As the din and drama of election season begin to wind down, there are a few points to ponder that statistics from the West Bengal elections bring into view. Statistics, of course, vastly deplete the sensory richness of an event like an election.
Catcalls like ‘Didi O Didi’ and bellows of ‘Jai Shri Ram’, backstabbings and paybacks, the true stuff of elections are statistically ‘mute’ phenomena. Fortunately, we have, by now, several extremely penetrating accounts that have interpreted the West Bengal electoral outcome for us in terms of its discourse and dramaturgy. To this corpus of opinion pieces, which tells us the real story, let me add a few statistically-founded afternotes.
The BJP did not do ‘badly’…
We begin with the obvious. How we assess the BJP’s performance in these elections depends, of course, largely on where we set our expectations. Compared to the men, the muscle, the money and, allegedly, even the Election Commission that the BJP poured into their Bengal campaign, and especially measured against their campaign boasts, 77 seats must seem like a poor return indeed.
However, this is still a party that grew from three seats and an indifferent 10% vote share to a staggering 77 seats and 38% vote share in the space of a single election. These advances have been fairly well-reckoned with in the commentary that has followed the election.
But let me add another telling statistic to this picture – among the 291 constituencies that the BJP contested, it won 77, and came second in 200, and finished third in 14 constituencies. That is, it was never ranked lower than third in a single constituency that it contested. This ought to convey a sense, not fully captured in this round’s tally of seats, of the inflationary presence that the party has acquired across the state within a short span of time.
But it could easily have done a lot worse
Notwithstanding the party’s impressive turnout, the BJP will feel fortunate to have ended with the tally that it did. While Mamata Banerjee’s narrow loss at Nandigram has captivated media attention, there were at least 20 constituencies where the BJP won against TMC candidates with extremely slender margins between 500-5000 votes, and where a single third party like the Left Front, Congress or Independent also polled a substantial number of votes.
Illustratively in Balarampur, the incumbent TMC candidate lost to the BJP by a margin of 423 votes. The Congress candidate in this constituency polled over 8,000 votes – votes that, the TMC might legitimately feel, cost them the seat. Ironically, this means that the BJP owes 20 of its seats to the presence of its most bitter opponents, the Left and the Congress.
To be sure, the TMC also had its share of close shaves – 12 seats where their margin of victory was less than 5,000 votes, and where a third-placed party/candidate polled enough votes to play spoiler.
For instance, in Tamluk where the TMC candidate beat the BJP candidate by a margin of 793 votes, and the CPI(M) candidate polled over 14,000 votes. Could the BJP have won here, had the CPI(M) not contested?
It depends on whether you think it likely that more than half of these 14,000 CPI(M) voters might have voted BJP. This seems improbable. Speculations of this kind are only worth so much, but with the polarising campaigns that the BJP runs, votes cast for any other party in the fray are quite likely to be affirmative votes against the BJP. Consequently, in these seats that the BJP lost narrowly, one gets the impression that the absence of a third party would only have extended the magnitude of their loss.
Does this mean that the CPI(M) and the Congress ought to have either vacated the field or swallowed their pride and stitched together an alliance with the TMC, their most bitter rival in the state? There is a vital difference between merely mathematical possibilities, such as the kinds I have outlined above, and the intricate real world of political negotiation that must be borne in mind before making any such assessments.
For a string of state elections now, though, Congress’s electoral strategy appears to have been organised around the question of how to ally themselves so that they cause the least possible damage to regionally competitive parties. This is prudent, and answers the call of the times, but cannot but enfeeble the party in the long run and nationwide. Curiously, one senses the exasperation of their position most acutely in Prashant Kishor’s barbs directed at Rahul Gandhi.
A polity that de-fragments itself
One striking feature of this election was the consistency with which this remained a two-way fight between the BJP and the TMC despite the presence of other influential parties (Congress/Left), independents and NOTA (the most underrated political force in this country).
As is well known, an important weapon in the NDA/BJP election arsenal has been the splintering of the opposition vote. The innovations of ‘Mahagathbandhans’ in Uttar Pradesh and Bihar are attempts to counter this, although they have only succeeded to a degree.
