Unperturbed by the efforts of regional parties to put together a Third Front to stall the Bharatiya Janata Party’s march across the country, top party leaders are confident that they will make major gains in West Bengal, Odisha and Telangana, as they did in Tripura.
Senior BJP leaders said that their internal surveys had shown that the saffron party was making massive strides in these three states, where it had virtually no presence in the past. “We will win at least 22 Lok Sabha seats in West Bengal,” said a top BJP leader, who is involved in drawing up the party’s electoral strategy. “We will sweep Odisha as there is massive anti-incumbency against the Naveen Patnaik government. And we will also do well in Telangana.”
While Odisha and Telangana are scheduled to go to the polls in 2019, West Bengal is due for elections in 2021. The BJP had bagged only two seats in West Bengal and one each in Odisha and Telangana in the 2014 Lok Sabha election.
The BJP’s claims come at a time when West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee and Telangana Chief Minister K Chandrashekar Rao have announced plans to float a non-Congress, non-BJP Third Front of regional parties with the sole purpose of taking on the BJP. Responding to BJP president Amit Shah’s statement after the party’s victory in Tripura, that its golden era would be when it wrests West Bengal, Odisha and Karnataka, Banerjee declared that the BJP will never succeed in winning West Bengal. “We have set our target on Delhi, on Lal Quila,” she said recently at a public meeting.
Target: West Bengal, Odisha, Telangana
The BJP’s claims sound far-fetched but its confidence stems from its recent ideological victory over the Communist Party of India (Marxist) in Tripura, where it defeated the 25-year-old Left government by a two-thirds majority. In addition, the BJP has emerged as the main Opposition party in West Bengal and Odisha as is evident from the results of recent bye-polls, where the Communists and the Congress have been relegated to third position. BJP leaders also pointed out that the BJP had not only won in Gujarat and Himachal Pradesh last year, and now Tripura, but also improved its vote share substantially in these states.
The BJP is of the firm view that the Mamata Banerjee-led Trinamool Congress will pay a price for minority appeasement. A senior leader claimed that the people of West Bengal were unhappy with the way Banerjee was indulging Muslims and said that the BJP was working on the ground for the last four years to highlight how Hindus were being discriminated against in the state.
The BJP has also identified Telangana as a state where it has the potential to improve its presence. As in West Bengal, the BJP’s political narrative here is focused on playing up how successive ruling parties, including the incumbent Telangana Rashtriya Samithi, have indulged Muslims and ignored the interests of Hindus. It pointed to the Telangana government’s proposal for reservations for Muslims as an example of the state’s appeasement policy. The saffron party has also dredged up memories of the atrocities committed against Hindus under the Nizam rule, which ended in 1948. “Even after all these years, there is simmering anger against the Nizam,” remarked a senior BJP leader. The party plans to exploit this for political gain.
Having made a success of its Hindutva plank, Shah is said to have instructed BJP cadres to make sure there is no let-up with regard to the party’s communal agenda. He is also said to be of the view that BJP workers should not be defensive about their Right Wing ideological leanings or the activities of the party’s ideological mentor, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh. “Of course, I am Right Wing. What is wrong with being Right Wing?” Shah is learnt to have said in a private conversation. Similarly, he has said on several occasions that instead of being apologetic about the activities of the RSS, its work should be openly acknowledged and lauded. This is a far cry from the earlier days when the BJP did not openly acknowledge the RSS ideology and tended to play down the Sangh’s influence on the its political strategies.
Battle for Karnataka
The BJP’s immediate task, however, is to wrest Karnataka from the Congress. The state is due for elections in April-May. Having received a boost from its victory in Tripura, the BJP is going into the Assembly election with greater vigour. Karnataka chief minister Siddaramaiah, who is fighting five years of incumbency, is proving to be a feisty opponent, while the BJP’s local unit is riven by factionalism. But Shah is confident that the various factions will put up a united fight once he cracks the whip.
While the incumbent Congress is playing the caste card in poll-bound Karnataka, the BJP is banking heavily on communal polarisation to return to power in the southern state. Prime Minister Narendra Modi may be pushing development as the main election issue in his speeches, but Shah has, on several occasions, openly admitted that the party’s chief plank is Hindutva. There have been several incidents of communal tension in Karnataka over the past few months and the situation is only going to get worse in the weeks leading up to the Assembly election.