Why BJP cannot crow too loudly about 38% vote share in Bengal

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.

Caste and the communists: While Pinarayi is biggest mass leader, a Brahmin continues to lead the CPI(M)

Let us face it. Indian liberals love Pinarayi Vijayan. He has just won a historic second term as Chief Minister of Kerala, breaking the decades long incumbency cycle in the state. By his side, he has his trusted lieutenant K K Shailaja, the so called rockstar health minister of Kerala. Together, they bask in the glory of the now famous Kerala model of coronavirus management. From fawning interviews with BBC to glowing coverage from the New York Times and Al Jazeera and gushing praise from the MIT Tech Review, there seems to be nothing that the duo cannot have.

Except for one thing. It is control over their own party. The leadership of the CPI(M) rests with Sitaram Yechury, the General Secretary of the party.

Indeed, the structure of the Communist Party remains one of the great oddities of Indian politics. Kerala is now the only state where the Communists still have a mass base. Pinarayi Vijayan and his associates are the only mass leaders left in the party. However, the reins of the party remain firmly with those who are neither mass leaders, nor vote getters. Even though inherently undemocratic, the system within the CPI(M) continues to be stable, even unchallenged.

One cannot but notice something here. Sitaram Yechury is a Brahmin, while Pinarayi Vijayan and K K Shailaja are not.

The BJP often has to contend with the charge of being a party of upper castes. This charge is continually magnified by sections of media, academia and scholars writing about Indian politics. And yet, the BJP was perfectly happy to replace its old Brahmin leadership with Narendra Modi. Indeed, by 2013, the clamor for Modi was so organic and so widespread among BJP workers and supporters that the party simply could not ignore it.

The rise of Narendra Modi in 2014 meant a number of other things. For the first time, a regional leader rose to acquire a national profile and not by coincidence, but very deliberately. He also empowered with him a group of persons who were uncomfortable with the ways of the Delhi elite, but who represented nevertheless a new India that was assertive, unapologetic and full of aspiration.

At the opposite pole of political ideology, the CPI(M) has tried no such thing. It has made no space for lower castes, mass leaders, regional leaders, youth leaders or anyone who might represent something different from the old. Even when the CPI(M) was dominant in Bengal continuously for over three decades, the party in Delhi did little to accommodate leaders from Bengal. In its entire history, the CPI(M)’s all powerful Politburo has never had a member from the Dalit community. This unravels the staggering hypocrisy of an organization that claims to speak for the most marginalized in society.

In public at least, the CPI(M) rejects all kinds of caste identities. This would be fine, except they also appear to reject the realities that are tied to caste in India. Any practitioner of social science would tell you that upper caste leaders claiming to dump their privilege is a show of privilege in itself. By making a simple declaration, one cannot walk away from upper caste privilege any more than a member of a marginalized community can walk away from their lack of privilege.

The problematic relationship of Communists with caste goes deeper, down to the level of party doctrines and ideology. In fact, E M S Namboodiripad, the first Communist to become Chief Minister of Kerala, had argued that the caste system was a “superior economic organization.” In EMS’ worldview, the caste system provided an efficient way of organizing society by giving each member an occupation they were born into. While Indian Communists today probably would not say such a thing in public, the fact that no Dalit has ever been admitted to the politburo since 1947 speaks much louder.

There is a final mystery here. How did we as a nation allow the Communists to corner so much of the academic discourse around social justice? Through a pretend embrace of Ambedkar and by taking the lead in writing revolutionary anti-caste slogans, the Communists have managed to push real questions about their conduct under the carpet. Putting upper caste leaders in charge regardless of merit, putting unelectable leaders over mass leaders is not superior political organization, but undemocratic. All political parties in India have a responsibility to adhere to basic principles of our democracy, which are the same as basic principles of fairness. And when parties step over these principles, all citizens, including those who disagree with them politically, have a responsibility to call them out on it.

Tikri gangrape incident shows the dark side of “activism”

The details of the case are tragic. In early April, a group of activists arrives in Bengal to campaign against the three new farm laws. There, they come in contact with a young woman, and they convince her to come back with them to join the protests in Delhi. On the train, they allegedly make their first attempt at sexual assault. Unfortunately, the victim does not approach the police right away. On arriving in Delhi, they force her to share a tent with the accused. Nearly two weeks later, she comes down with the coronavirus and has to be shifted to hospital. Her father reaches the hospital, where she tells him about the incident on the train and the sexual assault in the tent. The Haryana police has now booked six of these activists on charges of gangrape.

