Moneycontrol PRO
Upcoming Event:Join us for New HorAIzon from Oct 6-7, 2pm and be a part of exciting conversations on tech & innovation
you are here: HomeNewsPolitics
In-Depth | Modi, RSS and 'poriborton': What fuels BJP's meteoric rise in Bengal

In-Depth | Modi, RSS and 'poriborton': What fuels BJP's meteoric rise in Bengal

From a fringe player in state politics till the last assembly polls to being a major contender for power in 2021. What has propelled the BJP's unparalleled growth in West Bengal?

In 2011, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) drew a blank in the West Bengal assembly elections. Barely would have any pollster imagined that a party, which failed to open its account, would emerge as the key contender to power a decade later.

The meteoric rise of BJP is attributed to an array of factors - the appeal of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, the extensive groundwork of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), the 'polarisation' of voters, and the quest for 'poriborton' - the Bengali equivalent for 'change'.

The steep surge in BJP's popularity is also considered extraordinary in a state which was, till 10 years ago, considered a Left bastion as the communists were in power for 34 consecutive years.

A pro-BJP shift in the electoral sentiment was unanticipated till the rise of the Modi-Shah juggernaut.

ID - M12, 2021 - 1

Is Bengal turning 'right'?

The BJP's rapid rise may indicate Bengal's ideological shift, but experts say there are other strong factors propelling the party.

Sanjay Kumar, co-director of Lokniti, a research programme at the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies (CSDS), said a vote for the BJP does not necessarily mean a vote for the right-wing ideology.

"It is clear that the BJP is one of the main contenders of power if we look at the 2021 Bengal assembly elections. And even if the BJP comes to power by defeating Mamata Banerjee, I do not see this as a shift in ideology of voters," he told Moneycontrol.

He said many people who are likely to vote for the BJP in the state would be doing so because they want a change in government, while those who voted for the party in the 2019 Lok Sabha polls had cast their ballot for Modi, not the ideology.

"I would refuse to believe that a vote for BJP is vote for Hindutva, and would also disagree that there is an ideological shift in the people of Bengal," he said.

This "desire for change" is what Modi used to connect with the electorate when he launched the campaign in the state.

"Bengal trusted Mamata Banerjee to bring in change but she betrayed its people and insulted them. Now is the time for ashol poriborton (real change)", the prime minister said at the rally in Kolkata - his first in the state - on March 7.

Kumar said it was the "strong desire for change" 10 years ago which had propelled Mamata Banerjee to her biggest win in terms of vote share. The Trinamool Congress (TMC) in that elections - which ended the over three-decade of Left rule - secured nearly 48 percent of the votes, he recalled.

The use of religious symbols at political rallies in India is not uncommon (Image: AP) The use of religious symbols at political rallies in India is not uncommon (Image: AP)

ID - M12, 2012 - 2

Is BJP gaining the most from 'polarisation'?

Polarisation, or as some would say counter-polarisation to refer to the consolidation of Hindu votes, has helped the BJP's growth in Bengal but it may not be major factor.

While the narrative over Bangladeshi immigrants, minority appeasement and row over Muharram and Durga Puja processions benefitted the BJP, the party gained the most due to the "absence of a strong opposition".

There was a political vacuum in Bengal due to the weakening of Congress and Left, and "BJP reaped the benefits" from it, said Sabir Ahmed, the national researcher coordinator linked to SNAP (Social Network for Assistance to People) Bengal, while speaking to Moneycontrol.

He pointed out how the saffron party inducted a host of leaders from the Congress and Communist Part of India (Marxist). Ground workers of the Left parties, in 2019, covertly worked for the BJP with the intent to "teach the Trinamool a lesson", he said.

This anti-Trinamool sentiment among the Left cadres was effectively used by the BJP. They said "pehle Ram phir Bam (first Ram, then communism)", Ahmed added.

What the anguished Left workers did - by supporting BJP on the ground - was a "huge mistake", he said.

The Left votes transferred to the saffron party and that resulted in their best-ever performance in the parliamentary seats of Bengal, the researcher said. The BJP had won 18 out of the 42 seats with a 42 percent vote share. The CPI(M), in the process, failed to win any seat in the state which was once its citadel.

However, Ahmed also noted that the BJP found a "fertile ground" in Bengal which allowed it to capitalise on the lack of opposition.

"The state has a migrant population, and they responded when a party promised them citizenship. And on the other hand, the symbolic appeasement of Mamata Banerjee, like Imam allowance and iftar parties - which did not benefit in improving the conditions of Muslims - ended up providing a fertile ground for the BJP," he said.

Sanjay Kumar agreed, saying that many in the state believe the Trinamool government "engaged in a lot of appeasement of Muslims, even at the expense of Hindus".

