West Bengal 2021: Where the national hegemon is a local rebel
There seems to be a political consensus about the direction of the wind. There are strong headwinds for the TMC and tailwinds for the BJP. The only uncertainty which exists currently is regarding the magnitude of this change
Overwhelming mandates, before they are lost, are frittered away. This can happen on account of errors of both omission and commission. Such errors have their origins in various factors — lack of vision and political foresight, hubris, and often, complacency on account of the lack of a strong opposition.
To be sure, just the fact that the incumbent has frittered away the mandate does not entail an automatic electoral upset. The existing opposition might not be in a position to challenge the incumbent. And, even when a new opposition emerges, it takes time for it to establish itself as the main challenger to the opposition. Once it has done so, it takes a counter-narrative to convince the electorate to decisively vote out the incumbent.
In 2016, the All India Trinamool Congress (TMC) won 211 out of the 294 assembly constituencies (AC) in West Bengal with a 45.6% vote share. This was the largest ever mandate for any single party in the state. The TMC’s stellar success in 2016 came on the back of a big victory in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections, when it won 34 out of the 42 Lok Sabha constituencies in the state despite a nationwide Narendra Modi wave.
The TMC and its leader Mamata Banerjee saw the 2014 and 2016 success as a sign of hopelessly divided opposition and no immediate threat to the TMC’s fortunes in the future. In doing so, it made the cardinal sin of assuming that a realignment of opposition votes will never take place to pose a bigger challenge to it.
The sense of having a weak opposition also led to complacency on the political-ideological front where efforts were not made to counter-strategise against a tectonic shift — the rise of the Baharatiya Janata Party (BJP) as India’s new national political hegemon — underway in national politics.
The fact that ideology was not in command as far as the TMC is concerned was also a result of two additional factors. The first is the lack of any coherent ideological anchor for the TMC as a party, which has been its characteristic feature since the beginning. TMC’s political allies have, so far, included both BJP and the Congress among electoral players, and its support base has ranged from Kolkata’s urban elite to Maoist activists/sympathisers in the state. The second is the inability of the government, especially its leader Mamata Banerjee, to evolve an alternative political economy vision for her government beyond the politics of throwing doles at every problem.
It is this frittering away of the massive 2016 mandate which has brought the TMC at the cusp of loss of political power in the state. Most common voters do not see any harm in a change after 10 years. Even the strongest supporters of the TMC do not see their party more than scraping through in these elections. The BJP, on the other hand, is claiming that it is all set to stage a massive upset, perhaps at a scale which is greater than what the TMC inflicted on the 34-year-old Communist Party of India (Marxist) or CPI(M)-led Left Front government, in the 2011 elections.
HT travelled across Kolkata, North and South 24 Parganas, East and West Bardhaman and Birbhum districts of the politically crucial South Bengal region. It is the only region in the state — there are 167 ACs spread across eight districts — where the TMC could prevent the BJP from finishing ahead of it in the 2019 elections, to understand the prevailing political sentiment in the state.
There seems to be a political consensus about the direction of the wind. There are strong headwinds for the TMC and tailwinds for the BJP. The only uncertainty which exists currently is regarding the magnitude of this change. Here are some factors which will matter in the 2021 contest for West Bengal.
TMC’s governance model: Weak state or deliberately weakened state?
Relief work, or lack of it, post Amphan, the massive cyclone which hit many districts of South Bengal in early 2020, is being seen as a big source of anti-incumbency for the TMC in these elections. That it took days to restore power supply even in the posh areas of the state capital was seen as a sign of a dysfunctional state apparatus under the TMC.
Such an inference would be far-fetched, said a senior government official who spoke to HT on the condition of anonymity. The state can be very strong and effective if it wants to be. Its ability or lack of it to perform its designated functions is more a question of political will and the inputs which go into political decision-making, which is pretty much confined to just one person, the chief minister, he said.
Take an example.