The first incident of alleged sexual assault happened on April 11. It is not until yesterday that the matter came to light. Why did the so called farmer leaders make no attempt to alert the police for a whole month? Even after the victim herself passed away from coronavirus on April 30. And why did the victim not feel empowered to go to the police herself?

The Tikri gangrape incident forces us to talk about the dark underbelly of NGOs and activist groups. We have to talk about the potential for abuse of power, especially the danger of sexual abuse. These are loosely built organizations, with no fixed structure, no accountability and no liability. Membership is often as informal as word of mouth. Their setup is quite similar to that of a religious cult, with members expected to put some kind of ’cause’ above everything else. It is easy to see how this framework creates potential for sexual exploitation.

On their part, the farmer union leaders addressed a press conference yesterday. They take no responsibility for anything. They say that the accused belong to some unit that calls itself “Kisan Social Army,” which is not an official part of their organization. Yes, after 6 months of presenting themselves as representatives of 60 crore Indians who depend on agriculture, the great leaders take no responsibility for anything that happens in their domain on Tikri or Singhu border. With the air of a khap panchayat, they say that the accused have been exiled from the protest sites. Thank you, but this is not the year 1750. We have a modern criminal justice system in place. Perhaps you should have reached out to them.

To be clear, I am not saying that these farmer union leaders did anything illegal. However, I want to discuss two things. First, how did we make it so easy for activist groups to function with no accountability? Second, are we doing enough to make the public aware of the dangers this creates?

Imagine that the Tikri incident had happened within the confines of a corporate office in Gurugram or Delhi. Would the company’s directors be able to absolve themselves with such ease? Of course not. Because they have rules. They have a formal structure that shows who reports to whom. There are fixed legal procedures on how to deal with complaints. And remember, there are also legal protections for those who bring these complaints. Break these rules and there will be hell to pay.

But activist groups have no such constraints. Nobody is ever legally responsible for anything because nowhere is it written as to who is in charge of what. They can disown anyone at any time. The organizations themselves are whipped up from thin air at any time. They are here today, gone tomorrow. The same individual can be part of hundreds of activist groups/NGOs that can vanish at a moment’s notice.

This did not just happen with the farmer protests around Delhi. Similar abuses have been reported from so called human rights groups, so called environmental groups and the like.

Despite this, public awareness about their dangers is low. Worse, the media created image of activist groups is one of moral authority. These people are supposed to be better than the rest of us. While the rest of us live only for ourselves, these people have chosen to live for all of humanity.

This is a problem because when something is too good to be true, it generally is. There was one Mahatma Gandhi and he really lived for all of humanity. The point is that there can be only one Mahatma Gandhi in a century or more. Now open your television and look at the face of every NGO activist giving a sermon. So many Mahatmas? No way. Like there was only one Einstein, there can be only one Mahatma.

In today’s world, activism is a full time job in itself. The only thing it is missing is proper regulation, with benefits and protections for everyone involved. The activist groups do not like to be regulated because nobody does. This is why celebrity activists invest so much in their image, trying to make sure the public does not call for them to be regulated. But we cannot go on like this. As the incident at Tikri border has shown, the price is too high.

BJP chose Assam CM well, now for a leader of opposition in Bengal

There were two crucial appointments that the BJP needed to get right after the election results on May 2. The first was figuring out where to place Himanta Biswa Sarma. He is a superstar and he deserves a reward. If the BJP had not given him what he wanted, who knows? He could have taken his talents elsewhere and turned the BJP into another Congress in the North-East.

I am one of those people who thinks HBS is fit for a full fledged national profile. But Assam CM is the least he could have asked for. I am glad they gave it to him. With this decision, BJP has solidified the entire North East behind the party. Remember that every seat will matter in 2024.

The challenge before BJP is to do just as well in Bengal, in choosing the leader of the opposition correctly. This is harder in many ways, because now the party has to pick a man of the match from a losing team. They have to determine the one who lost least of all and make him captain for the upcoming game.

It is clear who that man is. It is not everyday that someone can defeat a sitting CM in a wave election. The achievement is extraordinary no matter how you look at it.

But there are even bigger problems here. Adhikari has spent barely 6-8 months in BJP as yet. Would it be wise to hand over the party to a near outsider in a crucial state like West Bengal? How would it make the others in the party feel, old hands who might have spent decades fighting for the party when it had no chance in the state? Will it not deepen infighting in the state unit?

There is another angle to consider here. And that is Adhikari himself. Forget how others in the state unit would react. First of all, can the party itself trust him? What if Adhikari wants to return home to TMC? Can Modi and Shah really be sure?

