Can Congress Victory in Bengal Assembly Bypoll Have Any Larger Implications?

The victory of the Left-backed Congress candidate comes at the cost of both TMC and BJP’s vote share, and a warning to both the dominant forces.

Kolkata: In September 2014, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)’s victory in the Basirhat Dakshin assembly constituency by-election, necessitated by eight-time CPI(M) MLA Narayan Mukhopadhyay’s death, had hinted at the larger trend of switching of traditional Left votes towards the BJP. In November 2019, the Trinamool Congress (TMC)’s victory in the assembly bypolls in Kaliaganj, Karimpur and Kharagpur had hinted at Mamata Banerjee’s success in recovering space lost to the BJP in the Lok Sabha elections held six months before. Now, does the Congress’s victory in the February 2023 by-election to the Sagardighi assembly constituency offer any such hint?

As the new Congress MLA Byron Biswas becomes only the second non-TMC, non-BJP MLA in the 294-seat assembly, no major implication is expected in the House. Politics, however, is primarily played outside the House.

Sagardighi in Murshidabad district of central Bengal has been a bastion of the TMC since 2011, with Subrata Saha winning three times on a trot. This is despite Murshidabad and neighbouring Malda – two of the state’s three Muslim-majority districts – being among the last districts to embrace the TMC. The districts remained Congress bastions, despite the TMC’s wholehearted poaching efforts, until the fear of the BJP’s rise from 2019 onwards started to consolidate Muslim votes in the TMC’s favour.

But Sagardighi, where Muslims make up 64% of the population, was an exception, where Saha enjoyed his own popularity. In the 2019 Lok Sabha election, the TMC secured 42% of the polled votes in this assembly segment, against BJP’s 23.4%, Congress’s 22.7% and CPI(M)’s 6.8%. In the 2021 assembly election, Saha polled 51%, while the BJP’s share stood at 24% and the Left-backed Congress candidate secured only 19.5%.

This time, the bypoll necessitated by Saha’s death saw a similar contest between the TMC, the BJP and the Left-backed Congress candidate. The TMC fielded the party’s Sagardighi block unit president, Debashis Banerjee, who also happened to be a distant relative to the chief minister. The BJP fielded Dilip Saha, who had come to the party from the TMC. The Congress fielded Byron Biswas, a political greenhorn from a local industrialist family and the Left decided to continue their ongoing partnership with the Congress and back their candidate.

To the TMC’s shock, Biswas won by a big margin of 22,986 votes, securing 47.35% of the polled votes. The TMC’s vote share dipped to 34.94% and the BJP’s to 13.94%.

If the rise of the Left-Congress partnership – it is formally not an ‘alliance’ but a seat-sharing understanding – as a formidable challenger to the TMC is a concern for the BJP, currently the TMC’s principal opponent, there are reasons also for the TMC to worry. The results reflect TMC’s loss of support in an area where Muslims dominate the demography. In 2021, the party had swept all such areas.

“The result hints at the breaking of the TMC-BJP binary in state politics. During 2019-2020, issues like the National Register of Citizens (NRC) and the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) had helped consolidate Muslim votes in the TMC’s favour. It looks like a section of the Muslims has started feeling disenchanted with the TMC and getting out of the fear of BJP,” said political analyst Abdul Matin, an assistant professor at the department of international relations, Jadavpur University.

Matin felt that the trend, if reflected in larger spheres in the coming days, would expand the democratic space. “The voting pattern of the Bengali Muslims had become almost homogenous. Now there are hints of cracks on that homogeneity,” he told The Wire. The arrest and harassment of Indian Secular Front (ISF) leader Naushad Siddiqui also seemed to have created a sense of despair among Muslim voters over the TMC, he said.

Siddiqui, the sole non-TMC, non-BJP MLA in the Bengal assembly until Biswas’s victory, was arrested from an agitation in Kolkata in January and kept behind the bars for five weeks, until getting bail from the high court.

This is the first electoral setback for the TMC since returning to power with a thumping majority in 2021 and political observers feel that the victory is likely to rejuvenate the Left-Congress camp ahead of the panchayat elections due in a few months.

Representative image of people voting in West Bengal. Photo: PTI

Critics energised

At least, it immediately energised one of the chief minister’s bitterest critics, state Congress president and Lok Sabha MP Adhir Ranjan Chowdhury, who had Murshidabad as his bastion for two decades until the TMC ravaged it in the 2021 assembly election. The district with 22 assembly seats played a crucial role in the TMC’s return to power in 2021.

“The key message from Sagardighi is the busting of the myth of Mamata Banerjee’s invincibility,” Chowdhury announced after the results were out on March 2. “The TMC betrayed the Muslims. They know it. They are the BJP’s stooges. Muslims of India know it,” he alleged.

CPI(M) state secretary Md Salim almost echoed him, describing the result as a “victory over two evil forces”. “The people have started accepting and approving our efforts to unite all non-BJP, non-TMC forces. Now, to respect the people’s mandate, it is incumbent on the leadership of the Left, the Congress and other forces to unify against the TMC and the BJP,” Salim said.

Chief minister Mamata Banerjee attributed the defeat to a “conspiracy” jointly hatched by the Left, the Congress and the BJP, alleging that the BJP and the Left had transferred their votes to the Congress. She, however, did not explain the dip in her own party’s vote share.

Chowdhury’s remarks and perhaps also his confident body language irked the chief minister so much that she went on to launch a personal attack on Chowdhury, who is also the leader of the Congress in Lok Sabha. “He is talking big. What would he say if I bring up his daughter’s suicide, his driver’s suicide? If I say it was a case of twin murder? I know a lot of things. Do not make me talk,” she said, while addressing journalists in Kolkata.

The Left and Congress leaders said that her reaction betrayed her nervousness. There can, indeed, be some implications for the TMC with regard to the coming panchayat elections. There is a sense that the elections need to be violence-free for the TMC to have a bright prospect in the 2024 Lok Sabha election. Banerjee’s nephew and the party’s national general secretary, Abhishek Banerjee, has repeatedly vowed to ensure a free and fair, violence-free electoral process. Turning the 2018 panchayat polls into a mockery bled the party heavily in the 2019 Lok Sabha elections, as voters took revenge on the TMC.

While reining in their grassroots-level leaders may, actually, be one of the TMC’s biggest internal challenges, a revived Left-Congress is only poised to make the challenge steeper.

According to columnist Udayan Bandyopadhyay, who teaches political science at Bangabasi College in Kolkata, the Sagardighi results happened as an outcome of multiple factors – from local issues like choice of candidates to larger issues.

“A section of Muslims evidently wanted to give a chance to the Congress but this doesn’t look threatening for the TMC yet. However, an energised Left-Congress camp can change equations in the opposition space and that should be a cause of concern for the BJP,” he said.

The panchayat elections are likely to give a clearer picture of the changing political equations, if any, especially if the state is bracing for three-corner contests in the coming elections.