Righting what’s left

Having ousted CPI(M) from Tripura, the BJP is now focusing on Kerala and West Bengal

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The television screen showed a group of men, with the help of a bulldozer, pulling down a huge statue of Vladimir Lenin in Tripura, on March 6. What was till a few days ago a red bastion was now covered in saffron flags and shouts of “Bharat Mata ki jai”. The faces glued to the screen, at the BJP’s Kerala headquarters in Thiruvananthapuram, were beaming with pride. “Now we know why our party president [Amit Shah] told us he would visit Kerala only after the Tripura elections,” said a state office bearer. Apparently, the state leadership had been requesting Shah to visit Kerala to boost the party’s sagging morale, but he had repeatedly declined.

Shortly after the Tripura victory, Shah said his party would also win the state elections in Odisha (2019), West Bengal and Kerala (2021); the third being the CPI(M)’s last seat of power. “The Congress is no threat to the BJP. But, we must be wary of the communists. They have a cadre system and a deep-rooted ideology. It is a deadly combination,” Shah had warned the state BJP leaders during his last visit.

But, after the Tripura elections, the state BJP has gained a lot of confidence. “If the BJP can win in the northeast, which has 80 per cent minority population, capturing Kerala would be an easier task,” said BJP leader K. Surendran.

Sreedharan Pillai, who is the probable BJP candidate in the upcoming assembly byelection in Chengannur, said: “The Tripura election has reduced the CPI(M) to Kerala, and it is likely to be reduced to a Kannur party very soon. If we manage to get the Christian votes, then it will be a walkover for the BJP. And, post-Tripura, we are quite optimistic of bagging them.”

The state BJP is also planning to replicate the Tripura model, of co-opting a large chunk of the Congress state unit, and Congress leaders in Kerala are reportedly being sounded out.

Senior Congress leader K. Sudhakaran had a discussion with Shah recently, which created flutters in the state Congress unit. “It is true that I am getting feelers from the BJP,” he said. “Many senior leaders from the BJP did come and meet me.”

Asked whether he would join the BJP, Sudhakaran said he had no such plans, “as of now”. However, Sudhakaran, who is from the communist heartland of Kannur, said the Tripura defeat also had a lesson for his party. “It is high time the Congress leadership understood that it has the responsibility to give the common workers a sense of protection from the communist onslaught. When the party fails to do this, it is only natural that Congress workers look to the BJP for protection,” he said.

The state CPI(M), however, seems unshaken by the Tripura loss. Pinarayi Vijayan, the only communist chief minister in the country, said “the left forces would come back in no time”. A state committee member, who did not want to be named, said: “Tripura has proved that old-school Marxism will not take you anywhere. There are puritans who criticise the Pinarayi government for being business-friendly and creating more employment opportunities. The primary duty of any government is to cater to the aspirations of the people and our government is doing that.”

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Moreover, political commentators said Kerala would not be a cakewalk for the BJP. “Unlike in the northeastern states, the minority population here is politically and financially empowered,” said political analyst R. Mohan. “Unlike there, the CPI(M) and the Congress are very much locally rooted. It would be tough to uproot them.”

In West Bengal, however, the ground is more fertile for the BJP. The party had only 1 per cent vote share in the previous Tripura elections, but about 30 per cent in Bengal. It has also pushed the CPI(M) to third place, and plans to go head-to-head against Mamata Banerjee’s Trinamool Congress. That this had rattled the chief minister was highlighted in her reaction to BJP’s Tripura win. She held three government meetings to announce, dramatically, that the Tripura results would have no impact on Bengal. In fact, she said that if the BJP’s next target was Bengal, “for us the next target is Delhi”. Mamata knows that if the BJP is not contained in the 2019 Lok Sabha elections, her position would be in danger in 2021.

Currently, the political climate in Bengal is conducive for the BJP’s rise. The state has been, for the first time in decades, divided along communal lines; it has seen more than two dozen riots in the past six years. Interestingly, critics say much of this could be attributed to Mamata, who changed the secular fabric of Bengal politics. In fact, in her attempt to uplift Muslims, she has been accused of turning a blind eye to the rise in Muslim radicalism. And, now, Hindu groups in the state have started gaining prominence. These groups have existed for long, but were not allowed to grow by the left, which characteristically kept religion out of politics. “Every time the state government tried to block our religious activities or our politics, we went to court and it bashed the state government. The Trinamool is a party of uncivilised people,” said state BJP vice president Biswapriya Roy Chowdhury. “You would be surprised to know that many left supporters today support us and think our presence is needed in Bengal to save the state from cross-border terrorism. If the BJP is not in Bengal, it would soon turn into Kashmir.”

From the Tripura results, the BJP also learned that it was not necessary to project a charismatic face against a tall opposition leader. “If we could do that with Manik Sarkar, we can use the same model for Mamata Banerjee,” said Sudip Roy Barman, a BJP leader who was once the Trinamool’s face in Tripura. “I know her and I can tell you that she is not invincible.”

However, to repeat the Tripura success, the BJP would need someone like Sunil Deodhar, who was the architect of the party’s win. Bengal BJP president Dilip Ghosh, in fact, called Deodhar an inspiration, but said that Bengal needed a few more like him. “I am not undermining his effort. But I have asked the Central leadership to allocate more such RSS brave hearts for Bengal,” said Ghosh.

And, Shah seems to have listened. He recently made leaders Shiv Prakash and Arvind Menon co-minders for the state. Moreover, Roy Chowdhury said Shah would visit Bengal later this month and that Prime Minister Narendra Modi would soon follow.

“Of 70,000 booths in Bengal, we have an organisational structure in 36,000 so far. By 2019, we will finish the task and give a serious blow to the Trinamool,” said Roy Chowdhury. “Perhaps Mamata Banerjee received such reports, and that is why she has become so desperate.”

So desperate, indeed, that when the Lenin statue fell in Tripura, Mamata, a staunch anti-leftist, said: “They [the BJP] get power so they break the statues of Lenin, Marx, Gandhi, Vivekananda or Netaji? This is an unruly force and unacceptable to us.” Mamata, it seems, is missing the left.