Saffron Surge in West Bengal?

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The BJP is emerging as a strong opposition in West Bengal, but the party still lacks a credible leadership in the state.

Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) President Amit Shah is working hard to realize his party’s dream of having a BJP government in power in every state. But when it comes to West Bengal, the state’s Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee poses a formidable challenge to the party’s ascent to power. While playing the Hindutva card may have easily worked in states like Uttar Pradesh, the success is unlikely to get replicated in West Bengal. But the signs that the BJP is slowly emerging as the chief opposition party in West Bengal can no longer be ignored.

“The CPI (M) and Congress are facing an existential crisis in West Bengal”

The Modi wave in 2014 did not seem to have much impact on the seat tally as the BJP increased its Lok Sabha tally from one to just two. However, its vote-share increased from around 6 percent in 2009 to 16.2 percent in 2014. BJP President has given party workers the target to increase this to 28 percent (or, 15 million votes) in the 2019 General Elections. Its vote share has improved to around 10 percent in the 2016 Assembly Elections and it stood second in a number of places.

The Left Front led by the CPI(M) has been the main opposition party in West Bengal ever since its 34 years long regime was dislodged by the Mamata Banerjee led Trinamool Congress (TMC) in 2011. Ever since that, the Left parties seem to be facing an existential crisis in the state. The party’s vote-share has shown a decline and it has shown no signs of recovery. Its opposition to the ruling party seems to lack vigour, enthusiasm and zeal. Moreover, the party lacks young and dynamic leaders.

The Congress was in an alliance with the TMC during the 2011 Assembly Elections but broke-up soon after. As a result, the Lok Sabha seats of the party reduced from six to four in the 2014 elections. The Congress strongholds are limited to regions of Malda and Murshidabad regions, where  the TMC also seems to be making in-roads. It contested the 2016 Assembly Elections in alliance with its traditional rival – the CPI(M) and managed to just get the same number of seats  as it already had, while its new found alliance partner was virtually decimated. The Congress definitely has a small vote bank in every constituency in the state but has the capacity to win seats only in its two traditional strongholds. The Congress has been perpetually in the Opposition in West Bengal ever since 1977.Most stalwart Congress leaders have deserted the party and its revival seems a distant dream unless they partner with the TMC again.

All these factors coupled with the rise of the BJP across the country indicate that the space which previously belonged to the CPI(M) and the Congress is slowly being taken up by the BJP. At present, it is seen as the only energetic opposition force. While the BJP’s vote share has increased in West Bengal, it has been at the cost of the Left Front and the Congress who have shown a consistent decline. This may be due to the fact that people have started to believe that the Left cannot provide a strong opposition and the Congress is itself confused whether it is with or against the TMC. Moreover, the CPI(M) due to its oppressive 34 years long rule has completely lost its credibility. People seem to be in a mood to usher in change by giving BJP a chance to play the role of a responsible opposition.

To defeat Mamata Banerjee, the opposition will need a personality that can overshadow her. The CPI (M) and the Bengal Congress virtually have no leader who has a statewide appeal, let alone matching the stature of the present CM. The BJP too lacks anyone of her stature but by trying to engineer defections and importing leaders like Mukul Roy into its fold, it is at least trying to present a face, although a weak one. Defeating the TMC seems to be a distant dream as all elections since 2009 have shown an increase in the TMC’s vote share and Mamata Banerjee’s popularity remains unmatched. However, it cannot be denied that the opposition space which was occupied by the CPI (M) and the Congress is slowly being taken up by the BJP. It remains to be seen who wins this race to come second.