On this count at least, the BJP may be a tad lucky, owing to Mamata’s dictatorial mentality. She called them “traitors.” With all this power, she might not want to forget and forgive. Besides, she is in the process of handing over the party to her nephew Abhishek. In this election, the TMC’s old guard all but defected to BJP, leaving Mamata and her nephew with a clean slate. Bringing back the old guard would probably interfere with the process of turning the TMC into a family run corporation. That too someone who defeated her personally.

So one has to work under the assumption that Adhikari is going to stay, if only because Mamata is unwilling to forgive him. In that case, he has only one option left. To work hard, defeat the TMC eventually and become Chief Minister. If nothing else, it is a confluence of interest. It’s politics. Compulsion is just as good as commitment.

What we know is that Suvendu Adhikari is a superbly capable individual. He has shown the grit that it takes to defeat Mamata Banerjee. Bengal is a big state and all he had was 6 months.

The other thing BJP has learned about Bengal is that votes on both sides are fairly ideological. Almost all TMC turncoats lost. The BJP held on fairly well to its Lok Sabha voteshare. So even if some of the new flock who have come from TMC desert the party and go back to their old home, it won’t matter as long as the party has one big face left to take on Mamata Banerjee.

Even though he may not be a minister now, Suvendu Adhikari is now more famous in Bengal than he has ever been. He may not have a cabinet berth, but surely he senses a lot of potential in his career ahead.

As Abhishek Manu Singhvi pointed out, there are now 3 BJP CMs in the north-east who have been part of Congress at some point. While that may not be good news for purists, it means that the strategy of importing has delivered for the BJP in the eastern part of the country. If Himanta, why not Suvendu? In any case, wasn’t Mamata Banerjee part of the original Vajpayee Cabinet?

Two things that separate BJP from Congress : one good and one bad

Everyone at some point in their lives has heard the silly middle class refrain: all parties are alike. Fact is, they are not. There are undeniable differences between political parties. Let me give you two simple examples from the last two days to show you how.

First, let us think about Himanta Biswa Sarma set to become the Chief Minister of Assam. The choice would have been especially difficult since, by all accounts, Sarbananda Sonowal had a very successful tenure. Without that, there was virtually no chance of BJP repeating its landslide of 2016, even though it was fighting with fewer allies against a united opposition. But the top leadership made the right call, duly rewarding Himanta for his wizard like abilities, both at administration and at winning elections. Assam has been one of the most successful in the fight against Covid. We all know who is the health minister of Assam. We now know who can win an election with 2/3 majority fighting against a united opposition which got 47% vote share in the last election!

They just had to give it to Himanta Biswa Sarma. He could ask for virtually anything and it would be his.

To think that Congress let go of this man! And for what? Because Rahul Gandhi literally cared more about feeding dog treats to Pidi than listening to the concerns of a senior leader from Assam. Himanta never forgot that insult. And look how he has given it back to the Congress today. As a dynast himself, Rahul probably thought it was only natural that Gaurav Gogoi would eventually take over from his father. This has all but destroyed the Congress in Assam.

The BJP chose merit. And it is not just political opportunism, flowing from the top levels. It is the culture of the party as as whole and its base. Among BJP supporters, Himanta has become a rockstar. His profile has grown exponentially in last five years. Not just the leaders, the BJP voters are happy to take anyone who can perform. They don’t care about his name or that of his father, or what caste he belongs to, or which state he comes from. They are ready to go along with anyone who shows ability. Once upon a time, BJP supporters dumped the venerable Advani for Narendra Modi. On this, the party supporters were ahead of the party itself. It’s not about respect or old loyalties. It is about who seems the best for the job, always.

I will show you the exact opposite of this attitude, coming from the Congress camp. Dynasties are the most obvious example of Congress favoritism, but there is more than that. It is also about old loyalties and playing safe. Think back to 2018 when the Congress won two big central states: Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh. Who did they choose as CM? In Madhya Pradesh, they chose Kamal Nath, ignoring the obvious energy of Jyotiraditya Scindia. In Rajasthan, they picked Ashok Gehlot, ignoring the energy of Sachin Pilot.

The Congress could have tried to experiment with two relatively young CMs. But no, they picked the oldest and senior most folks. They played it safe. And so dissension began almost immediately. In the Lok Sabha election, the Congress was wiped out in both states. In Madhya Pradesh, Shivraj Singh got his position back. In Rajasthan, the exhausted Gehlot just goes from one crisis to the next.

For the longest time, there have been rumors about jealousy between Shivraj Singh Chouhan and Narendra Modi. But Modi has kept Chouhan in saddle, not afraid of a strong regional leader. The BJP has chosen to empower Yogi in Uttar Pradesh and Fadnavis in Maharashtra. Even J P Nadda is getting more space for himself as party president, gradually coming out of Amit Shah’s shadow. And now they have empowered Himanta Biswa Sarma as a powerful regional face with a national profile. This is how parties stay strong.

