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Why Bengal 2021 matters | HT Editorial – editorials

With its return to power in Bihar in alliance with the Janata Dal (United), the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has turned its attention to the next set of state elections. In early 2021, Assam, Tamil Nadu, Puducherry, Kerala, and most significantly, West Bengal will hold elections. The BJP hopes to retain power in Assam where it will find the discourse around the Citizenship (Amendment) Act — local political sentiment sees it as the legitimising of “outsiders” — a challenge. The party will seek to expand its footprint in Kerala and Tamil Nadu (where it has a behind-the-scenes understanding with the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam), but it is aware that winning is not on the cards — in both these states, the BJP has been historically weak, and identity politics is complicated. But its main focus will be Bengal.

Bengal matters to the BJP because it is the one eastern Indian state where it has never — except in the last Lok Sabha elections — been able to make substantial inroads. The State was first a bastion of the Left — the key ideological adversary of the BJP — and now the Trinamool Congress, arguably the most important regional adversary of the BJP. Winning here will not just symbolically reinforce the BJP’s position as a national party across geographies, but also allow it to forcefully implement its ideological and political agenda, gain Rajya Sabha seats over time, make eastern India truly saffron, accumulate political capital for the rest of the term till 2024 and demoralise the Opposition.

But it faces a formidable adversary in Trinamool and Mamata Banerjee. The outcome of the election will hinge on five factors. One, as the BJP projects itself as a party of change, the extent of anti-incumbency against Ms Banerjee will be a key variable. Two, religious polarisation will affect voting patterns, with the BJP accusing Ms Banerjee of “minority appeasement” and pushing the CAA plank to win over Hindu voters. Three, whether the other forces — the Left, the Congress, and possibly Asaduddin Owaisi’s formation — split the anti-Trinamool vote (thus benefiting the incumbent) or anti-BJP vote (thus benefiting the challenger) will matter. Four, which way the voters tilt on leadership if the battle is framed as a Narendra Modi versus Mamata Banerjee contest will have a role. And finally, and unfortunately, the ground level political violence — often aided by the state government in power — will affect sentiment and voting. India’s political focus will turn east in 2021.

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