Amit Shah
BJP president Amit Shah had his lunch at a poor household in North Bengal on April 25. The family joined the Trinamool Congress soon after.Twitter/Amit Shah official handle

Amid the happiness, the BJP – the best-performing political force in the country at the moment – faced a terrible experience in West Bengal recently. The episode hurt the saffron party all the more because it involved its Number 2 leader – national president Amit Shah. However, if the BJP has anybody to blame for the loss of face it had in Naxalbari in North Bengal, it is none else but itself.

What's the episode all about?

It happened so that Shah, during his recent trip to Bengal to boost the BJP's mission to corner Mamata Banerjee's Trinamool Congress (TMC) from power in another few years to eventually topple her, had a media-covered lunch at the residence of a poor tribal family on April 25.

As it is always with the campaign-savvy BJP, the event was projected as a major initiative of the party's Mission Bengal [formally termed 'Ebar Bangla' or 'Next target Bengal'] ahead of the 2019 Lok Sabha election. But within a week of Shah and other BJP leaders having their humble lunch, the family of Raju and his spouse Geeta Mahali formally joined the TMC.

They did so in the presence of Bengal Tourism Minister and local heavyweight leader Gautam Deb, who also had a cup of tea at the Mahalis' place. It was reported that the family had disappeared soon after Shah's visit before they resurfaced to join the TMC.

Amit Shah was left with a loss of face, just like Rahul Gandhi

The BJP was left fuming as its coordinated act went awry and none but its national president was left red-faced. It made allegations of abduction and also decided to stage protest.

But no matter what it does, the BJP, just like Congress vice-president Rahul Gandhi who had similar visits to Dalits' houses in UP and Maharashtra but to no avail, only made a fool of itself and it did so because it is yet to imbibe Bengal's party-controlled political culture.

Shah would have understood or should have been advised not to make his visit to the family's house a major event. The reason is not very difficult to understand. The BJP has virtually no organisation in Bengal to tap the sentiments that are growing in its favour, thanks to Banerjee government's excessive minority appeasement.

Rahul Gandhi's ploy to show his pro-poor side also did not succeed in helping the Congress because its grassroots organisation has become weak. Shah faced a similar plight perhaps because the BJP misread the pitch. It's conducive for batting but the BJP has no good batsman in Bengal.

The episode also made it clear that no matter how powerful a leader one has at the top, it is afterall the local hold which does the real difference on the ground. Now, staunch BJP supporters could say that the party won a number of states, including the big UP, in recent times despite projecting no local face.

Rahul Gandhi
Congress vice-president Rahul Gandhi has often been mocked by the opponents over spending time with Dalit families. How much better did Amit Shah do?Twitter/Office of RG

To that, the answer is: the BJP has mostly won in states where the Congress was in power earlier. It is much easier for the party to wrest control from the Grand-Old Party because under Modi and Shah, it has evolved as a perfect alternative to the decaying Congress. But in states where regional parties are in power, it is not easy for the BJP to emerge as an alternative straightaway. We saw that in Delhi and Bihar in 2015 and Bengal, Kerala and Tamil Nadu in 2016.

True, the BJP won UP where a regional party (Samajwadi Party) was in power, but the victory in UP was made possible by the combination of a number of factors (demonetisation, Akhilesh-Rahul alliance, Mayawati's unbelievable decline, soft but calculated religious polarisation) and since there was no Bihar-like Mahagathbandhan in UP, the Modi magic worked wonders even without a CM candidate.

BJP needs to understand Bengal's political terrain first: It's about party dominance

Coming back to Bengal, the BJP has not understood the dynamics of that state's politics yet. Politics of symbolism will not deliver anything in Bengal as the Congress' top brass has also seen over the years. The crux of the state's politics is a totalitarian party rule – a legacy of the Left which had ruled for 34 years.

The Left's model was replicated by its enemy, Banerjee's TMC, and even though its organisational hold is not as robust as the Left during its heydays, it still is the most powerful force in Bengal at the moment. The poor family, which had never done politics, joined the TMC straightaway because it has no other option to remain apolitical after Shah entered its house. The party politics just devoured it, as it had happened during the Left's days as well.

The party has always devoured the individual in Bengal; it's a long tradition there.

Bengal has a tradition of confrontation between individuals/families with parties. In 1970, a family was butchered in Burdwan district on a day of private celebration allegedly by Left leaders over affiliations to the Opposition. The tradition had continued time and again, mostly during the Left rule when party-backed goons (locally called 'CPM harmaads') carried out tortures on those who dared to support the opponent parties. In days when 24X7 media was still a distant thing, the indescribable torture mostly went under-reported.

Today, the Maralis will consider themselves lucky enough not to have met the same fate for having entertained the opponent's all-India president at their house. The reason is partly the media's vigilance and the ruling party's concern with its image at a time when it is already facing a lot of challenges.

The BJP needs to read the script in depth. Even if Modi and Shah make thousands of rounds to Bengal, there will be little improvement in the saffron party's prospects on the ground till it has a saleable face.

Mamata Banerjee, Darjeeling, West Bengal CM, Gorkhaland, Bimal Gurung
West Bengal CM Mamata Banerjee: The BJP can't just shout out her; despite everything, she is the tallest leader in the state.Reuters

There is no point shouting anti-Mamata slogans; she is the No.1 leader in Bengal no matter what

Chanting "Bhaag Mamata Bhaag" or threatening the TMC with dire consequences over the Saradha and Narada episodes will earn the BJP some accolades from the disillusioned middle-class which is upset that there is no job growth in the state. But for those who really matter for Banerjee's electoral prospects, the BJP will need a really strong organisation to emerge as an alternative force in the state's politics. And for that to happen, the BJP needs appealing faces on the ground.

The TMC smartly turned the table against the BJP after Shah's visit to Naxalbari. For Banerjee and her outfit, intimidating helpless citizens to join their ranks is not a difficult task at all because Bengal sees, at the end of the day, a one-party show. The BJP has done well by emerging as the biggest challenger to Banerjee in Bengal but can it really find the final nail on the coffin? Given the current trends, it seems a distant possibility.

Hopefully, Shah will put the horse before the cart the next time he plans big for Bengal.