At bay, in Bengal

In 1990, as L.K. Advani was riding towards Kolkata on his rath to drum up support for the Ram Janmabhumi movement, one man became the mountain that stopped the BJP leader. Lalu Prasad, as chief minister of Bihar, gave orders to arrest Advani at Samastipur. Jyoti Basu, chief minister of West Bengal, extolled Lalu as a “brave man” who stood up against communalism.

A quarter of a century later, history repeats itself. BJP president Amit Shah, whom many consider the firebrand that Advani once was, had declared that his next stop after winning Bihar would be Kolkata. Assembly elections in West Bengal are due in 2016.

Once again, it was Lalu who cooked the saffron goose—by leading his party to victory in 80 seats in Bihar and making a dramatic return to national politics. Not long after the results were out, Lalu thundered: “Woh [Shah] sochne laga tha ke Kolkata jayenge Bihar ke baad. Ham ne Bihar peyin un ko rok diya (He was thinking that he would go to Kolkata after Bihar. I have stopped him in Bihar itself).”

Like Basu, West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee congratulated Lalu and his alliance partner Nitish Kumar on their resounding success. But, like Shah, who would now have to redraw his plans for West Bengal, the Trinamool Congress leader has to change her poll strategy. In the absence of a strong BJP, the West Bengal elections could become a triangular fight. The CPI(M), the Congress and a breakaway faction of Trinamool led by Mukul Roy could unite and give her a tough time. It is the reason Mamata did not congratulate Congress vice president Rahul Gandhi for the role he played in Bihar.

Congress state president Adhir Chowdhury said his party would fight the Trinamool by teaming up with likeminded parties. Did that mean it would form a grand alliance with the CPI(M) and other parties against Mamata? Chowdhury said it was too early to say.

Mamata’s tacit understanding with the BJP for the past six months has done more harm to the BJP than the Trinamool. The BJP had two things in mind. One, it wanted the Trinamool’s support to push through crucial legislation in the Rajya Sabha. Two, the saffron party did not want a CPI(M) resurgence. The BJP thinks it can handle Mamata, but not certainly communists if they win more seats in the assembly election and, in turn, in the Rajya Sabha.

Fielding Kailash Vijayvargiya, who is in charge of the BJP in Bengal, to launch a scathing attack on the Grand Alliance before the Bihar elections was apparently part of a bigger plan. But, with his imprudent comments in Bihar, Vijayvargiya’s image in West Bengal has taken a beating. “We will have to work hard to create the right image for Vijayvargiya,” said a state BJP leader.

It is clear that the BJP is clueless about how to make inroads in West Bengal. In 2014, the party won 20 per cent of votes in the state, but managed to win only two Lok Sabha seats. That, too, came on a huge Modi wave.

The Bihar election results show that the Modi wave is no more. A grand appearance by the prime minister would not help the party increase its vote share in West Bengal. In fact, it would be a big achievement if the BJP retains its vote share in the assembly elections.

With almost six months to go for the elections in West Bengal, Modi would be trying harder than ever to woo Mamata. And she, in turn, would squeeze him to release more funds for the state.

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