Last year, the West Bengal government announced that it would give tablets to class 12 students to facilitate online learning as schools were closed in the lockdown. The announcement was made before the logistics were discussed. Once the government started the procurement process, it realised that it would take lot more time to get the tablets than was expected. Within weeks, the scheme was changed to a cash transfer of ₹10,000 for each beneficiary. Students in interior villages acknowledged having received the money. But a school principal in Kolkata said the government delegated the responsibility of submitting utilisation certificates for the scheme to schools, which the staff clearly saw as an extra burden.
Not all governance-related matters can, however, be solved as easily as the shift from tablets to cash. Centralisation and ignoring due processes does not help in avoiding such mishaps at every step.
The disdain for due process is a direct by-product of the government’s, in this case, the chief minister’s vision, the official quoted above said. It consists of a cocktail of offering doles and what is termed as “cosmetic development”, a term which perhaps does not exist anywhere else in the country. The latter is best captured by decisions such as starting a “Floating Market” in Patuli area of Kolkata. It has, unsurprisingly, ended up as a stinking conglomeration of shops on a drain. The announcement was in line with Banerjee’s promise of making Kolkata like London — when you drive into the city from the airport, you can see a Big Ben replica on your way — but whether this vision is operationalised through due process or adequate consultation or even thinking through the implications is unclear.
The state government boasts of a lot of welfare schemes and handouts targeted at everyone, from women and students to Durga Puja committees and clerics. This has come at a financial cost for a state which has always been in dire straits. And these are not just infrastructure or investment-related costs. State government employees have seen their dearness allowances delayed, and the lower one goes down the hierarchy, the more angry government employees are about it.
Anybody in the bureaucracy who criticises or even expresses scepticism about these things runs the risk of being sidelined, or worse, being branded as a potential saboteur. The senior bureaucracy has taken the cue and decided that it is best not to bell the cat, the officer HT spoke to said.
Sometimes, this leads to even otherwise good work being compromised. When Covid-19 broke out in the city, the government-run Bangur hospital provided one of the best services, even better than private hospitals in the city. But this goodwill was frittered away once the government started withholding data to show that the state had a low Covid-19 case count, generating friction with the Centre in the initial weeks of the pandemic.
The worst-affected arm of the state apparatus on this count has been the police. The police is seen as colluding with the ruling party to persecute its opponents, while giving a free pass to the ruling party’s Mastans (the Bengali slang for goons). But its worst manifestation was seen during the 2018 panchayat elections, when the TMC cadre vitiated democratic process at multiple levels. That the Election Commission is receiving complaints and acting against police station level officers is the best example of how compromised the ground-level police have become.
To be sure, West Bengal had its share of political intervention in governance even earlier. However, the magnitude of these problems has increased manifold compared to the days when the CPI(M) was in power. Unlike the CPI(M), the TMC does not have an ideologically aligned party apparatus. What it has are a bunch of strongmen in districts, who seek glory in their reputation of not playing by the rules.
To cut a long story short, the electorate gave a bigger mandate to the TMC in 2016 than it had in 2011. But the government’s delivery and its bonafides went down in the second term.
Secularism: Baptism by fire for even Muslims
One of the biggest reasons why the TMC is seen having an edge against the BJP is the sizeable population of Muslims in West Bengal. They constituted 27% of the state’s population in the 2011 census. Minority “appeasement” is among the biggest campaign planks of the BJP in these elections. Common Muslims, HT spoke to, reveal how this is true and false at the same time.
South 24 Parganas district is among the most densely populated areas in the world and extends from Kolkata up to the Sunderban delta. It was also one of the worst affected districts in Amphan. The TMC has faced a lot of criticism for corruption and favouritism in administering Amphan relief. Muslims account for 35.6% of the district’s population.
A group of Muslim women in a village in Bhangur told HT that they did not receive any post-Amphan assistance and their houses do not even have roofs. They are have making do with a plastic sheet. However, the TMC has been proactive enough to make a new place for offering Namaz (Muslim prayers) in the village. It came up just two -and-a-half months before the elections.
Aren’t you angry, we asked? Raag kore ki labh (what do we gain from getting angry), came the answer.
