A face saving argument advanced by the BJP has been that the party has risen from 3 seats to 77 seats. The vote share surged from a paltry 11% to as much as 38%. Of course, it is no mean achievement. In the whole sphere of Indian politics, only BJP could have achieved such a feat.
And yet, I have to say it does not mean very much. This is not just because of the harsh reasoning that “a miss is as good as a mile.” Actually, I do not subscribe to such reasoning — I find it needlessly negative and totally unhelpful. My reasoning is different. The BJP may have reached 38%. But the problem is that they are faced with a 48% vote share wall of the TMC.
In some other state, perhaps this would not have weighed so heavily. This was BJP’s first real election in Bengal. One could say that if they can come to 38%, they can get another 5% next time and win. But what if it does not? What if the BJP is facing a 48% block of ideological anti-BJP votes? This gap could last almost indefinitely.
The clue is already in the difference between Assembly and Lok Sabha vote shares. In Assembly elections since 2019, the BJP has seen huge vote share dips in several states. The party has become used to this since 2014. In places like Haryana and Jharkhand, the difference between Lok Sabha and Assembly was almost 20%! In Bihar, I believe it was around 10%.
What about Bengal? The difference is a tiny 2.5%. From 40.5% in the Lok Sabha, they came down to 38% in the Assembly.
This may feel like good news for BJP, but it probably is not. It tells us that Bengal is voting differently from the rest of the country. It tells us that there are very few swing voters in Bengal. Everyone is voting based on strict ideology, whether in Panchayat, Vidhan Sabha or Lok Sabha.
A swing of -10% today indicates there might be a swing of +10% tomorrow. In some ways, if the BJP vote share had fallen to 30% in the Assembly, it would have been better in the long run. It would mean Bengali voters are changing their minds quickly. If TMC managed to persuade them today, BJP might manage to persuade them tomorrow.
But what do you do when there are no swing voters, only ideological ones? Have you ever managed to convince someone against their ideology? If you have spent any time on Facebook and Twitter, you would be aware that the answer is definitely no. In fact, arguing with people is practically useless as a means of getting them to switch ideologies.
Getting people to change ideology is very slow. For this you must win their confidence over a long period of time. You can influence them when they are feeling disarmed, friendly and open to suggestion. In other words, you need access to people. How does the opposition do this when the ruling party creates an extreme climate of fear as the TMC does in Bengal?
This is how the CPIM managed to rule for so long. They created a “party society” where every little act in daily life required the clearance of the party. There was nothing private; everything was public.
One of the most remarkable things in Bengal is that panchayat elections take place on party symbols, unlike most states. This was one of CPIM’s key administrative decisions. Do you see why?
In panchayat elections, people in a village are voting for their friends and neighbors. They don’t really care so much who said what sitting in Delhi or the state capital. You care about who helped you out the day the hand pump broke down. But the Communist party sees this as a threat. When you think of people as friends, neighbors or even relatives, it is a threat to the party system. Why? Because it is a form of loyalty that the party cannot control.
The objective of the party system was for every person to have just one identity: a political one. A local panchayat election, held on party symbols, turns every person into a political worker. The Communists wanted every person to view their neighbor as the supporter of a party and literally nothing else. No friendships, only politics.
Now the TMC is in charge of that system. Every person, at least in rural Bengal, knows whether their neighbor is a “friend” or “enemy” based on who they vote for. The moment a BJP supporter opens their mouth, their TMC supporting neighbor sees it as “enemy” propaganda. Their shields are up. And as I said, trying to persuade people directly to abandon their ideology is practically useless.
When the BJP won 40.5% votes in 2019 in Bengal, the likely hope was that more people would switch over in 2021. There would be a bandwagon effect, now that people knew BJP could actually win in Bengal. The opposite happened. BJP voters stuck with the party. Everyone else rallied around the TMC.
The BJP in Bengal is stuck in a supremely difficult situation. I don’t know how they will get out of this. Basically, they need to wait for Mamata Banerjee to make some mistakes.