New political equations in West Bengal have raised hopes for both the Trinamool Congress (TMC) and the BJP in the coming assembly elections. It is almost certain that the state is going to witness a triangular fight in most of the constituencies, now that there is an electoral alliance between the Left and the Congress even though in about a dozen seats they are contesting each other. As of now, the TMC has an edge over others. But a great deal depends on how these parties do their electioneering in the coming days. The stakes are high for the BJP; after losing in Delhi and Bihar, the party will now try hard to win as many seats as possible in West Bengal and Assam. But there are problems and the party has to address them.
The BJP lacks enough foot-soldiers to help it win a large number of seats. It controls only a handful of local-level political bodies such as gram panchayats, anchal panchyat and zilla parishad (village, block and district councils). In 2013 the TMC defeated the BJP in three-tier panchayat elections in all the districts. The BJP’s performance in the municipal elections was far from satisfactory. In the Kolkata municipal elections it lost to the TMC by wide margins. In the parliamentary elections in 2014, the BJP managed to secure 17.02% of the votes, as compared to 39.79% of the TMC. In the 2015 byelections in the Bangaon parliamentary and Krishanganj assembly constituencies, the BJP did relatively well and since then it has managed to put pressure on the ruling party. During the last one year it has organised a large number of rallies with prominent leaders of the party, with the turnout in each of these rallies being quite high.
In order to do well in the coming assembly elections, the party needs a cadre to mobilise support in different parts of the state. During the past four decades, the CPI(M) has spent a great deal of effort to build its local organisations, and the TMC has done the same thing since the 2011 assembly elections. It is difficult to deny that the tireless efforts of the foot-soldiers helped Mamata Banerjee to win polls over the past five years. The party’s defeat in the Delhi and Bihar assembly elections has demoralised the small group of BJP party workers in the state, and recruiting a cadre before the elections is not going to be easy.
The BJP has to leave behind its baahari (outsider) tag and for that it must project leaders who can speak in Bengali. Unfortunately, they do not have Bengali-speaking popular leaders. It seems they have lost an opportunity by not making an all-out effort to welcome the Trinamool’s much-maligned leader Mukul Roy, who is now back with the party. Also, the BJP has not yet succeeded in finding a stalwart who could be its chief ministerial candidate. As a result, it will be difficult for the party to convince the electorate that it can form the government under the leadership of a popular leader. In the Delhi assembly elections, the BJP paid the price of selecting its chief ministerial candidate late. The TMC has a chief ministerial candidate, and the CPI(M) too for quite some time is projecting one or two leaders who could be chief minister.
The BJP’s fault lines are in the Muslim-dominated districts such as Malda, North and South Dinajpur, Murshidabad and, to some extent, South 24 Parganas. According to the 2011 census, the Muslim population in the state has gone up to 27%. The lynching incident in Dadri, UP, and the anti-Muslim propaganda by the Sangh parivar will help other parties to grab this huge vote bank. The TMC took great care to keep the Muslim voters on its side by partially implementing the Sachar Committee Report (2006), including as many as 30 Muslim occupational categories in the state OBC list, and offering financial assistance and loans to the Muslim youth. The BJP, however, can expect some support from the 25% Dalits belonging to either the displaced Namasudra caste or the Rajbangshis in north Bengal. It depends a lot on how the Dalits vote in the border districts, where they are in a majority. The TMC and the CPI (M) have received the support of the Dalits from the border districts for many years by distributing fake voter cards and giving rations at a subsidised rate. The BJP is trying hard to get the support of a section of illegal migrants by calling them ‘Hindu refugees’.
All is not well with the TMC either. Besides the anti-incumbency factor, it is now struggling to deal with the crisis that emerged as a result of the Saradha chit fund scam. The party is still in damage control mode. The involvement of some high-profile TMC leaders in the scam raises questions about chief minister Mamata Banerjee’s commitment to root out corruption in the state. Similarly, questions are being raised about the TMC’s ability to offer good governance. The recent riots in Malda have exposed the ineffectiveness of the government machinery in dealing with law and order problems. As far as the economy is concerned, the TMC neither managed to attract investment for infrastructural growth nor created jobs. Against this backdrop, all eyes are now on the CPI(M)-Congress coalition. Is this a viable alternative? This seems to be the question that the people of West Bengal are asking now.
Abhijit Dasgupta is head of the department of sociology, Delhi School of Economics
The views expressed are personal