Why Has Nobody Called It Yet? An Analysis of the West Bengal Elections

The recent political transformation in Bengal and the way the campaigns have played out have made it difficult for commentators to have a conclusive stand.

The sixth and final phase of polling will be held on May 5. Credit: PTI

The sixth and final phase of polling will be held on May 5. Credit: PTI

Why have most political commentators been inconclusive about the West Bengal polls, even as polling draws to a close? Most of them, including this correspondent, have generally been uncertain about how to navigate the thin line between a good statistical analysis – which shows a tight contest – and what they perceive on the ground. Almost everyone can sense an under-current of anti-incumbency against the state government and a seemingly formidable opposition, both numerically and politically. Yet, it has been difficult for observers to call the elections.

The uncertainty emerges from four principal reasons. One, there is no perceptible wave-like condition in favour of any party. Despite numerous charges of corruption against her government, Mamata Banerjee is still perceived as the most forceful leader across the state. The anti-incumbency factor working against the Mamata Banerjee-led Trinamool Congress (TMC) government can at best be summed up as a sentiment of despair rather than any palpable anger. Two, the Left Front-Congress alliance, popularly called the Joat, is a dominant force only in north Bengal and few urban areas of a state that has 294 assembly seats, three-fourths of which are concentrated in the south. The principal opposition, the Left Front, has been rendered organisationally weak in most parts of Bengal over the last five years. Three, despite a tough opposition, a range of welfare measures introduced by the TMC government has had a positive impact, especially on rural voters. And finally, lack of a credible political alternative and the dominance of constituency-specific issues in the campaign creates additional confusions.

Political observers believe that West Bengal is no more the hyper-politicised state that it used to be a few years before. The 2011 assembly election that led to the downfall of the 34-year-old Left Front government was, in many ways, considered to be a watershed in the history of the state. Mamata Banerjee resolutely led the people’s struggles in Singur and Nandigram, and turned the Left Front and its industrialisation drive into a political spectre. Riding on a strong anti-incumbency wave, she led her party to a massive victory and emerged as the strongest mass leader the state had seen after the former communist chief minister Jyoti Basu.

What explains the lack of campaign focus on larger issues?

However, the 2016 assembly election is being fought on local electoral equations and depends largely on which party does poll management better. There has been no substantial campaign on larger problems like unemployment or agrarian crises that afflict the state. In the run-up to the polls, the opposition parties barely debated and discussed TMC’s policies and leadership – the twin agenda that Mamata Banerjee had taken up vehemently against the Left Front. Instead, both the Joat and the rejuvenated Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) have attacked the TMC government only on the grounds of corruption and a repressive state apparatus.

Congress Vice President Rahul Gandhi and former West Bengal chief minister and CPI(M) leader Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee at a joint election campaign rally in Kolkata. PTI Photo by Ashok Bhaumik

Congress Vice President Rahul Gandhi and former West Bengal chief minister and CPI(M) leader Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee at a joint election campaign rally in Kolkata. PTI Photo by Ashok Bhaumik

The present state of political affairs can largely be attributed to the transformative changes that West Bengal witnessed over the last five years, which, in a way, explains the absence of larger political factors in the 2016 electoral campaign. First, the change in regime after 34 years required Banerjee to shake up the administrative machinery right from the top to the bottom. The Communist Party of India (Marxist) [CPI(M)]-led Left Front government, in the three decades it ruled, had firmly entrenched itself in the administrative apparatus. The ubiquitous nature of the party organisation in each and every sphere of Bengali life had led to what Jawaharlal Nehru University professor Dwaipayan Bhattacharya calls “govermentalisation of the locality” in his book Government as Practice: Democratic Left in a Transforming India. While this phenomenon helped the government work smoothly on the ground, it undermined the autonomy of administrative bodies, and eventually created high-handed power brokers within the system. These power brokers were influential and also the primary mobilisers of votes for the Left Front.

