Notwithstanding the political demagoguery and an undercurrent of anti-incumbency, Mamata Banerjee and her party still have a strong hold over a large section of voters across the state.
The result of 2014 parliamentary polls in West Bengal, one of India’s most densely-populated and politically influential states, was seen as a precursor to the 2016 Assembly election. The outcome of the general election in Bengal was significant on two counts. First, the ruling All India Trinamool Congress (TMC) cemented its position as the biggest party in the state by winning 34 out of the 42 constituencies. The TMC-Congress alliance in 2011 had wrested control of the state government from the Left Front, which had been in power for 34 years. Its stupendous performance in the general elections reflected a positive sentiment for the three-year-old state government at that time, while the principal opposition – the Left Front, led by the Communist Party of India (Marxist) – was reduced to a historically low figure of two seats. The Left fared worse than even the Indian National Congress, a much smaller political player in Bengal, which contested on its own and won four seats. Its disastrous performance could be comprehended from the fact that even the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which had negligible organisational presence in the state, also got two seats.
Second, and more importantly, it marked the rise of the BJP, which increased its vote share from 6.15% to 17.02%. The import of this result, alongside a pro-Modi wave throughout northern India, was the right-wing’s ascent in a largely secular-liberal state. The BJP won the constituency of Asansol, considered to be one of the strongest leftist bastion in the state, and Darjeeling, for the second time, with the support of its ally Gorkha Janmukti Morcha. With the BJP securing a two-figure vote percentage, the 2014 result was a significant departure from the bi-polar electoral contests that the state had historically been witness to. The result has raised the BJP’s hopes in the current state elections.
With hardly any organisational muscle, this performance was perceived as a great victory in the ranks of the Sangh Parivar also. In its pursuit to capitalise on this improved strength, BJP president Amit Shah made numerous trips to Bengal to draw out a comprehensive electoral strategy. He appointed the party’s national General Secretary Kailash Vijayvargiya, under whose leadership the party had won the Haryana assembly elections in 2015 despite a weak organisational presence in the state, to oversee the Bengal electoral campaign.
The BJP’s strategy
In the last two years, the BJP has combined its neo-liberal development rhetoric with its Hindutva agenda to launch a spirited campaign against the Mamata Banerjee-led TMC government. At one level, it has blamed both the Left and the TMC for the Bengal’s backwardness and has advanced the Gujarat model as the economic alternative. At another level, it used data on religious communities from the 2011 Census to create multi-layered insecurities amongst the Hindus. In Bengal, the Muslim population has grown by 1.77%, higher than the national figure of 0.8%. The Hindu population in the state dipped by 1.94%, higher than the national average of 0.7%.
At the same time, the rank and file of the Sangh Parivar went about campaigning and exhorting Hindu households to vote as a group, just like the Muslims, to prevent Bengal from becoming a Muslim-majority state. The party responded to various incidents in the state over the last two years – the Malda rioting, Khagragarh explosions, the recent flyover collapse in Kolkata and other administrative failures – through this dual strategy, with an intention to draw both the urban middle class and the rural Hindus together into its fold.
An up-close fight
The steep decline of the Left and the rise of the BJP in Bengal remained a common refrain in political commentaries until recently. However, as the first phase of the elections concluded on April 11, political observers believe that the contest is much tighter than what was being predicted a few months ago.
The TMC is now facing a stiff challenge from a combined secular opposition. The coming together of the Left and the West Bengal Pradesh Congress, after initial ideological hesitations on the part of the Left, has made the opposition look formidable, at least on paper. If the 2014 vote shares are taken into account, the Left-Congress combine has 39.64% votes, only marginally lower than TMC’s 39.79%. This statistical strength has energised the cadre of the Left and the Congress on the ground, with both parties mounting a strong campaign against the state government.
Political observers believe that this energy, almost invisible until recently, has resulted in the surge of political violence lately. The election commission has received numerous complaints against the TMC activists for beating up the opposition cadres during the campaign.
The TMC government has also lost substantial credibility in the last two years as a result of a series of corruption charges. The Sharada chit-fund scam, bribery charges against state ministers exposed by the Narada sting operation and discussions on the corruption in the state public works department in the wake of the flyover collapse are some of the major scams that have put the government in the dock. These issues, compounded by what is being perceived by the bhadralok as Banerjee’s increasing irrationality, have weakened the party’s popularity in urban areas.
Moreover, the party’s remarkable performance against the Left in 2011 became a reality only with the support of the Congress. This Assembly election, the TMC is contesting alone, while its former ally has joined hands with the Left.
In such a scenario, the TMC, both in its manifesto and electoral campaign, is banking on Banerjee’s position as the strongest leader of Bengal and its supremacy in south Bengal’s rural areas to ensure victory. In fact, the TMC election manifesto reads as a first person narrative by Banerjee. The party’s nervousness as a result of a combined opposition can be seen from increasing poll violence perpetrated by AITMC activists. The party has also been accused by a considerable section of liberal civil society activists of unreasonably pandering to the demands of right-wing Muslim leaders like Furfura Sharif’s Peerzada Toha Siddiqui and Siddiqullah Chowdhury.
