It's Unreasonable to Blame Mamata Banerjee for BJP's Gains in West Bengal

The chief minister remains a favourite in her turf, while conceding an embarrassing defeat elsewhere.

Prime ministerial candidate Narendra Modi wants you to believe that the biggest story in the general election of 2019 is ‘inclusiveness’. While following the election result trends from the Press Club of India in New Delhi, I heard several commentators mourn the surge of the Bharatiya Janata Party vote share as a mandate for religious polarisation of the worst kind. And, in the streets of New Delhi, people told me that the big story is ‘Modi’.

All of these are true to a certain extent. India seems to have come together in hatred like never before, and if you want to call it ‘inclusive’ you are free to do that. Religious polarisation and the Modi factor appear to have struck several chords as well. But are we missing something here? Is there a more dramatic story that’s hidden in the hoax by the name of election analysis? The answer to both these questions is a resounding ‘yes’.

While the nation watched an utterly mismanaged and poorly organised Congress-led United Progressive Alliance cobble its way to paltry gains, the real big story is the dent in the vote share of the regional parties in eastern India. The shocker seems to have come from West Bengal. After all, the BJP+ has finally managed to not only put up an impressive show, but is breathing down the neck of the ruling Trinamool Congress, which appears to be staggering, at least with respect to seat share.

The BJP’s gains

This is a massive win for the entire BJP and its parent organisation, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh. This will introduce a newfound energy among the party cadres across the nation because it adds a crucial emotional angle to the story. Bengal is the birthplace of the Jana Sangh and the BJP has waited for this moment for decades. Amit Shah is already making claims about a BJP sweep in the assembly elections of 2021, and this narrative will embolden with time. But what, in reality, is the Bengal story? What are the gains? And who is behind scripting this historic moment for the Hindu Right?

Elections were held in 42 parliamentary constituencies (PCs) and eight assembly constituencies (ACs) in West Bengal. While the TMC won in 22 PCs, the BJP stunned them in 18 others. The Congress, however, has two seats. The scenario is slightly different in the ACs, where the BJP has four, the TMC has three, and the Congress has one seat.

Also read: We Are Witnessing a Defining Moment in West Bengal’s Political History

If we were to look at the numbers, it appears that the BJP has won in almost half the seats that went to polls in 2019 and the TMC has won the other half. The pollsters, news channels and the Delhi elite are therefore calling this a ‘bipolar’ election. Brownie points for new vocabulary! We will now keep hearing this till next assembly elections, where if the TMC does not improve its political game, it will be on the other side.

But what is this bipolarity? And who is missing from the picture? Ask any child in West Bengal and they will tell you it’s the Left Front which has suddenly disappeared behind the clouds. Their vote share has been reduced from 34.04% in the 2016 assembly elections to 7.01% in 2019. And they have secured zero seats.

If you look at the percentage mathematics, you will see the traditional Left hiding comfortably underneath the saffron shroud. The TMC has 43.3% of the vote share (they had around 45% in 2016) and the BJP has 40.3% (they had around 10% in 2016 and 17% in 2014). The translation to seat share shows another rift – the BJP has swept northern and southwestern West Bengal, and the TMC has swept southern Bengal and Calcutta and its adjoining areas.

A BJP rally in the Hooghly Lok Sabha constituency. Credit: Twitter/BJP Bengal

If you are a Bengali from West Bengal, you would know that Mamata Banerjee has not really failed. After all, Mamata has always been stronger in southern Bengal compared to the north. The traditional TMC voters have once again shown their trust in Mamata. She remains a favourite in her turf, while conceding an embarrassing defeat elsewhere.

It’s crucial to remember that north Bengal has traditionally sided with the Left Front and the Congress. After all, this is the region where parties like the All India Forward Block (AIFB) and the Revolutionary Socialist Party (RSP) won glorious victories during the Left regime. When that story ended, the TMC victories in north Bengal were always a result of a neck-and-neck race or what Bengalis call haddahaddi lorai (much more apt than the awkward phrase ‘bipolar fight’).

Even in 2016, when the TMC wiped out every opposition across the state, the BJP gains in some of the seats like Alipurduars were impressive. What emerges from the haddahaddi lorai of 2019 is the hide-out (maybe lukochuri is more apt) act of the Left Front. Their traditional voter in northern Bengal has voted for the BJP. The average vote share of the Left Front in northern Bengal is around 5.71%, while the numbers for TMC and the BJP are 35.29% and 46.11% respectively. While the TMC has managed to somehow stand on its feet in the haddahaddi lorai, it is the Left voters who have mostly fought them along with the BJP.