For today, I will just leave this screenshot here

So much for the good about the BJP. As the headline says, I want to point out two differences between the Congress and the BJP, one bad and one good.

So, here it is, just from a day before. Just look at how the Shiv Sena talks about the Congress.
Nothing illustrates the difference between Congress and BJP than their relationship with the Shiv Sena. The Sena was a long time ally of the BJP. And for decades, the Sena talked down to the BJP, insulted their leaders and issued withering criticisms. Even when the Sena was literally running the Maharashtra government with Fadnavis, the Sena mouthpiece Saamna was often more critical than the Congress or the NCP. During UPA rule, the Shiv Sena even voted for the Congress candidate in both presidential elections.

Over the years, the BJP came to take this kind of behavior for granted. And so did the wider public. We stopped noticing, stopped even reacting. Yes, the Shiv Sena is a bit of maverick and has a big ego. What can you do about it?

Apparently, you can. And the Congress is showing how. Since joining the UPA camp, the Sena hasn’t dared to say a word against the Congress. And remember that Congress is now party no. 4 in Maharashtra. Even in this condition, Sonia Gandhi is showing the BJP what power looks like. The BJP is decades behind in picking up on this kind of attitude.

Whether BJP supporters like it or not, 10 Janpath still has a regal aura in Indian politics. Whether Congress has 50 seats or 200 seats, their writ runs supreme. With just 45 or so seats in Maharashtra, Congress is able to extract such shows of loyalty from the Sena. Meanwhile, the BJP is treated with utter disrespect, almost contempt by both friends and foes alike.

Go to Jharkhand. The BJP has partnered with JMM multiple times for power. See how the JMM leaders treated the BJP and the deference they show to 10 Janpath. Go to Bihar. The BJP has twice as many seats as Nitish Kumar. But Nitish Kumar is totally in charge and BJP plays second fiddle. If I remember correctly, Nitish Kumar did not even attend Modi’s oath taking ceremony in 2019. Now go back to 2015 and remind yourself of how both Nitish and Lalu treated Madam Sonia Gandhi. They don’t dare to stand up to her.

The BJP is seen as a party of commoners and the Congress as a party of those with a natural right to rule. You can’t take that away from the grand old Congress.

Why it is important for so called farmer protests to stop immediately

Even as the second wave of coronavirus throws all life across India out of gear, one group of persons appears to be immune. Both to good sense and to accountability. The borders of Delhi are still occupied, the so called farmer protests are still in full swing. In fact, they are growing in intensity. Yet another contingent of thousands of farmers from Punjab reached Delhi only the other day. The rural countryside of Punjab continues to be in their grip. Beginning May 8, the unions plan to launch another wave of agitation, this time against the lockdown itself.

At a time when the national capital is gasping for breath, can we really afford this? The protesting unions send their members in groups of thousands to gather on the outskirts of Delhi. They spend a few days at the protest sites. Then, they go back to their villages even as new ones arrive to take their place. The virus could not have a better ally.

Along with the recklessness, there is both arrogance and denial. Their leaders insist that they will not back down. They say they won’t let the government use the pandemic as an excuse to shut down protests. This tone is hardly reassuring. With over three thousand people dying each day, playing down the pandemic as some kind of made up excuse will lead to deadly consequences. Already, Punjab has a case fatality ratio of 2.4%, by far the highest in the country. No other state has crossed even 1.5%. This makes Punjab a clear outlier among all states, whether ruled by BJP/NDA or any other. The disease has hit Punjab with an intensity not seen anywhere else in India. What could be the reason behind this?

Until a few days ago, there were bizarre claims that not even a single case of coronavirus had been found among protesting farmers. These claims were made by NGOs which had showed up to provide support at protest sites and in the name of supposed doctors that they had brought with them. They also pushed theories that the protesters had better immunity and couldn’t possibly get infected. This is a recipe for disaster.

But protest for what? The government has already offered to suspend the implementation of the three new farm laws for eighteen months. The laws will not be implemented as long as the matter is with the Supreme Court. In other words, the new laws will have no impact on the lives of the protesting farmers for at least another year, possibly more. How is this not enough to grant even a temporary reprieve to the Indian government even as the nation struggles with a world war level crisis? If the second wave peaks in May, the nation could start reopening by June. If it does not, lakhs of lives and millions of livelihoods are on the line here. Why are they trying to make this worse? What does it say about the intent of those protesting?