Additionally, despite the BJP’s all-out campaign to consolidate Hindus and polarise the elections on religious lines, it has become a nondescript force in the last one month. A combined secular opposition is being perceived as the only alternative by the anti-TMC forces on the ground. The BJP’s failure to respond to immediate issues of corruption, unemployment and deprivation, and provide a comprehensive governance agenda has alienated it further from people. Factors like the growing disillusionment with the Centre, electoral drubbing in Bihar and Delhi, and a weak organisational structure have all added to the BJP’s problems in the state. Moreover, the gains that the BJP made in 2014 came mostly from the Left’s traditional vote bank. While the TMC’s vote share in the 2011 state polls and 2014 general elections remained more or less stagnant, the Left’s vote share declined considerably – from 39.6% in the 2011 Assembly polls to 29.95% in the 2014 parliamentary elections, a drop of almost 10 percentage points. Clearly, the BJP gained from the Left’s losses. The Left hopes to gain in the Assembly elections as the BJP has failed to emerge as a credible and strong alternative.
The priorities of voters appear to swing between the TMC and the Left-Congress combine, meaning Bengal’s Assembly poll will once again be a bi-polar contest.
Regional equations in Bengal
All these factors have set the stage for a keenly contested electoral battle in Bengal. It is, therefore, important to understand the regional equations in the state. Broadly, the state can be divided into two distinct regions based upon traditional electoral concerns – south Bengal, with 218 seats out of 294 and north Bengal, with 76 seats. South Bengal can be further divided into upper south and lower south, with the Bhagirathi river dividing these constituencies. North Bengal too can be further divided into two distinct regions: upper north, comprising Darjeeling and Cooch Behar, where the Gorkhaland movement and ethnic issues are prominent electoral concerns, as are issues of tea garden workers; and lower north (or what can be called central Bengal), comprising the Muslim-majority Murshidabad, Malda and Uttar Dinajpur regions. The electoral campaigns by all parties are conducted according to these regional political contexts.
In the 2011 Assembly polls, the TMC-Congress combine won 191 seats out of 218 constituencies in south Bengal whereas it could win only 20 seats in the north. Precisely for this reason, the TMC is banking on its performance in south Bengal. The high stakes in this region has, therefore, led to many violent clashes between the cadres of TMC and the Left. Political observers believe that the TMC has lost much of its ground in north Bengal and it may be looking at a complete wipe-out in the region. Lower-north Bengal has always been a Congress stronghold and the party is expected to repeat its good performance.
Muslims form a sizeable section of votes in Bengal – almost 28% of the total votes. However, in as many as 140 blocks out of a total 341, they constitute more than 40% votes. Thus, every party is dependent on the Muslim vote to win an election. It is this factor that the BJP has used to charge up the Hindus in Bengal over the last two years. “This BJP’s strategy to polarise voters is based upon the assumption that Muslims vote en masse. However, this has no material basis. None of the elections show that that Muslims have voted for one single party. In fact, even in this election a clear demarcation can be made between Muslim communities of South and North Bengal in terms of their preferences. In constituencies of south Bengal like Howrah, Hooghly, north and south 24 Parganas, Birbhum etc, the Muslims are with the AITMC while in the north they are strongly with the Congress,” said Suvojit Bagchi, the chief of bureau of The Hindu in Kolkata.
Bagchi added that the Hindu-Muslim divide that the BJP has tried to create by calling the TMC a pro-Muslim party is fabricated. “If the parliamentary constituencies are broken into Assembly segments, the TMC managed to win only 3 out of 43 Muslim-majority constituencies in 2014 parliamentary polls,” said Bagchi.
A pro-welfare government
This myth propagated by the BJP had confused a sizeable urban section of voters few months ago. However, as the elections drew closer, the bi-polar electoral equations, once again, replaced the communal agenda. Despite its weakening and a spirited opposition, the TMC, political observers believe, is at a slight advantage.
The TMC government is largely perceived as a pro-welfare. Banerjee, in the last few years, has raised the welfare measures by increasing budgetary grants to projects like the Kanyashree scholarship scheme for girls or the distribution of free cycles to schoolchildren under the banner of Sabuj Saathi. Similarly, the state food subsidy programme, Khadya Saathi, in which rice and wheat is given to the poor at two rupees per kg and Yuvashree, a financial assistance programme for the unemployed youth, have worked well on the ground, observers say. The government has also tried to resolve many of the tea garden workers’ issues.
On the other hand, the Left is facing a strong leadership crisis in the state. “Not one leader in the ranks of the opposition can match up to Banerjee’s stature. Internal dissensions, lack of political clarity, and inability to revive its traditional worker-farmer movements in the state has left the Left in shambles. Moreover, the Left after (facing a) drubbing in 2011 and 2014 has not matured as an opposition. It was as if the opposition was in a political slumber before the alliance materialised,” said Atig Ghosh, a faculty in the department of history at the Visva Bharati University, Shantiniketan.
He added that the opposition failed to make Sharada chit fund scam a political issue. “It is a scam of gigantic proportions. Almost every family is affected by it. Yet, there was hardly any noise about it in Bengal. It is only now that we hear slogans like Trinamool Hatao, Desh Bachao from the opposition. Corruption has become an issue only now. There is a feeling that despite a good campaign mounted by the opposition, it may not be enough,” said Ghosh.
Many political observers in the state, including Ghosh, feel that the TMC government’s welfare measures have worked to a certain extent but this welfarism is practiced through a dangerous demagoguism that Banerjee represents. The Left-Congress combine, despite putting up a strong show, suffers from a significant loss of political credibility, largely its own doing. Notwithstanding the political demagoguery and an undercurrent of anti-incumbency, Banerjee and her party still have a strong hold over a large section of voters across the state. A combination of factors signals thin margins of victory or defeat. It remains to be seen whether the territory the combined opposition wrests from Mamata’s electoral fortress will prove to be enough or not.