In the 1950s, an angry Jawaharlal Nehru described Kolkata as a “city of processions” , an image that still persists in the national imagination . The former capital of British India may have lost its economic importance and been bypassed by the cutting edge of market-inspired modernity, but it has stubbornly refused to shed its voluble preoccupation with politics.
On January 31, Mamata Banerjee organised a massive show of strength at the Maidan where she signalled her prime ministerial ambitions. From all accounts, there were some seven lakh or more people who turned up to cheer her. On Sunday, the now-beleaguered Left Front is to have its own rally at the same venue when it can look back with nostalgia at the days when the Brigade Parade Ground was covered in a sea of red flags. Nostalgia is probably the only remaining solace for a Left that, having lost power in 2011, is desperately (and somewhat unsuccessfully) trying to hold on to its remaining pockets of influence. According to roadside wisdom , never mind matching Mamata, the Left should focus on outperforming the Narendra Modi rally last Wednesday.
By the exacting standards he has set in his recent rallies in, say, Patna, Gorakhpur and Meerut, the Modi rally in Kolkata was modest. Yet, there was a difference. In northern and western India, the BJP has an organization capable of building on the reputation of its prime ministerial candidate. It has nothing of the sort in West Bengal, a state where BJP candidates are accustomed to forfeiting their security deposits. Under the circumstances, filling most of the massive Brigade Parade Ground was a stupendous achievement. It was more so because at least 40% of those who attended were walk-ins.
The Kolkata rally indicated quite clearly that there is a groundswell of goodwill (and curiosity) for Modi that far exceeds the organized support for the BJP. Moreover, this support is national. Modi is likely to get big crowds in Tamil Nadu, Kerala and West Bengal — states where the BJP does not figure in political calculations. Are people in these states going to cheer Modi at rallies and in front of their TV sets but on election day go out and endorse a candidate sponsored by Jayalalithaa or Mamata because a vote for BJP would be a wasted one?
For the Modi campaign this is a formidable challenge: how does it extricate the voter in the east and south from local politics and persuade him/ her to think national? In his own way Modi tried to grapple with the issue in Kolkata when he suggested that Mamata’s ‘poriborton’ in West Bengal could be complemented by a Modi-led ‘poriborton’ in Delhi. His message was clear: support Mamata if you must in an Assembly election but vote BJP to bring about a national transformation that will also touch Bengal.
In theory, people can vote differently at the state and national levels. They often have, especially when a tall leader such as Indira Gandhi made a pitch for the prime ministership. There is also evidence to indicate that party organization on the ground becomes largely irrelevant in a “wave” election — as happened in 1984, even in West Bengal. In a limited way, even the Aam Aadmi Party benefitted from such a phenomenon in Delhi last December: its campaign was based almost entirely on effective messaging.
If Modi is to lessen his dependance on temperamental allies who join the bandwagon after the election, he has to ensure the BJP win a clutch of seats from areas outside its traditional spheres of influence. The possibility of this happening is greater if the BJP makes the election extra-presidential . Of course, a half-decent candidate is a must but greater returns are likely to accrue if the party makes it clear that in, say, the 42 seats of Bengal and 39 seats of Tamil Nadu, that there is one candidate: Narendra Modi.
This is personality cultism no doubt. But in 2014, people will be voting for a PM.
Sunday Times of India, February 9, 2014