Spreading Lotus Roots

Emboldened by the recent victories, the BJP is brimming with confidence. Narendra Modi’s popularity is at its peak. The party’s focus is now on states like Kerala, West Bengal, Odisha and Tamil Nadu, where regional parties have been at the helm of affairs. The BJP believes that lotus needs to bloom in these states too. MANOJ VERMA reports

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By any measurement, this is the Golden Period for BJP. It has come to power in as many as 10 states following the victory of 2014. After relegating the Congress as a side-show, the focus is now on those states where regional parties have been at the helm of affairs. This includes states like Kerala, West Bengal, Odisha and Tamil Nadu. After sweeping away Samajwadi Party and Bahujan Samaj Party in Uttar Pradesh, the aforementioned states are next on its target. The BJP believes that lotus needs to bloom in these states too like it did in the Hindispeaking states.
The BJP had bagged 282 seats in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections. This was the best performance by any political party since 1984 polls. In fact, it could well have formed the government without its partners from the NDA. However, it would be a different ball game in 2019 when it will not only need to fight off anti-incumbency, but also hold on to all the seats that it won the previous time. It won’t be easy.
The BJP has identified as many as 120 seats where it lost by small margins in the 2014 polls. It wants to win these 120 seats the next time. The party has sent ministers and MPs to these constituencies apart from coming up with a blueprint for states like West Bengal, Odisha, Tamil Nadu and Kerala where it is trying to make a mark.
It is clear following the National Executive Meeting in Odisha that the BJP will depend on Narendra Modi again, rather than a local face, for polls in Odisha. According to their assessment, and some internal surveys, only Modi’s face can match the charisma of incumbent Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik. The state will conduct assembly polls with 2019 Lok Sabha elections. BJP will be in direct contest with BJD, which has not lost in the last four elections. While Patnaik is an immensely popular figure in Odisha, he could not eradicate, or even significantly lessened, poverty in the state. There are still pockets of miseries in the state. Districts like Kalahandi, Bolangir and Koraput regularly see incidents of hunger-deaths. Last year, when a poor man had to carry the corpse of his wife on his shoulder for miles because he could not pay for any vehicle; the image had rocked the world. Naturally, the BJP will raise the issue of poverty as its main poll plank. It will likely play up the Antyodaya Anna Yojana scheme.

Odisha will conduct assembly polls with 2019 Lok Sabha elections. BJP will be in direct contest with BJD, which has not lost in the last four elections