The roots of this answer are two-fold. The first is common across the country. As the BJP becomes an ascendant force, the dominant secular party can afford to take Muslim support for granted. The second is a unique and extremely perverse feature of West Bengal politics. Canning East, the assembly constituency (AC) adjacent to Bhangur, and also a Muslim majority AC, was voting the day HT visited the area.
The main contest here was between the incumbent MLA and TMC strongman Shaukat Mollah and Gazi Shahabuddin Siraji, the candidate of the newly floated Indian Secular Front (ISF), which is an ally of the CPI(M) and the Congress. HT followed the ISF candidate in a few polling booths. His main challenge was to encourage his supporters to come out and vote without fear of retribution from the TMC. The central forces are on the polling booth, but the TMC Mastans are standing inside villages and threatening our supporters against voting, one of his local level leaders said. In one village, TMC supporters hurled bombs at the ISF supporters and the latter collectively resisted the attack. By the evening, reports started coming in that it was Shaukat Mollah who went and sat on a dharna alleging malpractices in the elections.
Because the party-society model of West Bengal seeks complete domination even at the grassroots level, this makes even Muslims, who do not want to toe the TMC’s party-line, potential targets of the TMC’s strong-arm tactics. While the ISF is likely to be the biggest beneficiary of this anger in these elections, even the BJP gains from it at places.
Baduria AC in North 24-Parganas and Bolpur AC in Birbhum district are very different in terms of population and terrain. The former has a 70% share of Muslims, while the latter has an equal share of Hindus. Baduria witnessed large scale communal riots in 2017 after a derogatory social media post about Prophet Mohammad. However in both places, HT found a couple of Muslims within the ranks of BJP activists.
Why are they with the BJP, we asked? They have either faced violence or persecution at the hands of the TMC, we were told. Mohsin, a young Muslim man in Baduria, who works for a left-leaning organisation called the Young Bengal, said he was beaten up and receives threats by the local Muslim leadership of the TMC because he went to vote against them.
The BJP is pragmatic enough to take advantage of such discontent where it can tap it. The photograph of a Muslim man whispering in the ears of Prime Minister Narendra Modi in one of his rallies, and promise of better functioning welfare schemes, where political partisanship will not lead to exclusion, is trying to do exactly that.
None of this is to say that the TMC will suffer large-scale losses in its Muslims strongholds. At best, there will be some upsets. But the rural electorate of the state, including Muslims, know the asymmetric burden they have to bear for the cause of secularism, if saving it requires keeping the TMC in power. Given a chance, they would be happy to get rid of it.
BJP’s everyday communalism has embraced the ghosts of partition in West Bengal
The Bangladesh border is not even hundred kilometres from Kolkata. Migration, both of Muslims and Hindus, has happened on a large scale and continues to take place.
In the Namashudra (a large dalit group in West Bengal) dominated Gobardanga area in Bangaon Lok Sabha's Gaighata AC in the North 24 Parganas district one can distinguish the new refuges from the old by looking at houses. The new ones have tin walls, while the older ones live in traditional pakka houses.
Namashudras are the most prominent among Hindu migrants from Bangladesh and the Citizenship (Amendment) Act, which seeks to grant citizenship status to Hindus but not Muslims, is an important political issue for them, and the BJP is capitalising on it. “The BJP’s victory in West Bengal is crucial for the internal and external security of India, otherwise anti-India forces will succeed in their ‘Greater Bangladesh’ project,” said Sudip Ghosh a senior BJP leader in Baraipur town in South 24-Parganas.
In order to pre-empt the campaign by opponents of the National Register of Citizens (NRC) and CAA — that they might be sent to detention camps or fail to produce necessary documents — the BJP has promised a payment of ₹50,000 over five years in its manifesto to applicants who seek to utilise the CAA route.
That the TMC has not made NRC-CAA a big point of its campaign shows its unwillingness to take a principled stand against the policy, lest it lose the Namashudra vote. A large number of Namashudras who have migrated from Bangladesh, are likely to have faced persecution at the hands of Muslims in the neighbouring country.
