New Delhi: Among the states going to polls in the coming months, West Bengal is possibly the most-keenly watched. The reasons are more historical than contemporary. The state prided itself on being the flag-bearer of the Indian Renaissance and one of the most important centres of the revolutionary anti-colonial movement.
Barring the early days of independence, Bengal papered over problems of communal and identitarian conflicts which blew up into full-fledged political warfare in the rest of India. The urban intelligentsia, a significant section of which actively partook in day-to-day politics, helped create Bengal as an ideological bastion where stakeholders across the political spectrum conversed and debated in a shared anti-rightwing space. The 34 years of Left Front rule created a deep imprint on the state, which was seen as one that valued equitable redistribution over consumerist aspirations.
That bubble first burst with the findings of Sachar Committee, which showed that the Muslim minority in the state was living in some of the worst conditions. At the same time, the middle classes had grown uncomfortable with the Left Front’s continued resistance to economic reforms, which had opened up new avenues for the rest of India, and its inability to find a sustainable alternative model.
With the image of an equitable state stained, voters charted the downfall of the Left Front, replacing it with the Mamata Banerjee-led Trinamool Congress, which promised redistribution of resources on identitarian lines. Banerjee led a massive welfare state over the last 10 years, benefitting crores of vulnerable communities. Yet, the politics of representation that she patronised, and espoused in her affirmative action, reified identity politics, hitherto muted in the state.
Communities began to see themselves as distinct from each other. The unprecedented flow of welfare funds led to the growth of communitarian leaders across the state, and spawned corruption and coercion at a large scale. Since these leaders represented the TMC, the party gradually attained the reputation of an exploitative force.
The Bharatiya Janata Party had always seen Bengal and Kerala – both ruled by communists – as the most significant states to be won. Under the dynamic leadership of Narendra Modi and Amit Shah, the BJP was already expanding across the country. The large-scale corruption and coercion in Bengal not only gave it an easy opportunity to propagate its Hindutva agenda, but also establish itself as a viable opposition with the backing of the Centre.
A senior worker of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh had spoken about the organisation’s Bengal plan in 2014. “Bengal is not ruled by one political party anymore. The interests of various groups and communities channel the political direction of the state. Our efforts are to unite the interests of all these groups and give us strength.”
In the subsequent years, the BJP ran a widespread campaign to paint the TMC government as a “Muslim-appeaser”. At the same time, it reached out to different Hindu communities like the Matuas, Rajbangshis, Mondals, OBC groups like Bengali Bania, Mahatos, Gorkhas, and various other Adivasis groups on the plank of TMC leaders’ coercive actions, police highhandedness and, of course, Hindutva. Its anti-minority stance was also visible in how it stoked forgotten memories of refugees who had to flee from Muslim-majority Bangladesh.
The 2018 panchayat polls, which saw large-scale violence across the state, gave a further fillip to the BJP – so much so that the traditional Left voters also saw the Centre-backed saffron party as the only alternative to the TMC. Most Left voters The Wire spoke to ahead of the 2019 parliamentary polls conceded that the Left Front was no longer in a position to counter TMC’s dominance and only the Centre could fight it.
This widespread sentiment helped the BJP win 18 Lok Sabha seats, only four seats behind the ruling TMC. It was clear that the Modi-Shah-led party had firmly entrenched itself in Bengal’s political landscape, and had emerged as the sole opposition to the TMC. The BJP’s growth had come at the cost of the Left Front, which could not stop a majority of its supporters from switching sides.
The BJP oversaw that the “Hindu identity” surpassed all other conflicting identities across the state, and pitted them against a common “Muslim” enemy, who, according to the saffron party, enjoyed the TMC’s patronage. As was evident in the 2019 Lok Sabha polls results, its success was most visible in areas dominated by Scheduled Castes, Scheduled Tribes and OBCs.
The outcome of the 2019 Lok Sabha polls came as a shock to the secular urban intelligentsia. Staring at a possible defeat, Mamata Banerjee hired political manager Prashant Kishor to change her government’s image.
Over the last two years, Kishor has unleashed a massive drive to change TMC’s leadership at the ground level and conceptualised new political campaigns to stem the party’s imminent losses. However, a large section of TMC’s disgruntled leadership is of the opinion that the chief minister entrusted Kishor to take all the major decisions. This possibly explains the large-scale defections from the party to the BJP.
Days ahead of the assembly polls, the battle lines are clear. The contest will primarily be between the TMC and BJP. The Left Front-Congress-Indian Secular Front alliance is perhaps too weak to counter the polarisation which is palpable on the ground.
To her credit, Mamata Banerjee has toiled hard to implement some damage-control measures. She has managed to bring on board some disgruntled factional leaders like Bimal Gurung, a Gorkha leader in north Bengal, and some important Matua and Rajbangshi leaders, who can swing the elections in their areas. She has also intensified the drive to properly implement welfare schemes over the last two years, and tried to control rogue party leaders.
She has pitched the contest primarily on the lines of “outsider versus insider”, in an attempt to revive the Bengali sub-nationalist sentiment.
Quantitative surveys still give a narrow edge to the ruling TMC, with an assumption that the ruling party will hold on to its vote share in this heavily polarised election. However, at least one qualitative survey shows that the BJP may increase its vote share and win the state comprehensively.
If the available data is to be taken into account, it becomes clear that the momentum is on the BJP’s side, and it is for the TMC to defend itself. The Mamata Banerjee-led party has consistently polled more than 40% votes from 2016, with only minor variations. TMC received 43.3% votes in the 2019 Lok Sabha polls – only a slight dip from 44.9% in the 2016 assembly polls. If the Lok Sabha poll result is measured in assembly seats, TMC registered a win in 164 seats in the 294-member assembly. The figure is enough for the TMC to form a government.
However, it can do that only if it can control the BJP’s upswing. The BJP had scored only 10.2% votes in the last assembly elections but shot up almost four-fold to 40.7% in 2019 to register wins in 18 Lok Sabha seats. Assembly segment-wise, it was ahead of the TMC in 121 seats. That the BJP gain came at the cost of the Left Front-Congress shows from the fact that the latter’s vote shares came down from 32% in 2016 to merely 12% (combined vote share as both parties contested separately) in 2019. A further dip in the share of Left Front and Congress would directly benefit the saffron party.
Over the last few years, the Mamata Banerjee-led federal government has emerged as the biggest opposition to the Modi-led Centre. TMC’s parliamentarians and legislators in the assembly have taken strong anti-BJP stances, unlike other regional political parties. Banerjee has herself taken the lead to unite opposition parties against the saffron party.
That high-pitched battle will continue with greater aggression in the days to come. The chief minister has placed herself at the centre of the fight, directly taking on the BJP on each of its planks. To tackle her popular image, the BJP has turned the assembly contest into a fight between “Modi and Mamata”.
Banerjee has relinquished her old constituency Bhabanipur to contest from Nandigram, where she had led a struggle against forcible land acquisition and which had propelled her to power in 2011. Although she will be up against renegade Suvendhu Adhikari, her trusted aide who switched over to the BJP, the electoral contest in the constituency is a determined symbolic gesture which will have ramifications across the state. After a recent rally, Banerjee suffered a fracture in the leg but she has announced she would campaign from a wheelchair. The political drama, as they say, has just begun in West Bengal.