After performing well in the local polls, while BJP is emboldened; BJD on the other hand is facing massive infighting. Lots of MPs and MLAs from BJD are now seen veneering towards BJP, as Patnaik is losing his grip on the party. BJP knows this and that is why it took the battle in Patnaik’s own territory by organising the National Executive Meeting in Bhubaneswar.
BJP did quite well in the local polls where it relegated the Congress to the third spot. It increased its tally from 36 seats to 306 seats this time. Strategists are trying to repeat what they did with UP by organising the National Convention in Allahabad prior to the polls.
The BJP had won only 10 seats of the 147 that went to the polls in Odisha last time. Its lone MP from the state, Jual Oram, is also in the cabinet. Needless to add, this will change significantly in the next polls.
If Odisha is important, Kerala is no less significant. BJP has never been more serious about expanding its base in Kerala, as it is now. The party has sent the message to the cadres that they need to go for door-to-door campaigns and raise issues significant to the state. The BJP is making five things – food, water, land, house and jobs – as major talking points in the state. Says Kummanam Rajasekharan, the state BJP president, while talking to TSI, “Our target is to bring these five things to the poor of the state.” It is another matter that it is not finding many takers in India’s most literate and educated province.
By 2019, while Mamata Banerjee would have completed eight years in power, Naveen Patnaik would have completed 19. The BJP believes that it will capitalise on the general anti-incumbency against these regional stalwarts. It also believes that a weakening Congress and Left parties can create some space inside Kerala. Similarly, the party wants to fully utilise the vacuum created by the death of J Jayalalithaa in Tamil Nadu. It can do an Arunachal in Tamil Nadu with horse-trading. In fact, the BJP will rely heavily on hatchet job to spread its wings in the south and the northeast.
The BJP also knows that in order to command an all-India presence, it needs to bring in more parties from the south in NDA’s fold. It can send overtures to the TDS in Telangana, but it will anger the TDP in Andhra to no limit. Therefore, the party is treading carefully. In terms of seats, Tamil Nadu is an important state. If BJP fails to benefit from the implosion of AIADMK, it will need to ally with a regional outfit to even register its presence. The DMK was part of NDA during Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s time. It is all set to make a comeback in 2019. Therefore, the BJP will try to ride its popularity. Similarly, several smaller outfits from the northeast are in touch with the BJP.
The BJP also knows that even if its coalition partners don’t do well in 2019, it can win the election on its own. The BJP bagged around 31 per cent of votes in 2014. However, it was not evenly distributed among age, gender and class. It got lesser votes from minorities, women, Dalits and less educated youngsters. These are the groups the party is banking on in 2019. It has gained some success in the recently held polls. However, there is little merit in the propaganda that Muslim women have voted for it over the triple talaq issue. It although claims to have bagged votes from rural women because of the success of the Ujjwala scheme that gives LPG connection in the rural areas. BSP’s decline also means that more and more Dalits will come to the party’s fold. The BSP had bagged 14 per cent votes in 2014 polls. BJP is considered as a party that caters to the interests of the middle class and the rich. That image needs to change.
It is precisely for this reason that schemes such as ‘House for All’, free health insurance,  increase in MGNREGA allocations, rural electrification and Jan-Dhan Yojana have been floated. They have the potential to push BJP’s vote.

BJP has tried desperately to woo different factions of the AIADMK following the death of Jayalalitha, but has not managed a breakthrough till now

However, overconfidence can be fatal. While it made governments in four out of five states that went to the polls recently, it actually won only two. It also lost Delhi and Bihar. Having said that, it is also true that Modi’s popularity is at its peak. And the party has also turned a financial disaster like demonetisation into a political victory. A large section of poor people really believe in Modi’s rhetoric vis-àvis black money. Riding on this wave, the party has won several local body polls. In the coming year and a half, six states, namely Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Rajasthan, Karnataka and Himachal Pradesh are going to the polls. The BJP is in power in four out of these six states. In three states it is in power for the last 15 years. BJP not only needs to retain these four states, but also win Himachal Pradesh and Karnataka in order to be comfortable in 2019 elections. If it loses these states, its arithmetic will suffer. This is why it is not taking these states for granted. It has asked MPs to spend at least 15 days every month in their constituencies to connect with the voters and explain them about its projects. The party has also asked its representatives to get feedback from the people in order to suitably tweak the projects.

: Although BJP has been trying its level best to get a foothold in Kerala, it has not achieved any meaningful success; (Right): BJP has been wooing O Paneerselvam following the demise of jayalalitha