Local level intimidation, to the extent of not allowing opponents to put up even party flags is common in West Bengal. When HT travelled with Anirban Ganguly, the BJP candidate in Bolpur AC, during his campaign, one of his stops was at the place of a BJP worker in Dharmpur village who was beaten up by TMC goons while putting up BJP flags. The supporter in question also happened to be a saffron clad Sadhu (monk). The BJP candidate did not forget to highlight this issue while registering his protest. The monk’s peers across the AC were planning a protest at the local Ilambazar police station against the violence. We will contact other organisations in Kolkata and Delhi too, the candidate said.
It is exactly this phenomenon, the conversion of local decentralised conflicts – any BJP activist, monk or no monk, would have faced violence from the TMC in that village – into communal ones, which has been described by political scientists Sudha Pai and Sajjan Kumar as everyday communalism in their 2017 book published by the Oxford University Press.
Between entrenched communal fault-lines which date back to the partition, gifts of everyday communalism which the TMC keeps delivering to the BJP and the perception of minority “appeasement”, it is not surprising that religious polarisation is at an all-time high in the state.
Enter Narendra Modi: The man who can do no wrong
Kolkata is perhaps the least ghettoised metro in India when it comes to class-based segregation. The poor and the rich still live in close proximity in most parts of the city.
Lala Colony is a dalit settlement in ward number 61 of Kolkata Municipal Corporation. HT spoke to a street vendor who sells puris to make a living. How has business been after the pandemic, we asked? It has collapsed, he said. What about price rise? It hurts, the answer came.
Shouldn’t the BJP be held responsible? That is where the faith in the central leadership of the party, particularly Narendra Modi, comes in. “How much can one man do? When the lockdown happened, we got free LPG cylinders under the Ujjwala Yojna. Women got ₹500 in their accounts. Modi cannot give these things out of his pocket, he must recover the costs from somewhere. I know some people who sold their Ujjwala LPG cylinder to others, but at least they made some money. When the economy revives, then our fortunes will also revive, right now all countries are facing a difficult time. At least, Modi does not differentiate on the basis of religion while distributing relief,” he added, clearly taking a potshot at the TMC.
That the BJP keeps trying to, and with great success, insulate Modi’s image from policy failure or the economy’s poor performance is a well known factor. What is surprising is the fact that the acceptability of this campaign, especially among the poorest, does not seem to fade. In fact, the appeal becomes stronger as one moves from cities to villages where income opportunities are scarce and poverty higher. That large parts of West Bengal are among the poorest regions in the country only increases the attractiveness of the central government welfare schemes which might appear paltry if income levels were higher.
It is not surprising that the BJP first broke ground in the Scheduled Tribe (ST) dominated Jangal Mahal sub-region of the state. Even today, the BJP considers Scheduled Caste (SC) and ST voters, the poorest in the state, to be its biggest support base among the Hindus in the state.
The politics of centralised delivery of welfare benefits, something Yamini Aiyar and Neelanjan Sircar have described in a 2020 paper, is a crucial factor in this development. Poor voters believe that the TMC government has blocked central government’s welfare benefits in the state and they stand to gain once the BJP comes to power, a BJP activist in Bolpur told HT.
There is some amount of truth to this claim. West Bengal is the only major state which does not allow PM-KISAN transfers to farmers. In one of his rallies, Narendra Modi directly addressed the state bureaucracy and asked that lists of farmers be prepared in advance so that the payments can be made once the BJP comes to power.
The organisational deficit of the BJP and how it is making up for it
In ward number 61 of Kolkata, the BJP did not even have a polling agent at the booth in the 2019 elections. It still got 4,000 votes. The street vendor, quoted above, admitted to participating in all processions of the TMC, but said he will vote for the BJP. Many local activists of the TMC and CPI(M) acknowledge this fact — potential BJP voters are masquerading as TMC workers.
The BJP’s organisational challenge is more acute in rural areas though. Anirban Ganguly, the BJP candidate from Bolpur, is a rank outsider to his AC, technically speaking. He heads the Shyama Prasad Mukherjee Research Foundation, a party-affiliated think tank in Delhi, and has been leading the BJP’s “intellectual outreach” in the state in the past few years. Bolpur votes on April 29, and the BJP is trying very hard to put up polling agent in every booth. Ganguly is hands-on with everything from planning his campaign schedule to deciding rally venues and taking care of the intra-organisation friction. In a well-oiled organisation, a candidate would not have to deal with these things.