There is a strange rationalization going around on this. It puts the onus on the government to repeal the laws, so that the protesters could go home. But that would quite literally be like paying a ransom. The laws have been passed by Parliament. How could they be taken back just because someone threatens to hold super-spreader events around the capital and put lakhs of lives at risk?

Then there is the question of accountability. In the last few weeks, every kind of mass gathering has come under intense criticism. They could be anything from weddings to funerals, any kind of religious gathering, political rallies or even regular people out shopping in crowded markets. In all of this, the protest by farmer unions has enjoyed a peculiar kind of immunity. Their members continue to hold crowded marches and rallies, most often without a single person wearing a mask. And this goes by without any comment, especially from classes of commentators who seem most anxious about India’s coronavirus response. It is not like these people ignore farmer unions as a general rule. In fact, from November to March, this was all they appeared to care about. If this is all about politics and it likely is, we the people are certainly not winning in this.

In fact, let us talk about what happened in this country between November of last year and March this year. We had all but forgotten about the pandemic. In newspapers, on television and on social media, the focus remained firmly on the protest by farmer unions. Wildly exaggerated numbers were thrown around, with their supporters calling it the largest protests in the world. The gatherings at the borders of Delhi were made into places of pilgrimage. The public discourse was flooded with protest songs, poetry and caricatures in support of the so called movement. This was followed by a series of massive mahapanchayats across northern India. The farmer union leaders basked in the glory.

So who really gave the message to the general public that the pandemic is over?

We have 130 crore people. Without everyone behaving sensibly, we stood no chance. But, for the average person, the subtext of the ‘kisan mahapanchayats’ was clear. Go out and play, for there is nothing to worry about any more. Most of us were naturally anxious to get back to our normal lives. We bought into this message. Then, the virus came back.

Two months ago, the New York Times carried a full page advertisement, an ode to a “million” people protesting in India. The real numbers were nowhere close to that, but it was more about the message. Recently, the New York Times carried a front page photo of funeral pyres burning in Delhi. In other words, the global media made money out of this both ways. We suffered.

The so called farmers protest is obviously a super-spreader on the ground. But its real super-spreader effect was in what it did to our minds for four straight months. It is time they stopped. I think they have done enough.

BJP needs to frame the narrative in Bengal without playing into Mamata’s hands

To say that the BJP is in a tough spot in Bengal right now would be an understatement. On the one hand, there is the large scale violence on BJP workers unleashed by the TMC. Of course, liberal bias in media will ensure that state sponsored violence in Bengal never gets the kind of saturation coverage reserved for every crime in say BJP ruled Uttar Pradesh. But can the world’s largest party really afford to look like they cannot even protect their own workers? What message does this send to BJP workers and supporters everywhere?

Add to this the fact that much of the public, including large numbers of BJP supporters, are unhappy with the handling of the second wave of Coronavirus. Could it get any worse for the BJP?

Unfortunately, it does. Like any scenario in game theory, the opponent is aware of the BJP’s dilemma and will play their hand accordingly, to take full advantage of it.

Fundamentally, the BJP has two kinds of options. The first kind consists of being proactive. At a most basic level, it could be party leaders speaking out all across the country against atrocities in Bengal. At its most extreme, there are “power moves” such as imposing President’s rule. The second kind are passive options, playing the role of a typical opposition party. In real terms, this means letting grim fate play out for the hapless BJP workers across the state.

But Mamata Banerjee knows what to do should the BJP try to get proactive. She doesn’t really care all that much what the rest of India thinks of her. She just needs to keep Bengalis convinced that there is a conspiracy by “outsiders” to malign the legitimately elected Chief Minister and by extension, the culture of Bengal. After 70 years, Bengal does not have much to show except for obsessive self-admiration. They will guard that fiercely.

Right now, with BJP leaders across India holding dharnas, BJP supporters fuming on social media, it all plays out exactly the way Mamata Banerjee would have wanted. The outsiders are attacking Bengal. See?

I am not saying that the path of outrage is wrong. I am just saying that it will serve no purpose. We have to contend with regional sentiments. We cannot wish them away.

After losing miserably in the 2012 Assembly elections, the Congress began a nationwide campaign to shame the Gujarat model. It made the party deeply unpopular in Gujarat. In the next two Lok Sabha elections, all 26 seats in the state went to the BJP. Now, BJP supporters might be enraged by the comparison. But perception is everything. Right and wrong comes much later.

If such an approach did not work for Congress, it would work even less for BJP. The Congress has long made peace with its shrinking footprint. Even in the UPA years, it made no serious attempt to expand its presence across India. So Congress strategists in 2012 probably did not even mind the prospects of losing all 26 seats in Gujarat. For the Congress, it is about one family staying in power by cobbling together just over a hundred seats from across the country. In Kerala this time, they did not even try. They handed the state on a platter to the CPIM. But is that how the BJP approaches elections?