"We are witnessing counter-polarisation," the top CSDS researcher said.

The phenomenon was visible in the last Lok Sabha polls, where the BJP won even in seats like Raiganj which has nearly 49 percent Muslim voters. The division of the community's votes between TMC's Kanaia Lal Agarwal and CPI(M)'s sitting MP Mohammed Salim allowed BJP's Debasree Chaudhuri to clinch a victory.

In Cooch Behar, where the Muslim population is between 27 and 30 percent, BJP's Nisith Pramanick had won by over 54,000 votes against Trinamool candidate Paresh Chandra Adhikary. The BJP's vote percentage in this seat jumped from 28 percent in 2014 to 48 percent in 2019 - signalling significant counter-polarisation.

A similar result was seen in Balurghat, where over a third of the electorate was Muslim. BJP candidate Sukanta Majumdar won against sitting MP and theatre activist Arpita Ghosh by 13,000 votes.

"Counter-polarisation in Bengal is a factor, but it is going hand-in-hand with the desire for change," Kumar said.

A communal row had erupted in 2017 when dates of Durga Puja processions clashed with the Muharram juloos (Representative image: Reuters) A communal row had erupted in 2017 when dates of Durga Puja processions clashed with the Muharram juloos (Representative image: Reuters)

ID - M12, 2012 - 3

RSS key to BJP's organisational strength

The battle against BJP is often considered as a battle against the entire Sangh Parivaar. Bengal is regarded as a state where the party relied on its ideological parent, the RSS, to power the cadre strength.

In 2017, when the BJP embarked on 'mission 2019' and 'mission 2021', the party divided its state organisation into five zones - north Bengal, Rarh (south-western), Nabadwip (south-central), Hooghly-Midnapore (southern) and Kolkata.

Zonal teams were further divided into district committees, corresponding with the respective Lok Sabha seats.

Further down, the existing mandal committees that oversaw 210-270 polling booths were amplified and asked to focus on 60 to 90 booths to increase efficacy, author Snigdhendu Bhattacharya noted in his book Mission Bengal: A Saffron Experiment.

Volunteers of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) gathering for a parade (Image: Reuters) Volunteers of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) gathering for a parade (Image: Reuters)

The numbers were based on the inputs he received from BJP state unit chief Dilip Ghosh - a full-time RSS pracharak who was given the charge in Bengal in 2015.

Ghosh claimed the party went for a further microscopic division, by forming shakti kendras that would oversee five to nine polling booths each. The shakti kendras required 'vistaraks', or full-time political workers who would work outside their home-districts.

A number of vistaraks who came to the aid of BJP were Sangh swayamsevaks. Their target was to work in remote districts with the intent to build support for the BJP among the locals, and thereby create booth-level cadres.

Kumar, in his conversation with Moneycontrol, said the RSS had a "large contribution" in developing the BJP's structure in Bengal.

"In whichever state the BJP comes to power, there has been a role of the RSS. In Jharkhand they have been strong, we have seen it in Haryana," he said.

For a party to emerge strong, an organisational base is required. This base to the BJP in Bengal was provided by the RSS, the Lokniti co-director added.

The extent of Sangh's involvement could be gauged by RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat's meeting with actor Mithun Chakraborty on February 17, days before the latter turned up at Modi's rally in Kolkata, Kumar pointed out.

"That's an indication on how well in advance the RSS was doing its groundwork, building connections and increasing the BJP's support base," he added.

However, unlike the BJP which has grown in Bengal since 2014, the RSS has been active in the state since the days of Jana Sangh. This raises the question why the BJP was not able to reap the dividends of RSS' activism over the past couple of decades.

According to Kumar, the RSS was active more in the social and religious realm rather than the political circles. Even though RSS provided a political structure, the BJP emerged strong only after the people realised in the past couple of years that "it can bring the change", he said.

ID - M12, 2012 - 4

The CAA-NRC bid

While senior BJP leaders have stopped speaking on a possible nationwide-National Register of Citizens (NRC) since the protests last year, analysts said the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) was also not being used as an aggressive poll plank in the state, as of now.

Although Union Home Minister Amit Shah has assured to implement the law after the rollout of vaccines against COVID-19, the party's top brass has refrained using the law as a central point of the campaign.

"I think it may be kept as a trump card. When your (BJP's) support base is expanding even without using CAA, even without aggressively polarising the voters, even without using the word Muslim, then you may not need it now," Kumar said.

But if the BJP sees itself trailing, the polarising issues could be raked more aggressively, the political expert added.

The CAA is expected to draw a substantial support to the BJP from the Matua community - which has several members who migrated from Bangladesh. The community accounts for nearly 15 percent of the total electorate, and is considered as the biggest voting bloc after the 27 percent Muslim population.