The TMC won this AC with a lead of 15,612 votes over the BJP in the 2019 Lok Sabha elections. In 2016, the BJP was practically non-existent in Bolpur.
The BJP organisation, while it has expanded significantly, is still no match for the TMC. Birbhum is Anubrata Mandal’s area, who is perhaps the TMC’s biggest strongman in the state. A large part of the BJP cadre base is also a persecuted lot. Many have faced TMC violence, have police cases slapped against them and continue to face risk of more violence.
The story of BJP’s organisational growth in Bolpur is not very different from the kind of people the ISF has been able to draw in Muslim-dominated pockets. The image of being rebels against the ruling party, while it increases their physical vulnerability, also grants them a political appeal and sympathy at the local level.
The grassroot cadre of the BJP comprises of many former CPI(M) workers who saw in the BJP the ability, and more importantly, willingness to take on the wrath of the TMC. It is hardly surprising that many of the BJP’s slogans in these elections, such as Lorche Kara? BJP! (Who is fighting? BJP!), are a modified version of what used to be very popular in the CPI(M) ranks.
That senior BJP leaders, including Cabinet ministers, visit their activists who have faced violence on a regular basis has helped create this perception. This is something the CPI(M) leadership, both at the national and state level, failed to do effectively after it lost power in 2011. The decisive moment on this count came in the 2018 panchayat elections. The TMC unleashed unprecedented repression and the BJP emerged as the main opposition force in the state by providing biggest resistance on the ground.
This is not to say that the BJP has not deployed violence where it can, but their ability to do so is still far lower than the TMC. Resources, both material and human, which the BJP can afford to deploy even from outside West Bengal, have obviously helped. Important TMC defectors, such as Suvendu Adhikari, are also most useful on this count.
While the BJP is seen as the dominant party in rest of the country, in West Bengal it is still as a bunch of rebels who have dared to take on the local strongmen of the TMC. The glue which binds its nascent organisation on the ground is not effective organisers or leaders, but the belief that the BJP is the most effective weapon in the fight against the TMC.
While it is premature, the BJP’s organisational problems will be far greater if it does capture power in the state than what they are now. Many BJP workers including local level leaders and activists HT spoke to, articulated this concern. While they acknowledge the utility of TMC turncoats in the ongoing electoral battle, they are also apprehensive about the “non-ideological” lot garnering a greater share of the pie if the party were to win.
Two narratives in West Bengal: Assertion of invincibility versus “we are almost there”
While it is hazardous to predict electoral outcomes, this author, during his election reporting trips, has seen the BJP gain continuous momentum in West Bengal between the 2018 panchayat elections and the 2021 assembly elections. In 2018, the BJP settled the contest for the main opposition party by winning far more panchayat seats than the CPI(M). In 2019, it was strong enough to challenge the TMC directly and inflict a heavy damage on it. The BJP’s campaign rhetoric of winning West Bengal in 2021 draws a lot of credibility from its ability to deliver on its 2018 and 2019 claims.
The TMC, on the other hand, is largely banking on an assertion of invincibility. Most TMC activists, HT spoke to, admit that the seat tally will come down from what it was in 2016 and even though prospects in their specific constituency look slightly difficult, the TMC would manage to retain power somehow.
This is in a way comparable to the situation in 2011 when the TMC had significantly improved its performance in the 2008 panchayat and 2009 Lok Sabha elections and the CPI(M) was banking on its unbeaten track record of 34 years.
The CPI(M): new wine in an old bottle
The CPI(M), which ruled West Bengal from 1977 to 2011, lost the status of the main opposition party in the state in 2016. In the 2019 Lok Sabha elections, not only did it fail to win a Lok Sabha seat, it also did not have a lead in any of the 294 ACs. In the 26 ACs which it won in 2016, the CPI(M) was relegated to the third position in 18 ACs. In seven out of these, its vote share was less than 10%.