Not at all. The BJP has just acquired huge stakes in Bengal. Once the euphoria fades, even the bhadralok will have to contend with a 75 plus contingent of opposition BJP MLAs in Bengal. The BJP leads in North Bengal and controls entire swathes of territory stretching from the border with Jharkhand to deep inside Bengal. The BJP even had a healthy show in Muslim dominated Malda and Murshidabad regions of Central Bengal. The nucleus of the TMC’s win is the Greater Kolkata region, where they won 99 seats to the BJP’s 9. The BJP faces stiff resistance here. But surely they hope to make headway here, not beat a retreat. They could ill afford to ruffle the delicate ego of Bengalis.

Moreover, the BJP has nothing to gain by attacking Mamata Banerjee’s image in the rest of the country. Because her image is terrible anyway. In fact, if Mamata Banerjee wants to lead the opposition as a PM candidate in 2024, it would be a huge positive for PM Modi. It would make the Congress jealous of its regional allies and the regional parties jealous of each other.

So all the “proactive” options for BJP seem kind of pointless and self-defeating. But, in a classic game theory style riddle, Mamata Banerjee understands this too. If the BJP stays passive, she can just crank up the violence till the BJP is no longer able to tolerate it. If the BJP still does nothing, she gets to destroy the morale of BJP workers and supporters everywhere. And in Bengal, she can get BJP workers to leave the party in droves if only to save their lives.

In other words, there are a number of ways in which Mamata Banerjee can win. The BJP has very few. This imbalance comes from the fact that success means two different things to the two groups. For the TMC, holding on at the state level, even incurring small, manageable losses, is a victory. Anything beyond that is just gravy. The BJP, on the other hand, needs to expand massively in both Lok Sabha and Assembly elections. Everything else is defeat.

There seems to be just one way for BJP and it isn’t easy. It has to criticize the TMC government aggressively, but through Bengali voices and Bengali accents alone. It may feel like the Bengal BJP is not sufficiently powerful yet for the criticism to make an impact. That is exactly what makes it so hard. But it is the only way. In Bengal, the TMC sets the rules. The BJP will have to play by them and defeat the CM in her own den.

Amid all the doom and gloom, you cannot take one thing away from BJP. They have just been through trial by fire. Their leadership, much of it acquired from other parties, is new to the ways of the party. But they can settle down. Already the people of Bengal have left a door open by defeating the sitting CM in Nandigram. This is not something that happens everyday. It is for the BJP to buckle down in Bengal and refuse to give up. That is what Mamata Banerjee did decades ago.

This was the BJP’s first real election in Bengal. The shock and awe tactics did not work. The hard drilling begins now.

Bengal post poll violence: Stages in which journalists, politicians, fact checkers and historians will cover this up

Elections are over in Bengal and the promised “khela” has begun. Like a marauding medieval army, the victorious “liberals” have taken to rape, murder and arson to establish their rule over the defeated enemy. They take no prisoners. They show no mercy. It’s the Bengal model, supposedly the finest in the world. In 70 years, this model failed to give jobs, industry or a future. But it gave them a sense of belonging to a team that can beat up a numerically weaker team. Khela hobe…

But this is 2021 and almost everyone has a smartphone. The CPI(M) got away with 28,000 political murders, or about 4 murders a day, during the first 20 years of its rule. That is the official state government number, while the real number remains open to speculation. The ruling liberals of today are not so lucky. They can’t get away with doing likewise in plain sight. They will need a plan to cover this up and dress it up nicely for public consumption. This will require some doing, with journalists, politicians, fact checkers and historians all pitching in. Let me show you how.

The first step is creating an enabling environment. This is why they use the ‘fascist’ label for every BJP supporter, every BJP worker and every BJP leader. To dehumanize them all. Once you get people used to talking in a certain way about the BJP, it becomes easy for them to accept violence against any BJP supporter or BJP worker. Seeing the BJP as actual human beings can complicate matters.

In the last several years, they have laid the groundwork for this very carefully. They have been constantly talking to their supporters on social media and their sponsors in global media. Should someone in their circles raise the issue of violence, at most they will debate on whether it is okay to use violence to quell a “fascist.” It is easier on their conscience that way. By dehumanizing every BJP supporter as a fascist, they have manufactured consent for a purge.