In fact, some of the significant developments came from the northernmost PCs of Alipurduars, Cooch Behar and Jalpaiguri, where the BJP has managed to pull together a massive mandate that translates to 50% of the vote share. These three frontier districts (along with Purulia and Bishnupur) are crucial towards understanding the mandate for the BJP in West Bengal.

Who voted BJP?

I completely disagree with those who have been quick to blame Mamata for a political strategy that ‘backfired’. Again, it would be difficult to agree with anyone (I suspect the West Bengal BJP) who call it the Modi effect. It is foolish and ignorant to miss out the tremendous amount of work that the RSS has done in mobilising the people in all these frontier districts. I saw it in Jaigaon, a frontier town ion the Bhutan-West Bengal border in the Alipurduars constituency, during the Rama Navami celebrations on April 13 (north Bengal went to polls on April 18), and have seen it in my constituency, of Jalpaiguri.

The people I met in the last few months (since I began my fieldwork in March 2019) have continuously told me that they aren’t with Mamata. Of course, anti-incumbency is a major factor here and we should not forget that the TMC has been ruling the state for close to ten years (since it came to power by snubbing the Left regime in 2011). However, the same people took immense pleasure in repeating the slogan, aagey raam parey baam (first comes Rama and then the Left) which was often accompanied by an old Bengali proverb kaanta diye kaanta tulbo (we will weed out the thorns with thorns).

There were even reports that some powerful leaders of the Communist Party of India (Marxist) (at least more than one MLA) had asked the cadres and supporters to vote for the BJP. Of course, these were private meetings, but the message was quickly spread through WhatsApp and other social media networks.

I am not trying to say that the entire BJP mandate is a swing vote. The BJP took its campaign to the middle-class Bengali Hindus (mostly second and third generation Partition refugees) in all the frontier districts with the promise of eliminating the ‘Bangladeshi’ problem, and quickly succeeded in raking up disturbing memories of violence and hatred that have long flickered underneath the veneer of a Bengali secularism. But in all our analyses of the 2019 West Bengal elections, we should remember that the story about the Left cadres jumping ship while chanting slogans in the name of Ram is the hard truth.

Also read: Ground Report | CPI(M) Has Been a Major Force Behind BJP’s Mainstreaming in West Bengal

The sheer number of Hanuman temples in all these frontier towns (especially that of north Bengal) and their patronage networks suggest a grim story where the Left cadre appears to be filling in the ranks of a right-wing machinery. Try as you may to lay the blame on Mamata and her brand of ‘stupid secularism’, the truth is she seems to have retained some of her followers.

This was an extremely difficult fight for her. She was not just fighting anti-incumbency but infighting, loss of cadre base and charges of poll time violence in a tremendously long election spread out across seven phases. And she seems to have scored some decent wins. How else would you explain the stunning victory of all the Bengali film stars who were nothing but a sheer embarrassment to the reeling TMC? Look at the margins and you will see why it is too early to say that it is not Mamata but Modi who matters in Bengal.

Even in PCs like Bongaon, where the TMC has been snubbed, it is largely because of the consolidation of the Matua votes for the BJP under the guidance of the Thakur family that recently underwent a major split. The Matua TMC voter, both a Dalit (belonging to the Namasudra caste) and a Partition refugee, chose the BJP in significant numbers. And while the Leftist elites and politicians still don’t recognise a caste consolidation in West Bengal electoral politics, the BJP appears to have pitted the Namasudras and Sadgops (who can be said to be the equivalent of the Ahir community in north India) against the Muslims. They are paying back the TMC in the same coin of identity politics, only with the difference of sharper polarisation.

Significantly enough, if Amit Shah’s wishes of a BJP government were to come true, it would likely be led by Dilip Ghosh, RSS-pracharak-turned-BJP-party-president who reportedly belongs to the Sadgop caste. So while we are debating elections and strategies to resist right-wing nationalism, may we also remember that at least in West Bengal, Modi was lurking in the margins while the RSS, the Left Front and the Bengali Hindu Partition refugees came together as a combination that worked for the BJP? Before speaking of a people’s movement led by the civil society who are apparently still secular, can we please recognise the people as the core constituent of RSS-led movement all across the country?

Maybe we need to move beyond echo chambers and rethink our notion of the people. Clearly the old leftist idea of the people versus the state won’t work here ,because the people are the state – namely, Hindu India. Maybe this is the big story, among several others that we will hear for the next five years.

Samyak Ghosh studies history and literature at Columbia University in New York.