The BJP had seemingly broken down West Bengal polls to a multi-step arithmetic equation. There was anti-incumbency: Check. There were serious charges of corruption against the extended family of the chief minister: Check. The 27 per cent Muslim vote would go to the Trinamool Congress and that needed to be fragmented: Double check. Add a dash of disgruntled TMC leaders. Use the central agencies to work overtime to put the fear of god into bureaucrats, the police and the aggressive TMC cadres so that on polling day their role is not too partisan. Place the full-timers of the Sangh and BJP cadres from across the country in every nook and corner of Bengal. Besides the Prime Minister, the BJP president and the Home Minister, throw in senior BJP leaders, chief ministers, Deputy CMs, central ministers to spend time in WB and address rallies. The onslaught, in typical BJP style, was relentless. The ruling dispensation in Delhi, heady with successes in the past, did not see why it would not work again.
But a majority of Bengalis jumped that equation. Misleading as they may be, stereotypes also carry fragments of truth. It is largely true that a Bengali will not understand money as passionately as an upcountry man does. True, he has a rather ambivalent attitude to material success. He would rather be poor than be considered a social and cultural laggard. In matters of life and letters, customs and heritage, and importantly, culture and language, he considers himself to be evolved and unique, a bhadralok.
A Hindi-speaking person is colloquially called Hindustani, and no matter how prosperous or powerful he may be, he is considered different by the Bengalis. A leader who could not speak their dialect, had no awareness of the local topography and never acknowledged the sacrifices of the local cadre, did not strike a chord. Language is the emotional chord which binds Bengal — across land, communities, castes and religion. Awkward attempts by the BJP leadership, including the PM, to sprinkle a word here and there was, at best, a comic diversion and, at worst, played into Mamata Banerjee’s strategy of outsiders versus nijer meye. Among Bengalis, it sharpened their anxiety of rule by the outsider.
While polarisation may have worked for it partially, the BJP more than neutralised the gains and ended up alienating voters. The failure to put up a credible Bengali face as its state leader compounded the problem.
It was a similar insecurity of the central leadership in not promoting a state-level leadership that over time led to the organisational and electoral depreciation of the Congress. Today, if the Congress wins elections in Punjab, it is perceived as a victory of Amarinder Singh and not of the Congress or Gandhi family. In other places where such strong local leaders do not exist, the Congress has all but perished.
PM Narendra Modi is no doubt perceived as the tallest leader of the country. The Bengali middle class, at one point, was enamoured of his energy and dynamism. But every time Modi addressed his rival as “didi-o-didi”, it alienated voters, especially women. Bengal is a state that worships mother goddesses. While the slogan of Jai Shri Ram may have found an echo, deep down the fear of cultural colonisation by upcountry men became real. In this election, the BJP has gone up to 77 seats from three seats in 2016, quite a credible leap. But the narrative of toppling TMC got diluted due to the cultural insecurities their aggressive campaigns fuelled.
On the other hand, while there were widespread complaints of extortion and atrocities by the TMC cadres, and the family members of the CM also did not acquit themselves well, Mamata Banerjee’s reputation as a person with deep empathy for her electorate was not dented. She preserved her place in the hearts and minds of the voters by launching programmes like Duare Sarkar, Khadya Sathi, Swasthya Sathi and Kanyashree. Her direct, brusque style did not let her personal popularity erode either. “Didi is ok. It is the people around her who are a problem,” was the refrain one heard.
The action by central agencies, as a result, did not successfully convey the message of widespread corruption to the majority but was seen more as an act of vendetta by Delhi. This unrelenting assault left the floating voters confused, nervous and anxious. There was no clarity among voters as to who would protect their interests after Banerjee. The women were far clearer in their sympathy for the lone, frail and injured “Didi”. Comments by BJP leaders, asking her to wear shorts and show her legs sealed it for them.
That the BJP leaders played hard is undeniable. Their political math, however, was obstructed by the organisational mistakes they committed. But most importantly, the unknown in the equation was the intangible and non-quantifiable “culture” and “sensibilities” of the bhadralok, which the BJP juggernaut was ideologically too ossified and too arrogant to acknowledge, let alone assign to it a weight and value. In the first-past-the-post system, they could not crack the equation.
This column first appeared in the print edition on May 10, 2021 under the title ‘In Bengal, lost in translation’. The writer is a former IPS officer of the West Bengal cadre