But what happens when the purge actually begins? The journalists form the first line of defense. They ignore the events completely. They refuse to acknowledge it on social media; they refuse to file reports about it in mainstream media. This is very important. They are ensuring that references to the violence do not remain, at least not in writing. A couple of years down the line, neither historians nor the general public will be able to find evidence that such a thing ever happened. At least not in any “reputable” source. And since the liberal elite gets to decide which sources are reputable and which are not, they have got it all pretty much covered.

But in any collective action, there is always somebody who doesn’t get the memo. Someone who puts out a tweet, or a few lines in a report somewhere. When it comes to large scale violence, you can’t scrub the record totally clean. That is why you need the false narrative. The top leadership of the liberal party spelled it out the other day. Yes indeed, there has been a teeny tiny bit of violence, but that is just BJP workers killing each other for some reason.

It is a multi-layered process, like extracting the metal from the ore. At each stage, more and more impurities are removed. Like say half of people will not ask questions about the violence in Bengal because they don’t want to care what happens to “fascists.” But what about the remaining half? Some of those who remain won’t investigate further because the violence does not get covered in mainstream media. What about those still remaining? You turn away some of those by telling them the violence was just infighting in the BJP and so on.

What is the next layer? That is for the “fact-checkers.” Some videos and pics are going to slip through no matter what. There are many things they can do here. The most obvious one is to ask for sources. Remember liberals decide which sources are reputable, so that successfully discredits most of the evidence floating around.

Then, the fact-checkers can always accuse people of using fake or morphed pics. If 100 videos are floating around, there is a chance that at least one of them is misleading. You pick on that one and publish an article with a screaming headline of “No, this did not happen.” That way people will think all 100 videos have been discredited. In any case, if you cannot find a misleading pic or video, you can open an anonymous social media account and post a fake claim yourself. You can then debunk that and blame the other side. The false flag operation takes about five minutes to set up.

Since fact checkers are the new social media royalty, in bed with Big Tech, they can also shut down any opposing voices who may have fallen for one fake pic or video out of a hundred.

All these layers are for handling public memory in the short or medium term. What about the long term? That’s why they have “historians.”

To be honest, the historians have it easy here. No reputable sources have survived anyway. And as for social media claims, today’s equivalent of oral histories, the claims have been “fact-checked” out of existence long ago. The historians can write any fantasy tales of TMC’s kindness that they want. They are only limited by their imagination.

But there are some final checks here, intended to make the whole thing water-tight. A completely one-sided narrative written by a journalist today or a historian tomorrow might seem suspicious to readers. Say someone reads an account of these elections in the year 2071. Would they really believe the “official” account by a liberal historian that the TMC distributed sweets and chocolates to all dissidents? No. You actually need to insert flaws to make the story seem plausible fifty years from now.

Did you see how Congress and CPM handles were complaining about their offices were being attacked too? Many BJP supporters seem to think this backs up their claims. You don’t believe us? At least believe the accusations from your beloved CPM.

The thing is, they will believe the CPM. They will write in history that there were sporadic incidents of violence after the results came out. They will say that the TMC was aggressor and the Cong and the CPM were victims. The name of BJP and RSS won’t appear anywhere. They won’t let BJP survive either in the dominant narrative nor in the subaltern narrative of history. And with that, their project is truly complete.

Bengal : Need for a middle path between complacency and despair

Perhaps you were deeply emotionally invested in the outcome of the elections in Bengal. And now that the results are out, do you feel like wiping your digital footprint and getting off social media? For what, exactly? Do you dread online trolling or perhaps calls and messages from people you know, laced with taunts and ridicule? If that is all, you can just laugh it off or at least learn to do so. For there is no better place to learn about failure than by observing politics. Ask Mamata Banerjee, who had won just 30 seats in the West Bengal elections of 2006. And second, spare a thought for the lakhs of BJP karyakartas in West Bengal, who are fearing for their lives right now, even as the sword of Indian “liberalism” descends on them.

When struck by a setback of this magnitude, it is natural to reach out for bits of consolation. Indeed, there are more than just a few. The BJP won handsomely in Assam. It broke into new territory in both Tamil Nadu and Puducherry. Despite the big hopes and the big efforts, the party did indeed start from just 3 seats in Bengal and go up to 77%. Meanwhile, the Congress was routed on all fronts. The party drew a blank in Bengal. It was humiliated in both Assam and Kerala. It lost Puducherry. In Tamil Nadu, they won a smattering of seats as part of the winning alliance.

But the problem with consolation seeking behavior is that those who think like CPM or Congress will become the next CPM or Congress. The CPM, which ruled Bengal for 34 years, is currently celebrating. Don’t ask me why. At each step of the way from 200+ seats to 0 seats, they found some excuse to console themselves. The Congress is thrilled that they had an official reason to withdraw from the campaign. They did not have to show their face on TV channels on counting day. Big win.