The first thing that Banerjee did after assuming power was to dislodge this system and replace it with her own organisation. While the landed and propertied classes conveniently switched over to the TMC, Banerjee organised all those who were left behind during the Left Front under the TMC’s umbrella and prodded them to take over the existing system. This was a violent takeover leading to what many political commentators, including eminent economist Prabhat Patnaik, have called “lumpenisation of the proletariat” under the TMC’s regime. However, in a state where unemployment levels were high and an agrarian crisis slowly gnawed at people, this takeover felt empowering for many who had found TMC’s political patronage.

Most of these new power brokers came from socially marginalised groups like the OBCs, Dalits, Adivasis and the landless poor. The Left Front’s sole focus on class-based redistribution materialised through the much-celebrated Operation Barga, a highly successful land distribution and tenancy reform policy. However, it was rather unsuccessful in addressing the problem of social immobility among many such socially-discriminated identity groups. TMC tapped this unutilised political force against the CPI(M)’s organisational machinery.

Second, the small and middle peasantry, the primary beneficiaries of land distribution policy and tenancy reforms, and the section of population which formed the bedrock of the Left Front’s support, deserted the CPI(M). The Buddhadeb Bhattacharya-led Left Front government’s almost hysterical industrial drive catapulted Banerjee as ‘gariber netri’ or the poor people’s leader. The new power brokers, while violently asserting themselves against the prevailing system at each level of the government machinery, attained a sort of unofficial legitimacy from this core peasant group. Leaders like Anubrato Mondal, TMC’s muscleman in Birbhum, who took over both formal and informal businesses of the region, thus became the regional faces of the TMC. Many such Robinhood-like figures have emerged from the TMC’s stable in the last five years. Banerjee’s own Dadagiri, disguised in the cloak of a strong leader, reflected in the attitudes of its regional leaders. For instance, Banerjee openly challenged the Election Commission when it issued a notice to Anubrato Mondal for threatening the opposition.

Third, the political rise of community leaders on the lines of caste and religious identities, though unspoken, led to an ossification of social justice politics as practiced in north India. This was a significant departure from the way Left Front ruled. But it was novel and empowering for many in rural Bengal. One would easily notice that Banerjee’s speeches, mostly in rural dialects, are woven around problems of women and backward communities. Banerjee, herself, takes care to be seen as a rural leader, outside the mould of Kolkata’s bhadralok. Almost as a tactic of defiance, Banerjee shifted the secretariat from the legendary Writer’s Building to Howrah, what many would call a poor cousin of Kolkata. For Kolkata’s middle class, rendering the Writer’s Building non-functional amounts to nothing less than blasphemous. This finds tremendous resonance among the rural masses and has become one of the primary reasons for TMC’s unparalleled strength in rural Bengal.

Fourth, the TMC government has used the police to systematically repress all forms of middle class opposition – be it students, intellectuals, or civil society activists. Political observers believe that not lending any credence to the middle class anxieties about high-handedness and goondaism, the TMC government has seen to it that the Kolkata opinion, which had huge weight during the Left Front’s rule, stopped mattering in state’s politics. While doing so, Banerjee has successfully projected herself as a rural mass leader, who does not get swayed by the middle class advocacy of neo-liberal principles, especially industrialisation at the cost of agriculture – a political point she scores over her opposition. At the same time, the TMC government has introduced a range of welfare measures like the Khadya Sathi, Sabuj Sathi, Konyashree, Yuvashree, etc. for the poor. The TMC government claims that it has increased state subsidy from 2276.16 crore rupees in 2014-15 to 7078.81 crore rupees in 2016-17. While doing so, the TMC government has hardly done anything significant for the urban, educated population. For instance, the dearness allowance for state government employees is one of the lowest in India. Banerjee has stated many times that the state treasury does not allow her to increase it to the level of national average. Similarly, recruitment of teachers and lecturers has completely stopped in the last five years, leading to a considerable unrest among the educated class. At the same time, TMC relaxed municipal norms for construction in various municipal corporations, giving a free hand to local syndicates, adding to the disenchantment of the middle class.

