West Bengal Polls: Who has the Midas touch?

Ahead of assembly elections in West Bengal, speculations and deliberations are in the air about the possible outcome. While chances are strong of Mamata Banerjee returning to power, the key question is whether BJP would fare better in comparison to preceding polls. Though Banerjee is making all possible efforts in her campaigns, BJP leaders are also trying their best. Paradoxically, till results are declared, BJP’s confidence is likely to rest on illusions and/or opinions the leaders and members have on their communication strategies. It may be pertinent to analyse their electoral approach with respect to West Bengal Assembly elections.

To a degree, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s return to power with a sweeping majority in 2019 parliamentary elections appears to have convinced him that he has the “Midas-touch,” which can turn the political tide in his favour, come what may. Not surprisingly, ahead of state elections in West Bengal (April-May, 2021), he began making the extra-effort to look and dress like Bengali-icon, Nobel Laureate Rabindranath Tagore (1861-1941) and thus attract voters to support his party. Ah, this strategy by itself raises questions about whether he has the Midas-touch or is banking on appeal of Tagore in West Bengal.

Bengalis are, however, well aware that Modi is not a Bengali. While Bengal is in Eastern India, Modi’s home state is Gujarat in the western part of India. It is not just the question of East being East and West being West during electoral campaigns for state and other local elections. Political speeches delivered in Hindi or any non-Bengali language are least likely to be given much importance by Bengalis. Not surprisingly, Banerjee commented in her political address that only “Bengal will rule Bengal.” This may be viewed as her style of emphasising that Modi - a non-Bengali - must not be given any importance by Bengali voters.

Regional identity, incidentally, carries substantial political importance in practically all states of India. This may also be said to be partly responsible for the limited reach of BJP in Southern India as well as non-Hindi speaking states during intra-state, local elections. In this context, the gradual decline of CPM’s political strength in West Bengal cannot be de-linked from the party’s key reins passing on to non-Bengalis.

Besides, the high-voltage communal card used aggressively by BJP and right-wing groups linked with it doesn’t carry the same weight in states outside Hindi belt. The Ram-card has certainly helped BJP achieve political heights. However, communal frenzy linked with particularly the construction of a temple after demolition of a mosque (1992) in Ayodhya (Uttar Pradesh) has lost electoral appeal for voters at large. It bears practically no importance in states where strong religious passion is displayed for other Hindu deities. This holds true in West Bengal too.

Covid-trauma accompanied by inflation, loss of jobs and with recent months being witness to protest of farmers against controversial agricultural laws passed by the central government, the common Indian has unending list of grievances. These cannot be answered by Modi’s “Tagore-strategy” or by any political rhetoric. Modi is certainly a master strategist in this art but doesn’t have the Midas-touch to always turn the political tide in his favour. Even during 2019 parliamentary elections, BJP secured less than 40% votes; in other words 60% Indians voted for other parties.

The situation may have been different if Modi was not in power for the second term. His secular mask held appeal when he entered national politics in 2014. But that has been ripped apart by right-wing extremist elements associated with BJP. Communal language, including anti-Muslim campaign, has little appeal for voters in West Bengal. Covid-panic as well as economic woes cannot also be dismissed away by communal rhetoric. Initially, attempt was made to blame Muslims for Covid-19. Indians, however, did not take long to understand that the vicious virus does not discriminate along religious, caste or any socio-economic lines.

Modi certainly does not have Midas-touch that can turn electoral tide in favour of BJP in West Bengal assembly elections. Prospects of Banerjee returning to power for the third term are strongly dependent on her own party’s campaign. The lady is also using services of Prashant Kishor, a well-known political strategist. But to assume that he has Midas-touch would be erroneous. Though his strategies have succeeded often that he failed miserably when Congress used his services in Uttar Pradesh assembly elections (2017) cannot be forgotten.

Seasoned Bengali politicians and voters are likely to view Kishor and his team members as outsiders. Prospects of their feeling at home with what non-Bengali political strategists instruct them to do may be viewed as good as non-existent. Limited impact of political strategies being worked upon from glass-door cabins cannot also be ignored. Neither Modi nor Kishor is a Bengali and may be assumed to be sans Midas-touch for common voters in West Bengal in state elections. Before it is too late, Banerjee needs to rely more strongly on her own Bengali party members’ voice. The voter is the final judge and in regional elections, their own local leaders’ voice and role carry greater importance for them!