In last year’s Bihar elections, for example, Independents, ‘Other Parties’ and NOTA absorbed a staggering 20% of all votes cast. The Mahagathbandhan there lost over 25 seats in close contests (<7000 votes) to the NDA due to the presence of a miscellaneous third party or Independent in the fray. Memorably, in at least two instances, Raniganj and Bhorey, the margins of defeat were under 2,500 votes and the third-ranked candidate happened to be Candidate NOTA who had enough votes to tilt the contest!
In contrast to all this, it is remarkable how the 2021 West Bengal elections turned into a clean “two-way” fight between the BJP and the TMC. The combined vote share of every other party, independent and NOTA across the state was ‘only’ about 14%.
As mentioned in the previous point, this still cost the TMC some seats, but for the large part, what is striking is that voters seem to have understood the stakes in this election exactly as the BJP had presented it – a with us or against us election– and voted accordingly en masse. I prefer the term ‘de-fragmented, rather than ‘polarised’, to characterise the behaviour of these oppositional voters.
Paying anti-incumbency forward
In the run-up to the election, there had been much chatter about the possible influence of ‘anti-incumbency in Bengal that was supposed to have cost the TMC seats in this election. The phrase ‘anti-incumbency’ has become an existential feature of Indian politics, signifying a function akin to depreciation in accountancy. One is always expecting ruling parties’ seats to depreciate over successive elections, as a function of normal democratic ‘wear-and-tear’.
The fact, however, that the TMC evaded this fate and even added one more seat to its previous tally might urge us to discount these rumours. Viewed purely numerically, compared to the previous election, the TMC seems to have defended its position, while the BJP seems to have simply captured the space and the seats that had previously been held by the Congress and the Left. However, a more complex picture emerges when one looks closer at the seats that were actually won by both parties.
For, it turns out, upon inspection, that fully 48 of the BJP’s 77 seats were won in constituencies previously held, not by the Left or the Congress, but by the TMC. Surely, in the loss of nearly a quarter of seats by the ruling party, one cannot rule out the influence of anti-incumbency. But this does not complete the story, for we know that the TMC ended with its tally intact. How did it do so?
What is fascinating is the way that the TMC seems to have treated anti-incumbency, as I have described it, “an electoral existential”, and proceeded to ‘manage’ the problem. One way by which it did this was by recasting anti-incumbency as a constituency-level factor rather than a state-wide phenomenon.
There were roughly 80 seats that it had not won in the previous election. Might not voters in those constituencies be quivering with anti-incumbency too? Recasting the problem in this way allowed the party not to simply be an inert victim of an ‘anti-incumbency’ wave but to harness its very mechanics.
The gambit seems to have paid off – 53 of the TMC’s current seats were won in constituencies that had been held by the Left and the Congress. Like the Ship of Theseus, it’s still the same party, but dramatically internally reconfigured.
The fate of turncoats
If ‘party splits’ supplied much of the sensation of Indian politics through the 1980s and 1990s, more recently, that function appears to have been taken over by the phenomenon of turncoats and defections to the BJP. This election season was no different, and commenced with a spate of defections – both rumoured and actual – from the TMC to the BJP. How did these ‘turncoats’ fare?
As several commentators have already noted, not very well. As indicated in the table below, of 13 sitting TMC MLAs who had been poached by the BJP, only two succeeded in retaining their seats. Eleven seats went back to the TMC through different candidates – an almost touching reminder, in these times, that it is not only the BJP that is capable of commanding party loyalty.
Now as already noted, the TMC wasn’t exactly a mute victim to its losses – some 12 of its winning candidates in this election had previously won on Left or Congress tickets. Clearly, it was just the better party to defect to. This also buttresses the point I made previously about the TMC ‘paying anti-incumbency forward’.
The pandemic and the electoral outcome
Let me conclude with a question that echoed on social media and news channels about whether the pandemic played a part in the BJP’s resounding defeat? Did the electorate punish them for the worsening pandemic and the central government’s visible ineptitude?
Of course, much more than ‘just’ the pandemic was at play in these elections, but here’s a graph that maps the parties’ respective fortunes across the eight phases of the election.
One can, of course, read this graph variously as a campaign that never really took off for the BJP, or one that was always going to be challenging in its later stages. But amongst the various possible readings, I think the interpretation of a pandemic punishment is not unavailable – especially if one considers that the pandemic figures used here are probably on the conservative side. We will pass over in silence the nearly exact mirroring that the two parties achieved in the course of this election.
Prashant Iyengar is a doctoral candidate at the Department of Middle Eastern, South Asian and African Studies at Columbia University, New York.