Finally, while the TMC and the Left Front competed against each other, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) slowly gained ground in many districts of Bengal. Suresh Bhaiyyaji Joshi, general secretary of the RSS, on February 20 told the media that the RSS has grown in the state. From 598 shakhas, he said, the RSS now has more than 1500 shakhas in Bengal. A majority of these have mushroomed in five districts – Birbhum, Alipurduar, Jalpaiguri, North 24 Paragnas and Nadia. All these districts are border districts where the RSS has been raking up the issue of illegal Bangladeshi refugees. Apart from these districts, Kolkata city has seen a substantial increase in the number of RSS shakhas, where it attracts young Hindus by a combination of Hindutva and advocacy of neo-liberal economic development. It projects the TMC as a pro-Muslim party on one hand and offers an economic alternative on the lines of ‘Gujarat Model’ to the aspirational youth. It also tried to fuel the sentiment of Hindu victimhood by inciting a number of low-intensity communal riots in places like Asansol, Siliguri, and the Muslim-majority district Malda in the last few years.

Mamata Banerjee speaking at a rally. Credit: PTI

Mamata Banerjee speaking at a rally. Credit: PTI

The cumulative impact of these ground-level factors has led to a sharp polarisation of political standpoints on class lines. The middle class, involving the intellectuals, government servants, and small traders, have almost completely turned against the TMC. They perceive the TMC as an undisciplined political front led by a benevolent despot who has put together a party of criminals and extortionists. The unfolding of Sharada chit fund scam and the Narada sting operation exposing some bigwigs of TMC taking bribes have only fueled this sentiment further. However, the middle class disenchantment against the TMC is neutralised by the support Mamata Banerjee has in large swathes of rural Bengal and amongst the urban poor. Her welfare measures, which the middle class often dismisses as populist, seems to have benefitted a significant population in the state.

Both the opposition groups – the Joat and the BJP –, therefore, were forced to mount their campaign against the TMC on primarily two grounds – corruption and a repressive state apparatus, both largely middle class concerns. The Left Front, thus, has been pushed into an ironical situation where its main support comes from not the peasantry, but the ‘enlightened’ middle class of urban Bengal. This is largely due to the violent attacks it had to face in rural Bengal over the last few years. “On 10 April, 2013, the TMC cadre, in a planned way, either burnt down or vandalized 1200 of our party offices. In one day. Likewise, over the last few years, our cadres had to face the brunt of TMC’s hooliganism every day. Most of our party offices in rural Bengal have been destroyed. It is from such a situation we have risen to give a strong resistance to TMC. Our fight is to re-instate a democratic environment in the state,” Debasish Chakraborty, state committee member of the CPI(M) told The Wire.

The Congress-Left Front alliance

The Left Front gained confidence from the growing middle class antipathy towards the TMC. A weak organisational machinery forced the Left Front to ally with the Congress despite the fact that they have been traditional rivals both in Bengal and other states like Kerala. “It was a question of survival for the Left Front. The idea of opposition uniting against the government also has a historical precedence in Bengal. The CPI(M) wanted to ally with the then Janata Party in 1977 as it stood cornered in the brutal fight between the Siddhartha Shankar Ray-led Congress government and the Naxalites. It had offered 56% of the total seats to Janata Party which had no foothold here. It had also offered to accept Janata Party leader Prafulla Sen as the chief minister. However, the alliance could not materialise as the Janata Party wanted 70% of the seats. It is another matter that the CPI(M) fought alone and won the elections with a great majority,” said Ashish Chakrabarti of The Telegraph, a daily published in Kolkata.