The passage of the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) had evoked protest from a huge section of the Muslim community, who feared that the central government may subsequently carry out a pan-India National Register of Citizens (NRC) (Image: Reuters) The passage of the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) had evoked protest from a huge section of the Muslim community, who feared that the central government may subsequently carry out a pan-India National Register of Citizens (NRC) (Image: Reuters)

ID - M12, 2012 - 5

Should BJP's surge also be attributed to the Modi factor?

Modi remains BJP’s most prominent face in the election. In absence of a chief ministerial candidate, Modi is expected to remain a strong factor to influence pro-BJP voters.

The BJP’s vote in Bengal in 2019 was largely for Modi, the post-poll study of CSDS-Lokniti had suggested. Forty-two percent of the respondents in the survey said they wanted him to continue as the prime minister.

The BJP, under his aegis, succeeded in receiving the vote from 39 percent of traditional Left voters and 32 percent of traditional Congress voters, the study suggested.

Kumar, who was linked to the CSDS-Lokniti general election surveys, said the vote for BJP in 2019 was undoubtedly a "vote for a strong leader at the Centre".

The same would not hold true in the assembly polls, where the "desire for change" would be the biggest influencing factor among voters who will back the BJP, he added.

"The Modi factor will always be there. But in this election, to use an example, out of every 100 votes the BJP receives, only 55 to 60 at maximum would be for Modi. In the general elections, every 80 out of 100 votes the BJP received was for the prime minister," he explained.

Ahmed of SNAP said Modi’s style of campaign and speeches "finds connect", which will keep him a key factor in the electioneering phase although he alleged that the prime minister’s speeches also contained falsehoods.

BJP supporters wearing masks of PM Narendra Modi at a rally in Kolkata, West Bengal on March 7, 2021 (Image: AP) BJP supporters wearing masks of PM Narendra Modi at a rally in Kolkata, West Bengal on March 7, 2021 (Image: AP)

ID - M12, 2012 - 6

Free fall of Congress, Left expedited BJP's climb

Between 2016 and 2019, the Congress and Left were in a free fall, as reflected in their dwindling vote shares. This has been directly proportional to the rise of BJP.

The Lokniti-CSDS data also pointed out that the switch was larger among the Hindu voters. In 2019, the BJP received 57 percent of the Hindu votes, up from 21 percent in 2014. For the Left, it declined from 29 percent to 6 percent, while for the Congress it fell from 6 percent to 3 percent.

"The overall Trinamool vote share in 2019 did not go down as compared to 2016. The BJP gained directly at the expense of the Congress and the Left," Kumar said.

In 2021 also, the voters who want to oust Mamata Banerjee will not vote for the Congress or Left, he said. "They know that the BJP is in a position to bring the change," the Lokniti co-director added.

"Whatever the votes which the Congress or Left will get could be attributed to their individual prominent leaders. I would not view those votes as the vote for the party," he further said.

On the alliance of both the parties with Indian Secular Front (ISF) of cleric Abbas Siddiqui, Kumar said there "may be some shift" of Muslim voters from the Trinamool to the CPI(M)-led coalition.

The division in the community's vote would further help the prospects of the BJP but Kumar said Siddiqui would have a marginal impact.

"My own sense is that when they (Muslim voters) would see that the third front is not a challenge to the BJP, they will vote for the Trinamool," he added.

A man bathes in an alley with walls painted with the party symbol of the Communist Party of India (Marxist) in Kolkata (Image: Reuters) A man bathes in an alley with walls painted with the party symbol of the Communist Party of India (Marxist) in Kolkata (Image: Reuters)

ID - M12, 2012 - 7

Will the lotus bloom on May 2?

The poll battle is too close to call for now but the party is poised to perform exponentially better than 2016, when it had won only three seats with a vote share of around 10 percent.

The aggregate of major opinion polls released so far predicts the BJP tally hovering at around 100 - well short of the halfway mark of 147 seats. The latest C-Voter survey released on March 9 predicted 107 seats for the party with a 37.5 percent vote share.

The Trinamool, as per the opinion poll, was predicted to retain power with 157 seats and 42.5 percent vote share.

As the election date nears, the BJP leaders are hopeful of narrowing the gap in the surveys.

The party top brass, including Amit Shah and JP Nadda, has reiterated the confidence to win "over 200 seats". The credibility of their claim would only be known on May 2.

Even if the lotus falls short of blooming on the day of results, there would no gloom for the BJP. The party has already registered an unparalleled growth in the state where it had no legislator until the bypoll of 2014.

BJP workers celebrating the party’s recent municipal poll win in Gujarat (Image: Reuters) BJP workers celebrating the party’s recent municipal poll win in Gujarat (Image: Reuters)

Sections
ISO 27001 - BSI Assurance Mark