The election season is already heating up in Bengal.
Trinamool Congress rebel Suvendu Adhikari, who has now joined the Bharatiya Janata Party, held a rally in Nandigram, where in 2007 violence erupted in the aftermath of a failed project by the then communist government of West Bengal to acquire land for a special economic zone. This led to the death of 14 people and provided the impetus to Mamata Banerjee’s TMC which then went on to win the elections.
AIMIM’s Owaisi, too, has visited Bengal and is in talks to finalise a poll alliance with cleric Abbas Siddiqui.
Laxmi Ratan Shukla, the Minister for Sports in the Mamata government, too has resigned. Sourav Ganguly has suffered from a mild heart attack, but now has been discharged from the hospital. Both, the chief minister and Union Home Minister Amit Shah are slated to start their rallies in the state soon.
While the BJP has clearly emerged as the principal challenger to the Trinamool Congress, the party is facing a serious dilemma: whether to declare a chief ministerial candidate or not?
State elections are increasingly becoming presidential style. Many people are now voting to elect a chief minister rather than just their MLA. While candidates slog it out at the seat level, the chief minister faces are locked in a contest at the state level.
This style of electioneering has been popularised by the BJP with its famous slogan ‘Vote for Modi’. PM Modi often repeats in his rallies ‘your vote will reach me directly’ bypassing the local candidate.
As a thumb rule, one-third voters cast their ballot on the basis of party/symbol, one-third on leadership and one-third on candidate.
Proponents of announcing a chief minister candidate give this logic that if BJP does not declare a face it could lose out on one-third of the voter base.
BJP contesting as the main opposition party won 9 states during the period 2014-19. In all but 2 states (Assam and HP), BJP didn’t declare a CM candidate. In Himachal Pradesh, the chief minister face lost, while the party won the polls.
In all these states, the BJP put forth Modi as the poster boy of its campaign, literally making it a Modi versus the incumbent CM contest. Modi was positioned as a harbinger of change and development who exploited anti-incumbency against the existing chief minister to the hilt.
It was propagated that Modi would appoint his key man to the top post after victory and he would work under his guardianship. Opponents of announcing a chief minister candidate put forth this logic.
Win / Loss
However, it’s also true that this strategy did not work in a few states like Bihar. In Delhi (2014), the BJP declared a chief ministerial face and lost, in 2020 it didn’t announce anybody as a CM candidate and still lost.
Now let’s see in which states Congress or regional parties declared a chief ministerial face and won the elections. Congress won Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh from BJP without declaring a CM face. In Punjab and Jharkhand it / allies had declared chief ministerial candidates.
Of course, every state is unique and the strategy which works in one state may not work in other states.
The BJP would declare a CM face in Bengal when it has one. Even staunch proponents of the theory would agree that the party currently doesn’t have anybody who can match the charisma, popularity and statewide appeal of Didi.
Neither Dilip Ghosh, nor Mukul Roy nor Suvendu can fit the bill. They lack sufficient maturity and experience to carry the party along with them. Further, they don’t have any experience in governance.
The only one who can give Mamata a run for money is ex-cricketer and BCCI chief Sourav Ganguly. However, he has not yet accepted the BJP’s yet offer to join politics and lead the campaign.
He suffered a mild heart attack recently scuttling the chances of his joining the BJP and challenging Mamata given his fragile health.
So even if the BJP wishes to declare a CM candidate, it doesn’t have one and that's the harsh truth.
Not declaring a CM candidate in such a situation will be helpful for the party. The leadership gap can be filled in by Modi and Shah duo.
The party will be seeking votes on the plank of development and Hindutva opposing the minority appeasement politics of TMC.
This will help forge unity and encourage all factions within the party to give their best. In the end, whichever leader delivers the highest number of seats from his/her region would be given the top job.
At a time when many TMC leaders are joining the BJP and will even get tickets, a section within the party will not be happy at this development. Some would even be demotivated. Only the name of Modi and ideology will cheer up this worker and exhort him to work for the party.
At a time when the party is banking on consolidation of Hindu votes to defeat the TMC, announcing any candidate from a particular caste / community risks angering voters from other caste groups.
In the current situation Matuas, Kayastha, Brahmins, OBCs could all vote for the party in the hope they could get CM from their community.
Mamata’s popularity is also not what it used to be during 2011 and 2016 elections due to natural anti-incumbency, voter fatigue and not so great development record, especially in her second term.
All this points to the fact that a combined leadership works best for the BJP in Bengal given it lacks a leader to match the charisma of Mamata.
The party could replicate its successful strategy of not announcing a CM candidate in state after state elections in Bengal too.