Why Modi could give Mamata more heartburn after 16 May
The big question for 16 May is, of course, whether Narendra Modi will get enough seats to form the next government. However, a more interesting question is this: will Modi succeed in making the BJP a national party after this election? The BJP has always been seen as a party of the north and west, with practically no presence in the east and south. That assumption was dented when the party formed a government in Karnataka in 2008. With a skimpy party organisation, the BJP has been practically non-existent in West Bengal, Odisha, Andhra Pradesh, Tamil Nadu, and Kerala – and in Karnataka it got its worst drubbing in the state assembly polls last year. But the chances are the Modi effect has managed to overcome some of the handicaps the party has faced in the past. With the re-entry of BS Yeddyurappa, Karnataka is back among the BJP’s prospective seat contributors, and in Andhra Pradesh and Telangana, the party could open its account this time in an alliance with the Telugu Desam. In Tamil Nadu, the BJP-led alliance of a motley group of smaller parties is likely to emerge as a true third force this time, ending the BJP’s isolation and exclusion from Tamil politics. In Odisha, the BJP is said to be doing quite well in the coastal parts and in the south – which could yield it some useful seats. In Assam, the BJP always had a small constituency among beleaguered Assamese Hindu groups worried about the Bangladeshi influx. But the most interesting turnaround for the BJP has been in West Bengal, where the sheer virulence of the Trinamool Congress attack on the BJP this time suggests that Modi is a factor in Bengal. Epithets like “butcher of Gujarat” and “donkey” and “fool” have been hurled as easily as statements that Modi would be sent to jail. A few days ago, Mamata Banerjee got even more fanciful, when she accused the Congress of being “head over heels in love with Narendra Modi," adding, for good measure: “Had I been in Delhi in place of Congress, I would have sent Narendra Modi to jail by tying a rope around his waist," says a Times of India report. To which, of course, Modi, happy to be the butt of attacks even in Bengal, where his party was not even worth mentioning till a few months ago, was happy to say he would spend his time in Mamata’s jail learning Bengali. Bengal is a clear opportunity area for the BJP as both the Trinamool and the Left are effectively vying for the same left-minority/secular space. Neither party takes the concerns of illegal immigration from Bangladesh and aspirational politics as vital ingredients for popularity. This leaves the field open for the BJP as a truly differentiated party. The BJP in Bengal is clearly to the right of every other party in the state – the only major handicap being its lack of organisation in the state. The problem for Modi is that the galvanising effect of his prime ministerial candidature may give him vote share, but few seats – if at all. What he may end up doing is damage Mamata’s prospects in some seats – which is why she is getting apoplectic. Modi has spoilt her party. But the BJP already seems to be attracting a lot of voter interest for the long term. A Hindustan Times report from Bengal has this to say today (10 May): “The (BJP) organisation is spreading like duckweed. Primary membership has increased from 90,000 in 2010 to more than four lakh now. There has been a 74,000 jump in youth membership in May. Highest jumps have been in Kolkata, Nadia, Burdwan, Birbhum, Hooghly, South 24 Paraganas, Medinipur and Barasat. Even in tribal-dominated Jangalmahal comprising three districts (Bankura, West Medinipur and Purulia), 19 new party offices have come up and membership has increased three-fold this year.” That’s saying something. And here’s my prediction. In states tired of the old choice between Tweedledum and Tweedledee (Tamil Nadu, West Bengal, Kerala) and those with almost no choice (Assam, Odisha), the BJP is looking attractive precisely because it looks and feels like it has a different message for the voter. If the BJP can score 10 percent or more in most of the eastern and southern states, it will be well on its way to becoming a truly national party post-16 May. All it would need are good local faces to project, and building a strong party organisation for the future. It will need more Amit Shahs, the man who seems to have single-handedly revived a moribund party in Uttar Pradesh. Didi will have more heartburn on store after 16 May.