The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is going through a meltdown in West Bengal. This unravelling is as baffling as was its relatively poor showing in the polls. On the latter, one may argue that the party was a victim of its own hype. Otherwise, increasing its tally from three to 77 sears was impressive by any standard. But subsequent events have exposed the hollow foundations on which the party had built its castle of sand.
Neither BJP supporters nor political commentators had anticipated such a debacle. The high-voltage campaign, led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi and home minister Amit Shah, had swept everyone off their feet. But even fewer people had expected the collapse of the BJP West Bengal state unit post the elections. Nor could they imagine the reverse exodus to Trinamool Congress that followed.
The leadership vacuum
Today, the BJP is almost faceless in Bengal. Paratroopers who came from the BJP headquarters in Delhi took the first flight out. BJP’s state president, Dilip Ghosh, who was sulking even before the elections, has gone out of sight. Other stalwarts such as Mukul Roy are maintaining an enigmatic silence. Rajib Banerjee, another big-ticket acquisition, is raising eyebrows with cryptic social media posts. Swapan Dasgupta, seen as a probable chief ministerial candidate, was quick to reclaim his seat in the Rajya Sabha.
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Post-poll revenge violence has sent old BJP-Sangh ground workers and grassroots leaders underground. Sidelined before the elections, they are now feeling orphaned.
And so the only leader who is displaying some energy is Suvendu Adhikari, who earned his spurs as the “Giant killer of Nandigram” and has been anointed as leader of opposition.
In such a scenario, cynics quip, the governor is now the most visible face of the Opposition in the state. The descent of the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) and Enforcement Directorate (ED) has raised questions. Reopening old cases against Trinamool Congress leaders smack of proxy action by the Centre.
Be that as it may, the void in BJP’s state leadership is obvious to all. BJP’s reaction in West Bengal is comparable to that of Congress after its rout in 2014 and 2019.
Explaining the BJP’s drift and response
But remember, West Bengal is not the only loss BJP has suffered under the leadership of Narendra Modi and Amit Shah. Delhi in 2015 and 2020, Bihar in 2015 and Rajasthan 2018 are cases in point. So, why is it that BJP is finding it so hard to digest the Bengal verdict? A few theories are doing the rounds in political circles. But none of the arguments are compelling.
One view is that, in her third term, Mamata Banerjee may become the pivot of opposition unity. That would make her a credible challenger to Narendra Modi in 2024.
The second explanation is that the debacle has upset Modi-Shah’s calculations for 2024. They were counting on improving upon the 2019 tally of Lok Sabha seats from Bengal. That would have helped them to offset possible losses in other states. Now, it looks like a tall task.
The third explanation is that the timing of the Bengal setback could not have been worse for Narendra Modi. It coincided with the surge of the Covid-19 second wave and the devastating oxygen crisis. The economy, which was on a slow recovery path, suffered a fresh jolt. The farmer agitation is still simmering. All this, one reckoned, put Modi-Shah on the defensive within the BJP-RSS ecosystem. Some are quick to read manifestations of it in the reported rumbles in Uttar Pradesh.
The fourth conjecture is about Mamata Banerjee’s constant confrontation with the Centre. Emboldened by the massive victory, she would only step-up the ante. Her frequent fulminations, bordering on intransigence, are bound to bother the PM and settle established federal equations.
But none of these arguments can explain the existential crisis BJP is facing in West Bengal nor its subsequent actions. The party’s current course of action will neither weaken Banerjee nor equip the BJP to get battle ready for 2024. The state leadership is missing in action. The central leadership appears to be taking a hands-off approach. Most worrying is the lack of a discernible way forward strategy. This has left the old BJP cadres in the dark to fend for themselves.
For the BJP, a choice
The party is at crossroads. To salvage lost ground it has two options. First, go back to the drawing board and rebuild the organisation from scratch, the RSS way. The second, give Suvendu Adhikari a free-reign and support him for a quick ramp-up.
The BJP of yore would have opted for the former option (a return to the roots), even if it is a slow and long haul. But the current leadership does not have either the patience or luxury of time. Taking the second approach (backing Adhikari fully) would have a high risk quotient — of alienating older cadres and making the party seem Trinamool’s B team.
So, it is Hobson’s choice. But the BJP is not a party to sit idle. Victory or defeat, its wheels never stop. But it needs to settle the leadership equations in the state, evolve a calibrated but robust strategy to take on the state government, and make some hard choices, soon.
Sandip Ghose is a political observer and commentator on current affairs
The views expressed are personal