CPI(M) offices from Kolkata to districts headquarters to small towns bear a deserted look in these elections. However, what seem to be enthusing left supporters in the state is a new crop of young leaders. These include people like Minakshi Mukherjee, who was fielded in the Nandigram, and Aishe Ghosh, a candidate in Jamuria AC in Asansol. Ghosh grabbed national limelight as the Jawaharlal Nehru Students’ Union President (JNUSU) when she was attacked by alleged ABVP supporters in JNU. Mukherjee has been getting a lot of praise for her campaign speeches.
While the incumbent MLA in Jamuria is from the CPI(M), its AC-wise vote share plummeted to just 9.5% in the 2019 elections. HT accompanied Ghosh on one of her campaign rounds and people recognise her as the young woman who faced violence and appreciate the fact that the party has put up a fresh face. Some of them might vote for the CPI(M) even though they voted for the BJP in the 2019 elections. Any shot at victory, however, will require a large-scale shift in an election where everyone sees the TMC and the BJP as the main players.
While the younger candidates are drawing appreciation, large sections within and outside the party are critical of the alliance with ISF, which draws its main appeal from religion. There is also significant amount of despair over the political irrelevance of the left in the state. Common voters, however, do not have any sympathy for the older CPI(M) activists who enjoyed and wielded state power until 2011.
In an election, where the BJP is trying to push communal polarisation, it is suicidal for the left to have embraced a force like the ISF, a senior party leader in Bardwan district, once considered the stronghold of the CPI(M), said.
Others see this as an act of compulsion for the party to stay electorally relevant. “I cast my first vote in 2009, and I have not got an opportunity to walk in a victory procession till today. The party needs to do all it can to win”, Aniruddha Dhar, a young CPI(M) activist told HT not very far from the state headquarters of the party in Kolkata.
The CPI(M) leadership championed the idea of an alliance with the Congress in 2016 on precisely these lines; the promise of an improvement in electoral performance. The experiment ended up in the CPI(M) losing the status of major opposition party to the Congress. Some political observers, including people within the party, believe that the ISF might end up getting more seats than the CPI(M) this time.
The alliance with the ISF is only the latest addition to the list of CPI(M)’s historic blunders in the state.
Kapil Krishna Thakur, a Dalit writer, is the CPI candidate from Gaighata AC in Bangaon district, which is reserved for Scheduled Caste candidates. The BJP had a lead of 35,948 votes over the TMC in this AC in 2019. The left lost this AC in the 2001 Lok Sabha election itself.
The Namashudra community, most of which associates with the Matua sect, first shifted towards the TMC in large numbers and is now mobilised behind the BJP.
It was Kanti Biswas, a Namashudra CPI(M) leader, who first won Gaighata for the left. It was an unreserved AC back then. Biswas was named the education minister in the second Left Front government which was formed in 1982. Biswas recounted in his memoirs, Brahmin teachers and headmasters writing to Pramod Das Gupta, the then party secretary, asking that a chandal (low caste) not be given the education ministry, even though he could be given bigger responsibilities in the government. While PDG, as Dasgupta was popularly known, refused to accept such demands, the later generations of the CPI(M) leadership failed to realise the importance of what their own party had done.
In a 2013 interview, Sitaram Yechury, the current general secretary of the CPI(M) had to say the following about Biswas. “Kanti Biswas was the education minister for many years in West Bengal. I had no idea he was Dalit. We used to travel all across the country in the same coupe. I did not know he was Dalit till Kanshi Ram asked this. The point was these things were never part of our consciousness..Unfortunately, instead of raising the country’s level to mine, where I, a Brahmin, did not even know I am in the same carriage as a Dalit, we had to stoop down to the Kanshi Ram level. We are doing it now”, he added.
Recognising caste as a reality might have come too late for the CPI(M) in West Bengal as the marginalised communities first shifted towards the TMC and are now gravitating towards the BJP. With the Hindu SC-ST groups solidly lining up behind the BJP and the Muslims embracing the ISF as a viable option against the TMC, especially if it were to lose power, any left resistance to the BJP in West Bengal would find it very difficult to include the have-nots in the future.