It had the momentum of an accelerating train. Election to election, the BJP was gaining in strength in West Bengal, getting 18 out of the 42 seats in 2019 Lok Sabha elections. A few exit polls " including the Republic-CNX, India Today-Axis and Jann Ki Baat " put it ahead of the TMC this time. But the speeding train has gone a bit ahead of itself, it now seems. The BJP is headed for a rout in Bengal.
What went wrong for it? When, and if, the party sits down to introspect honestly, that would be a very long list. A more nuanced analysis can be done when the entire results are announced and contours of the mandate are clear, but eight broad reasons immediately come to mind.
1. Wherever it faces a charismatic mass leader in the states " whether it is Naveen Patnaik, Captain Amarinder Singh, K Chandrasekhar Rao, Arvind Kejriwal or Mamata Banerjee, the BJP falters. It fails to put up local faces to take them on. One of the pitfalls of having a super-centralised power structure.
2. The overarching and often overbearing language of the BJP's election campaign in Bengal was in Hindi. In a state with such strong Bengali sub-nationalism, it was a silent turn-off for the masses. Speeches of central leaders dominated the discourse, with the state's Bengali-speaking leaders playing second fiddle. Even street plays were being staged widely in Hindi. It stoked fears that the rich, Hindi-speaking Marwaris and 'non-Bengalis', who are looked upon with wariness, will wield disproportionate power, money and influence in Bengal.
3. Only of the reasons Prime Minister Narendra Modi keeps growing in stature has been the relentless personal attacks against him. The BJP inexplicably seems to have forgotten that. It kept doing the same with Mamata, making her seem like the victim, the lone fiery fighter in a wheelchair.
4. The chief minister pulled no punches in polarising and consolidating the Muslim votes in her favour. She openly appealed Muslims to vote unitedly. The BJP decided to play partially secular, underplay Hindutva. Apart from 'Jai Shri Ram' chants, it did not bring up NRC and CAA, or retaliate when its cadres were being killed or maimed. This did not give the lower-rung cadre the confidence or courage to take on a violent opponent for fear of reprisal.
5. The extraordinary enthusiasm to bring even tainted TMC candidates to the BJP, hobnob with Tollywood starlets sent a very wrong signal to the cadre who worked very hard on the ground to bring the party from 4 percent to over 40 percent. The BJP leaders kept on harping on "winnability", while the people wondered why they should vote for a TMC B-team.
6. Stubbornness to raise diesel and petrol prices drastically before elections has cost the BJP. It could have deferred the decision. Bengal is a hugely price-sensitive state.
7. There were too many closet CM aspirants in the BJP's ranks. Some of them have very little connect with the ground. Some are rank opportunists who had crossed over smelling a bigger pie. While Mamata Banerjee was meticulously working at the grassroots and gaining ground lost in 2019.
8. Finally, the BJP's over-reliance on flying leaders from Delhi and not giving a much bigger role to people who had built the party from scratch in the state. It breeds arrogance among the mediocre. And when topmost leaders surround themselves with the mediocre, they are not just screening out important insights and information, but stopping honest, unpleasant but useful information from reaching themselves.
Many of us laughed at Mamata Banerjee calling up faceless workers before the elections. It is now evident that true to her party's name, she was in touch with the 'trinamool', or grassroots. And that made the crucial difference.