New Delhi: Across villages and small towns of West Bengal, the one palpable common thread is the desire for jobs and secure futures. In multiple districts that The Wire visited, a majority of those who wanted change saw the untested Bharatiya Janata Party as an answer to their aspirations.
From a migrant worker in Bankura to a young graduate in Paschim Medinipur to a middle-aged small farmer in Birbhum – all saw a BJP-led government as a probable transformative political force, which could pull the state out of a vicious cycle of ruling party-led violence and corruption.
That Bengal has been “left behind” over the last many decades because of alleged parochial interests of the state’s ruling parties is a refrain that most voters in rural areas unhesitatingly speak of. Irrespective of the fact that the state has one of the best social and public infrastructures in India, and that successive governments have focused their energies on strengthening a welfare model for the poor, the average voter in Bengal wants more, and believes that only by changing governments every five years will political parties be accountable to the public.
“CPI(M) ruled for 34 years, and then we gave Didi 10 years, now it is a turn for a new party,” said a Dalit voter in Surul village of Birbhum district. This rational response has caught on like wildfire across the southern districts of Bengal, which has also been the ruling Trinamool Congress’s bastion. Most have ready replies to the fact that BJP’s performance at the Centre has been below par in generating employment, and that currently India is witnessing one of highest unemployment rates.
“BJP, unlike TMC and CPI(M), is pro-industry. If it comes to power, and succeeds in getting some industries going here, we may get some jobs in our own state instead of looking for work outside,” said an Adivasi agricultural labourer in Jhargram.
Similarly, a Singur farmer, who supported the anti-Tata Nano plant agitation in 2007-08, said it was a mistake to drive out Tatas. He said that they should have let the factory come up there – a belief bolstered by the poor income he has made as a potato farmer over the last few years.
The various scholarship schemes for girls’ education brought during the TMC government make little mark on a young woman graduate at Sabang in Paschim Medinipur. She said, “Porashona kore ki laabh, kono chaakri toh paachi na (‘what will come off my education, I am not getting any jobs’).”
A dock worker who has finished his intermediate degree vociferously advocated privatisation of the Haldia port, when told about TMC’s campaign against BJP’s aggressive disinvestment policy. “Now there is so much corruption and dadagiri here. We are contractual workers who rely on daily wages. Whether we work hard or not doesn’t matter. No one respects us. If a company takes over, I believe the port will be run more efficiently. And we will be given promotions based on our talent and hard work.”
Most advocates of change feel that if the BJP does not fulfil its promises, they can vote to change the government again after five years.
If the largely bi-polar assembly elections were merely a perception battle about who would give the people of Bengal secure futures, the saffron party is well ahead of the ruling TMC.
The BJP’s campaign, hinging on “vikas” and “ashol poriborton” addresses these precise concerns of the rural poor and middle classes. It is pulling out all stops to be perceived as a pro-industry political party when compared to the ruling TMC and Left Front. BJP’s appeal among a sizeable section of the population, which include Scheduled Castes, Scheduled Tribes, and many Other Backward Class peasant communities rests precisely on the hope that the Narendra Modi-led party could usher in alternative sources of employment.
While the BJP’s top leadership, including the prime minister and Union home minister Amit Shah, have primarily spoken of these concerns, its regional leadership has backed its top leadership by taking aim at TMC’s excesses. The constant refrain that one hears in rural Bengal is that TMC’s leaders are corrupt and repressive, who deal with any form of dissent violently. This is BJP’s line of campaign too.
‘Outsiders’: Boon or bane?
In contrast, the TMC has banked on an inward-looking, conservative plank to contain the rise of BJP. Be it the “Bengali versus bahiragato (outsider)” campaign or the slogan, “Bangla nijer mei kei chae (‘Bengal wants its own daughter’)”, the ruling party’s most-important campaigns have barely taken off beyond advertisement platforms.
Even a casual survey of constituencies would indicate that the BJP’s novelty and appeal rests precisely on the perception that it is not considered a part of the Bengali establishment. The TMC’s campaign has just not stuck with most people, including those who are avowed supporters of Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee.
When asked whether Bengalis wouldn’t vote for BJP, even a TMC supporter would tell you that this wasn’t the case. The TMC’s campaign relies on a binary that simply doesn’t exist beyond a very small section of the intelligentsia. The 2019 Lok Sabha polls in which the saffron party secured 18 out of the 42 seats in the state, with more that 40% vote share, had already made this clear.
