The BJP has won Lok Sabha seats in Bengal on only three occasions. First, in 1998 (Dumdum), and then in 1999 (Dumdum and Krishnanagar). On both occasions, the party was in alliance with the TMC. The third time was in 2009, when the party won the Darjeeling seat with the backing of the Gorkha Janmukti Morcha. But the party failed to get a substantial vote share in the seats it could not win. In 1991, it managed a vote share of 11 per cent but could not win any seats. So the BJPs electoral impact in West Bengal has traditionally been limited. The partys rising graph became visible about two years ago. In the 2012 Lok Sabha by-elections in Jangipur, Murshidabad, the BJP emerged third and polled 85,867 votes, an 8 per cent rise from 2009. The municipal polls of 2013 also reflected an improved performance by the BJP. A major breakthrough was the defeat of the incumbent mayor, a Left candidate, by the BJP in the Howrah municipal polls. In the 2014 by-elections to the Vidhan Sabha, the party finished third with 13.2 per cent votes. That the BJP could contest all 42 seats in the recent Lok Sabha elections was an indicator of its rising relevance in the state.
Party leaders are trying hard to expand the BJPs influence in all possible ways. Reportedly, the ABVP as well as the partys minority and womens wings have witnessed a surge in membership. Minorities constitute about 27 per cent of the states population and wield considerable electoral influence. The expansion of the BJPs minority wing and Muslim families reportedly signing up at yogdaan ceremonies will definitely give the party a foothold in the states politics. The RSS is also growing in the state, not only in terms of membership but reportedly also in the number of shakhas. Only time can tell whether the party can sustain this expansion and convert the political support into more seats. But the Left and the TMC certainly have cause for concern. After the fall of the mighty Left, which is more used to playing the role of ruling party than of opposition, a real opposition has been missing in West Bengal. It is this space that the BJP is aiming to occupy by the 2016 assembly elections. This looks likely, if the party can consolidate its growth.
What made this sudden turn of fortunes possible A state which resisted and cautiously guarded against the rise of the BJP all these years, a state that has seen the rage of communal violence and Partition in the past, now witnesses a steady rise of the BJP. Is it the Modi factor and the hope that Modi will bring industrialisation to the state and give its educated youth the employment that they need Does Bengal aspire to the dream of a vibrant Gujarat Is it a backlash against the states political culture of organised violence and intimidation The BJP does not carry this baggage as it has not been a prominent player in the state in the past. Or has the BJPs campaign against illegal immigrants caught the fancy of a section of the Bengali gentry Maybe it is true that the TMCs allegedly blatant appeasement of minorities did not go down well with a section of the states population. It is probably a combination of all these factors. What remains to be seen is whether the BJP can sustain this momentum or whether it goes down in the history of West Bengal as a one-election wonder.
By Moitree Bhattacharya
The writer teaches political science in Daulat Ram College, Delhi University