Finally, the Bhartiya Janta Party (BJP) got what it wanted in West Bengal. The state exploded into a battlefield. In the months leading to the state’s assembly election, the BJP has been goading Mamata Banerjee and her Trinamool Congress (TMC) to react to its non-stop war of attrition. A war between the muscular and minority appeasing ruling TMC and the aggressive nationalist BJP. For the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), winning this state is of paramount importance. Though Jana Sangh founder, Dr Syama Prasad Mookerjee, won the South Calcutta seat in the first general elections, of 1952, yet the party vanished from the political map of Bengal after his demise the next year at the age of 51.
The state’s close proximity to Bangladesh, a porous border, growing radicalisation, and the prospect of conquering and converting what was once a stronghold of an ideological nemesis is a big motivation for the BJP and a prize catch. No doubt, the central BJP leadership is not leaving anything to chance. Amit Shah himself has taken up the mantle to confront the might of Mamata Banerjee’s formidable Trinamool Congress.
West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee and her nephew, the so-called ‘Super Chief Minister’ Abhishek Banerjee, are suddenly on the offensive because they are finding it difficult to defend themselves against public anger. The levels of corruption, nepotism and arrogance seen in West Bengal under the TMC rule are so perverse that sitting ministers in the Mamata government are complaining that there is no merit being considered, cut money is the rule, and the nephew dictates and Mamata nods at violence, extortion, threats, appeasement of criminals and anti-national elements, to keep her hold on power.
Abhishek Mishra sums up the problem associated with Mamata and her TMC in his write-up on daily-o very aptly. He says “The tragedy of Mamata Banerjee is that she began by fighting for people’s rights, and when in power, she fought with people who asked for those same rights. The lady who acted as the voice of poor and landless in Singur, robbed them when she was in power as exemplified in the Narada and Saradha scam, where the TMC party, ministers and MPs acted in connivance with corporates and chit fund operators to loot the poorest, landless and voiceless in the society. The voters of West Bengal have seen the real face behind the mask of speaking for the poor and the farmers.”
Suvendu Adhikari and others like him who built TMC in West Bengal were feeling suffocated in TMC. They saw that except for daily humiliation at the hands of Abhishek Banerjee, whose wife was questioned for having a Thai passport, there is no development work possible in TMC.
The Shankhonaad (horn) of the election in West Begal has been done and it is very pertinent here to find the factors, the issues and the poll arithmetic that could be the difference between the BJP getting its first chief minister in the state and the party sitting in the opposition.
Will Left Aid the Right?
It may seem shocking that a strongly pro-Hindu party has established itself with such vigour in what was the left secular bastion of India for decades. But the truth is that the CPM had “out-Marxed” itself and was withering away. As per a report on news18 “The incremental decrease in Communist Party of India (Marxist)-led Left Front’s vote share is directly linked with the rise in the BJP’s vote share. While the saffron party’s vote share rose in every constituency from 2014 to 2019, that of the Left nosedived. The communists’ votes fell from 29.9 per cent to around 7.5 per cent (between 2014 and 2019) – a drop of more than 22 percentage points – while the share of the BJP jumped from 17 per cent to 40.2 per cent – a gain of 23.2 percentage points.”
A study by researchers quoted in the same report, shows that “every percentage point loss in the Left’s vote coincided with a 0.89 percentage point gain by the BJP. Though the BJP also benefitted by 0.71 percentage point for every percentage point loss of the TMC, the saffron party only gained in 16 constituencies where Trinamool lost its votes. Mamata Banerjee’s party actually increased its votes in 26 constituencies, particularly in South Bengal and North Bengal. Lokniti’s post-poll survey also shows that around two-fifths of traditional Left votes shifted to the BJP. Reports have also emerged that in many places, the middle and lower-rung cadres of the Left strategically voted for the BJP to oust Trinamool.”
So, if we go by this data, Left is certainly a big factor in providing a great platform to the Right.
Entry of Owaisi
Hyderabad-based Asaduddin Owaisi’s announcement of contesting the polls in West Bengal has sent the TMC into a tailspin with the Trinamool indirectly calling the AIMIM a party with an extremist ideology. Though AIMIM has no base in the state, even a small dent into the Muslim votes can be the difference between Mamata getting her third term and the BJP taking the reins of the state for the first time.
