters while selecting their candidates for the Lok Sabha. BJP candidate Suresh Pujari trounced BJD Rajya Sabha member Prasanna Acharya by a margin of 63,939 votes.

— Shekhar Iyer is former Senior Associate Editor of Hindustan Times and Political Editor of Deccan Herald