At a time when its campaign strategies should have addressed concerns of widespread unemployment and agrarian distress in the state, and kindled a hope that TMC is a forward-looking party, it is surprising that the TMC projected the assembly polls as a prestige battle between the BJP and itself. The blatant attempt to polarise the electorate on ethnic lines has ended up alienating more than one crore Hindi speakers in the state.
What dominates political discussions in the state is “Didi” and her role in doling out welfare benefits. In that regard, TMC’s decision to put her at the forefront of the electoral battle seems to have generated good ground-level traction, but the BJP has, to a large extent, been able to offset the chief minister’s appeal by foregrounding TMC leaders’ corruption and repression.
Its diversionary tactic to take attention away from Didi has been largely successful, given the way a majority of people with whom The Wire interacted indicated a sense of fear that choosing Didi again may only increase their dependence on the TMC’s organisational machinery. Riding on this widespread resentment, the BJP has also pitched the elections as a choice between Didi and Dada (Narendra Modi) but has taken care not to keep the chief minister in the direct line of attack.
“Didi is sending funds from Kolkata for us. Her party leaders do not let them reach us,” is a constant refrain that appears to have taken ground.
At the same time, the saffron party has also focused its energies on uniting all opposed voices under its umbrella. It managed to get a large section of former Left Front supporters – many of them who have suffered at the hands of TMC leaders – and TMC renegades who too had bore the brunt of a powerful clique of TMC leaders. And finally, it did what it does best – foment religious tensions to polarise the electorate on the lines of faith in regions where it thought it was essential for its prospects. At the same time, it advanced the cult of Modi and its development pitch.
Anti-incumbency and then some
On the other hand, TMC’s campaign does not address any of the actual concerns, which appear to have amplified into a widespread anti-incumbency sentiment. In his infamous Clubhouse chat and subsequent interviews, TMC’s topmost strategist Prashant Kishor who according to most TMC sources has functioned as the chief decision maker for the party over the last two years, admitted to widespread anti-incumbency, polarisation on Hindu-Muslim lines, Modi’s cult, and consolidation of around 25% scheduled castes behind BJP.
Yet, it is surprising that despite knowing the exact nature of the anti-incumbency sentiment prevailing on the electoral ground, Kishor designed a campaign which doesn’t even touch upon the prevailing resentment against TMC government, and only seeks to bypass the actual debate in people’s minds by projecting the elections an an all-out war.
The aggression at a time when BJP had already made substantial inroads in the state seemed to have the opposite impact of what was sought from it in the first place. A substantial chunk of voters believed that the chief minister’s constant opposition to the Centre is inhibiting the state’s growth, and thought that a possible “double-engine” government (as declared by Modi) could do well for Bengal.
That TMC’s top leaders have responded to Modi’s speeches with as much ridicule as condescension, is also met with a great deal of resentment on ground. “Didi should have found a way to work with the Centre,” both rural Hindus and Muslims would tell you.
Would a campaign based on the promise of employment-intensive industries and dignified living for the poor have been better? Only the political manager Kishor, and others in the TMC who approved of such a pitch, will be able to answer that.
However, the seemingly misplaced campaign planks are not the only worry for the TMC. The Wire spoke with several TMC leaders who were ousted, reportedly on recommendations of Kishor, at the last moment in various constituencies. In order to rid the organisation of corrupt elements, Kishor had recommended a lower-level change of leadership. But since most of them have been removed from their positions as recently as February this year, these leaders, with good networks in the area, are either campaigning for the BJP currently, or want to see the TMC lose.
Such recent moves by the TMC to purify the party has fractured the organisation from below. The BJP has done the rest of the damage by poaching important leaders from the party, leaving Didi and some of her supporters practically alone in the electoral battlefield.
When asked whether BJP could be the alternative they were seeking since most of the so-called corrupt TMC’s leadership has now joined the BJP, a range of voters would simply tell you, “The same people were in the CPI(M). Then they joined TMC, and now when they have sensed an opportunity in BJP, they are readily moving towards it. Our choice will be between a party with a new vision and one which we have already seen for the last 10 years. That is why it’s a contest which is down to the wire.”
Irrespective of the poll outcome, it is clear that people of Bengal will have to make a choice between two imperfect political forces, and that the one which is perceived as the less cynical one clearly seems to have an advantage.