As far as Tamil Nadu is concerned, the party is trying desperately to gain from Jayalalithaa’s death. It has tried to woo several factions of the AIADMK, but has not managed a breakthrough. In Bengal, it has emboldened by the performance in the recent polls. While Mamata Banerjee is tainted by repeated scams, she remains very popular polling above 50 per cent in all the polls. Before 2019 elections, the BJP wants to win the local polls in Bengal. It knows that it would not be able to do so without denting Trinamool’s core votes. That’s why Amit Shah has set his eyes on Kolkata now. He is using communal, divisive tactics – which is the hallmark of the party – to woo Hindu votes in the state. He is using the dogwhistle of “Muslim appeasement” to target Mamata. “No one can stop anyone from celebrating Saraswati Puja in the state. No court order will be required for Durga Puja,” Shah said in his incendiary speech. This was a reflection of Modi’s own speeches in Uttar Pradesh where he used the rhetoric of “Ramzan-Diwali” and “Kabristan-Shamshan” to polarise Hindus successfully.
Mamata, however, is no snowflake. She is giving back to Shah in his own terms. And she has lately become cautious and has asked the administration to keep a close eye on any attempt by BJP to engineer a riot. The BJP has emerged stronger because of the gradual decline of the Left parties in Bengal. Mamata is aware of this. She has told her cadres that their fight is with the BJP now, not the Left Front. The biggest drawback for the BJP in Bengal is its non-existent cadre base or organisational structure. Amit Shah has taken notice of this fact, and has sent workers for door-to-door canvassing. His immediate target is local body elections that are fought on party symbol in Bengal. He has also asked for help from the RSS, which is now involved in the canvassing process. RSS is using the dog-whistle of Muslim appeasement in its canvassing.
Its senior leader Dattatreya Hosabale has raised the issue of “decreasing Hindu population” in the state to polarise votes. He also alleges Mamata of giving safe haven to “jihadi elements”. The Sangh demonstrated its power through Ram Navami and Hanuman Jayanti rallies all over the state. Over 200 such rallies were organised, flouting every norm. Party chief Dilip Ghosh was later arrested under the Arms Act of 1962, from Kharagpur.
The Sangh is also making use of its schools and other outfits. It has increased the number of its schools to around 2,000 in the last few years. Noted journalist and analyst Aseem Mitra says, “BJP is doing the politics of number. It has given space to Dalits, OBCs and tribals not only at the Centre but also in the state leadership. And this has helped them make a dent in the state.”
On the other hand senior analyst Pragyanand Chaudhuri maintains that if Mamata plays “Muslim card” to counter BJP’s “Hindutva card”, it will only backfire on her. While the party did not see a massive surge like in other states during the Modi wave, it has gradually increased its votes. In April, the party polled 31 per cent votes to come second on the Kanti assembly segment bypoll. It had gained just 8.8 per cent votes in the 2016 polls here.
Its strategy however is different here. Lord Rama is not a significant figure in Bengal, as he has been in the north. However, the party is changing the culture itself by promoting Ram Navami and Hanuman Jayanti in the state. Tagore’s ideology, which considered Rama as a mythical character, is giving way to north Indian brand of Hindutva-inclined Ram Navami. The rallies have become a vehicle to establish Hindutva ideology here. Unlike in the past when it was restricted to a very insignificant section of population, this time the phenomenon has caught the imagination of the middle class. The BJP has set the narrative where Hindutva is identified as nationalism and secularism is branded as Muslim appeasement. And it is finding takers for its message. Where will this take the state is anyone’s guess, but signs are ominous.
The BJP is preparing a cadre base of 10,000 workers to canvass for the coming local body polls. The party will also use the Saradha Chit Fund scam and Narada Sting Operation as potent weapons during the campaign. BJP is coordinating very closely with different tentacles of Hindutva family to widen its reach in the state. “The party is going to emerge as the only alternative to Trinamool Congress in the coming local body polls,” stresses national secretary Rahul Sinha. “People have appreciated Modi government’s honesty and good governance all over India. Trinamool on the other hand is corrupt. We are positive that people of Bengal will choose good governance over corruption,” he added in good measure. Similar sentiments have been expressed by senior leader Kailash Vijayvargiya as well who insists that the party will win historic mandate in the state.
There is no doubt that emboldened by the recent victories, the BJP is brimming with confidence. How far shall its shenanigans take it is anyone’s guess. What is sure is that the coming few months in Bengal’s political life shall be one of the most crucial moments ever. How shall Trinamool fight this onslaught shall also define its future in ways more than one. Clearly, Mamata Banerjee has her plate full. The battle after all is hers more than it is of Trinamool’s