Political observers, however, believe that the alliance will benefit the Congress more than the Left Front. “The CPI(M) which used to contest around 215 seats until now is contesting only 140 seats. The Congress is contesting 90 seats while the rest of Left Front constituents are contesting in the remaining constituencies. In around 20 seats, the alliance could not materialise as both the Congress and one of the Left Front constituents have been bitter rivals there. This is hugely advantageous for the Congress which is strong only in 50-60 seats, mostly in north Bengal. In many constituencies where the Congress is now contesting, it did not even have a double-digit vote share in the 2011 assembly polls,” said Prasenjit Bose, an economist and a political activist based in Kolkata.

PM Narendra Modi and Union Minister Babul Supriyo at a BJP election rally in Asansol. PTI Photo by Swapan Mahapatra

PM Narendra Modi and Union Minister Babul Supriyo at a BJP election rally in Asansol. PTI Photo by Swapan Mahapatra

One thing the Joat has succeeded in is that its combined strength has nullified the BJP factor to a great extent. What was predicted to be a triangular fight is now a closely contested election between the TMC and Left Front-Congress combine. Going by the 2014 parliamentary poll figures, the Joat managed to be ahead of the TMC in 107 assembly segments. The BJP may lose a substantial number of votes in this bi-polar assembly polls. The broader question, however, is where these votes will shift? The Joat hopes to corner most of these with an assumption that the BJP votes were essentially anti-TMC votes. This may not be the correct way to go, as the voters’ considerations are radically different in parliamentary and assembly polls. From 2008 to 2016, Bengal has gone through six elections, including the local bodies’ polls, and in each of them the TMC has secured a comfortable majority everywhere except in Siliguri. Despite this, the under-current of anti-incumbency against TMC has never been so palpable. Therefore, the only option that the Joat had was to go after the growing oppositional middle class space, however negligible it may be and hope that the twin agenda of corruption and repression may find some traction among the rural masses. With around 50 urban seats, trying to consolidate the middle class in its canvassing made electoral sense too.

The unprecedented social churning in Bengal

The variety of factors at play has catalysed an unprecedented social churning in Bengal, aiding and abetting the unpredictability of the election. This largely amorphous social churning that went on over the last few years makes the 2016 assembly polls in Bengal not just unique but also difficult to comprehend as a range of influences seem to be working on ground. Ranabir Samaddar of the Mahanirban Calcutta Research Group said the transformations within the Bengali society can be viewed as ‘subalternisation’ of state’s politics. “TMC’s strength is almost proportional to the destitution of society. As a result, the politics is much less Calcutta-centric,” he told The Wire.

“TMC is not as organised as the Left Front. It emerged as a movement – unruly, uncontrolled. In some way what you see is the response of the subaltern to the six-decade long rule of the political class. You have in this response due amount of lumpenisation, due amount of crime, but also enormous amount of entry of poor people who think that TMC is their new protector. Populism is, perhaps, the last resort of the subaltern masses in these trying times of globalisation. The Left failed because it thought of development in a highly statist manner, sometimes neo-liberal manner too. The middle class in Kolkata, so infatuated with the Principles of Enlightenment, liked it as they enjoyed both the prestige of the Left and the power of the Right. It was the only section which more or less supported the Left Front’s industrialisation drive while most people were thinking just the opposite,” he said.

“Bengal is taking the path of Bihar’s politics. With the new style of functioning, new political patronage, new way of welfare, the questions regarding caste and social exclusion are slowly being addressed – in a way the issue of social justice was raised in Bihar from Karpoori Thakur to Lalu Yadav, and now Nitish Kumar. This process has begun in Bengal. If TMC wins despite the middle class disenchantment, then we can say that a model based on a strong government which has marginalized the opposition under a stable, populist, benevolent, autocratic leadership is generally succeeding in India. Jayalalithaa, Navin Patnaik, Nitish Kumar, Mamata Banerjee will all be seen as running that state model,” he added.

With this emphatic ‘subalternisation’ that Samaddar talks about, both lumpenisation and empowerment strikes together, difficult to distinguish, almost like the poison and nectar that comes out of a blooming flower. West Bengal, at present, stands at this crucial political juncture trying to move forward like an adolescent child unsure of her direction.