Muslims constitute around 30 per cent of the state’s voters and they hold sway over 120 assembly seats. The TMC, despite losing 12 seats in the 2019 parliamentary elections compared to 2014, when it won 34, increased its votes by around 4 percentage points, from 39 per cent to 43 per cent. This became possible as the Muslim community voted en masse for Mamata’s party. According to media reports, Owaisi’s party plans to contest on 70 of the total 294 assembly seats. If it manages to do a Bihar – bagging 5-10 per cent votes in seats it plans to contest – it will be the end of the road for the TMC.
One should not forget that Bengal does have a history soaked in communal bloodshed. West Bengal and East Bengal (now Bangladesh) saw one of the worst riots in history, marked by the infamous Calcutta Killings or Direct Action Day of 1946. Those killings and the parallel political discourse does have some resemblance with the Razakar-led separatist movement in the erstwhile state of Hyderabad, which wanted to join Pakistan. In those days, MIM, which later became AIMIM, under the leadership of one Qasim Rizvi, formed the militia of Razakars, stormtroopers, who resisted merger with India and wanted to form South Pakistan with Hyderabad as its centre. The riots in Bengal were also a direct fallout of the demand of two dominions based on religion.
With a rising BJP in Bengal promising implementation of the National Register of Citizens and Citizenship Amendment Act, a section of Muslims would surely look at the AIMIM to take on the saffron forces.
It seems that we have entered an era of the anti-incumbency vote. Only 9 governments (out of the 36 Assembly elections) have returned to power since the 2014 general elections. People have become very unforgiving.Ten years is a long enough time to be in power. A natural anti-incumbency, along with voter fatigue, creeps in. Very few chief ministers enjoy power for 10 years and go on to win a third successive term. Big leaders like Raman Singh (Chattisgarh), Bhupinder Singh Hooda (Haryana) lost while seeking votes for a third time.
Modi’s Charisma going on and on Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s popularity is still intact despite the COVID-19 shock and the resultant economic hardships faced by people. It worked in Bihar where Modi charisma pulled the NDA away from the brink of loss to victory. People, who were dissatisfied with the Nitish Kumar government’s work but were satisfied with the Modi government, voted in large numbers for the NDA. The strong point in favour of Mamata Banerjee is the lack of leadership in the state BJP. There is no leader worth his salt in the BJP who can match Didi’s charisma and statewide appeal.
However, we have seen in past elections that this doesn’t hinder the BJP’s prospects, especially when it is in the opposition. The leadership factor is compensated for by Modi, as the BJP is likely to make it a Modi versus Mamata battle.
Minority Appeasing Mamata
It was Mamata Banerjee’s alleged minority appeasement that provided the first push towards the BJP capturing the opposition space in the state. It all started with the TMC government announcing a stipend for the imams in the state, a year after coming to power. During Eid, one had to be blind not to notice the billboards and cut-outs of the chief minister and other senior leaders wearing the skull cap and offering namaaz. The BJP seized upon the opportunity and started attacking the Trinamool for what it referred to as minority appeasement. And as the party’s charge of appeasement gained traction, the TMC was forced to do a balancing act. Post the 2014 Lok Sabha polls, as the BJP’s vote share rose by almost 300 per cent, Mamata started doling out public money to Durga Puja committees. Recently, the government has started a stipend for priests, similar to the imam bhata (allowance).
Mamata also made some tactical blunders in this matter. In the run-up to the 2019 elections, short video clips went viral in which the West Bengal chief minister was seen charging at some people – ostensibly BJP supporters – who chanted ‘Jai Sri Ram’ while her convoy was passing through Paschim Midnapore district. Some locals were detained and later let off after being questioned. None other than Prime Minister Narendra Modi had recalled this event and chanted “Jai Sri Ram” at a public rally, daring Banerjee to arrest him. The episode was used against Banerjee and her government to show how the ruling dispensation was stifling Hindus and preventing them from practising their faith openly.
The election of 2019 has shown the Modi-Shah desire to conquer Bengal. PM Modi has visited Bengal in every phase of this election twice; only UP (with its mammoth 80 seats) has received more attention. But Mamata is not surrendering meekly. For someone who ousted the CPM by battling every street and village square, she will match Amit Shah and Modi “slap for slap”. Her aim remains, as she told NDTV, to “oust Modi”. She marches up and down the stage at one of her rallies and she calls Modi an actor, one who does nothing but make promises. She vows to stop him.
If anyone had said two decades ago that the saffron brigade would be a power house in West Bengal, they would have been laughed out of town. Today it’s not a joke. Everyone concedes that they will get 30% or more of the vote.
By Nilabh Krishna