For the BJP, any kind of consolation seeking behavior is even more dangerous. The CPM and the Congress may not have won any seats, but they have enough seats in media, academia, NGOs, think tanks, bureaucracy, foreign governments and so on. For the left, electoral politics is only a small part of their machine. For the BJP, electoral politics is everything. This is not likely to change any time soon. If the left has any weakness, it is their tendency to make excuses. You might remember that about 3 months after the 2014 elections, there were bypolls in several states. The BJP did not do very well in them. Since that day, the left has been convinced that the Modi wave is over. Since then, they have found a new icon every six months to take on Modi, each more shiny than the last. It has not done them any good. If the BJP starts making excuses as well, they risk dropping their only weapon.

In Bengal and in the rest of the nation, the BJP now needs to walk a middle path between complacency and despair. Consciously fight the urge to make excuses, while still picking up the pieces. Constantly thinking, planning and engaging for whatever comes next.

So let us inspect one by one, the pieces that the BJP has in its hand. It appears that Mamata’s “outsider” jibe against the party did stick. Since success has many fathers and failure is an orphan, it may now seem like BJP made a mistake by bringing leaders from everywhere else to campaign in Bengal. This is very well, but one has to wonder what the alternative was. They had little local strength and too little time. They needed campaigners from other states to raise cadre morale. But now they have five full years. It is not every day that a sitting Chief Minister loses in a wave election. People have rejected BJP for the time being, but promised to give the party another look next time. The people have also resolved the BJP’s leadership crisis in Bengal, appointing a clear first among equals.

Just like the BJP had to import campaigners from other states, they had to import candidates from other parties. Again, the BJP has five years to absorb the leaders that it has inducted in haste. It has time to grow its membership and to identify talent at the grassroots.

The party also has time to reflect on Mamata Banerjee’s political trajectory. Until now, the charge of Muslim appeasement was one that worked well against her. Until now, she was competing with Congress for Muslim votes in several pockets of the state. But the Muslims have now fully consolidated behind her and have no other options. This means Mamata Banerjee does not need any more to engage in Muslim appeasement. The fear of BJP will keep them in TMC ranks. Instead, she can afford to give the party a Hindu face of sorts, a bit like Kejriwal in Delhi, subtly poaching on the BJP’s turf.

But the TMC has an exposed flank elsewhere. This is Mamata’s nephew, who is now clearly the anointed successor. In a striking move, TMC leaders yesterday made sure to obeisance not just to Didi, but to “AB.” With many second rung TMC leaders moving to BJP, the dominance of “AB” is going to be a big feature of the next five years of TMC.

This has many advantages for BJP. While Mamata Banerjee is a highly capable politician, the abilities of “AB” are unknown. Quite simply, he does not know the kind of adversity and political struggle that makes Modi or Mamata so tough. He is likely to have a lot of power, though. Chances are, he won’t use it well. And voters will never connect him to Bengali pride nor to feminist pride, just entitlement.

And finally, there is nothing that TMC can do to address this weakness. They are just another family run regional party now. The sycophancy towards “AB” is likely to grow. In fact, this is going to be their main ideology. It is likely to create resentment. The BJP has a lot to work with here.

At the national level, the anger against the Center over the second wave of the Coronavirus has been visible for all to see. Luckily for the BJP, this anger still appears raw. It has not shaped itself into a full-fledged anti-incumbency wave. Yes, these results in Bengal probably don’t have much to do with Covid. But, why take chances? A sense of paranoia could be a great help.

This means the next two weeks are crucial. If the second wave comes under control, this sudden anger is likely to dissipate quickly. In its place, there will likely be a feeling of euphoria that comes with having survived a great danger. We have seen the public react like this all over the world. Once the wave subsides and people are getting vaccinated in droves, the panic turns into celebration.

Overall, the BJP needs to bring to governance the same philosophy that it brings into elections. As it stands, the BJP has gained ground in all five states that went to polls. But the party and its supporters appear devastated. Because they fell short of expectations. In evaluating themselves, they don’t even compare themselves to parties like the Congress or CPM. They see the BJP in a league of their own. So why not bring this hyper-ambition to all aspects of governance? As in Bengal, there are likely to be lots and lots of failures. But at least the goals were set extremely high.

It is easy to freak out and give in to the negativity. Likewise, it is also easy to find consolation everywhere and hope that things will turn favorable soon. The hard part is to take nothing for granted, acknowledge both strengths and weaknesses, fear as well as hope and keep going. Now my words are too poor to capture the essence of the Bhagavad Gita, but I believe I am on the right track here.