Bengal elections begin on March 27; state stares at bi-polar contest
The eight-phase West Bengal assembly elections will begin on March 27, announced the Election Commission on Friday. The eastern state is looking at a bi-polar contest between the ruling Trinamool Congress (TMC) and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) with the CPI(M) and its Left Front partners, the Congress and cleric Abbasuddin Siddiqui’s Indian Secular Front trying to emerge as the third contender in some districts.
Chief minister Mamata Banerjee has projected the political battle as a personal one because of the Central Bureau of Investigation’s (CBI) ongoing investigation into the multi-crore coal smuggling scam in which the agency has questioned her nephew and Lok Sabha MP Abhishek Banerjee’s wife and sister-in-law. The CM has sharpened her attack on the BJP since last week, declaring at her rallies that it is she who would be contesting all the 294 assembly seats.
“Threats of jail sentence cannot scare us...I will not surrender as long as I am alive. You cannot break our spine. A tiger cub is not scared of cats and mice,” she said at an event on Kolkata on January 21.
To oust her government, the BJP has also pulled out all the stops with Prime Minister Narendra Modi visiting Bengal three times in 30 days since January 23, followed by Union home minister Amit Shah, BJP president JP Nadda and more than 30 Union ministers and senior BJP leaders from other states who Banerjee calls “outsiders with no roots in Bengal.” Many of these BJP leaders are camping in Bengal. The party is holding more than a dozen events every day.
To trace the growth of the BJP vis-à-vis that of the TMC’s, political experts often look at 2009 Lok Sabha elections, when the TMC was not in power in Bengal. The Left Front secured 43.3% votes but won only 15 seats. In comparison, 19 seats went to the TMC although its vote share was 31.18%. In that election, the BJP got only 6.14% votes and one seat in Bengal.
The BJP has drastically improved its position since, winning two Lok Sabha seats in 2014 and 18 seats in 2019 and targeting at least 200 of the 294 seats in these elections. In terms of vote share in the 2019 polls, the TMC got 43.69% against BJP’s 40.64 %. The CPI(M)’s vote share came down to 6.34 % while the Congress got only 5.67%.
The most impressive achievement of the BJP in the last election was its penetration in regions with tribal voters, such as the districts of Purulia, Bankura, West Midnapore and also parts of north Bengal where it managed to win seven out of the region’s eight Lok Sabha seats.
The BJP’s success in north Bengal and the south Bengal districts of Nadia and Hooghly is seen as a sign of the party’s popularity among Hindus who are either descendants of refugees from Bangladesh or who crossed the border when they were younger to escape religious persecution.
The same applies to the Dalit Matua community which helped the BJP win the Bongaon Lok Sabha seat in North 24 Parganas district. In the same district, support of Hindi-speaking people from Bihar and other states helped the party bag the Barrackpore Lok Sabha seat as well.
State BJP spokesperson Debjit Sarkar said, “This election is about getting relief from the misrule, anarchy and nepotism established by the TMC since 2011. This poll is about building a golden Bengal and establishing democracy. We hope holding the polls in several phases will help counter the electoral malpractices the TMC has an expertise in.”
Politicians from all spectrums admit that religion, caste and creed have never been so important in any Bengal election in the past. The most important role, poll observers say, is going to be played by Muslims.
According to the 2011 census, Bengal’s population stood at 91.3 million. It is projected to reach 101.9 million in 2021 and around 30% of this population comprises Muslims. The census showed that around 68.13% of the population lives in villages of rural areas where the literacy rate was 72.13% in 2011.
In the 1960s and 70s, the Congress controlled the Muslim vote bank, which shifted its allegiance to the Left after 1977 and to the TMC after 2011.
For the TMC and the BJP, the principal contenders, any change in vote share of the Left and Congress may play a crucial role although the latter lost their strength significantly in the districts since the 2014 Lok Sabha polls.
The Congress and the Left Front parties contested as allies in the 2016 assembly polls but couldn’t stop the TMC from coming to power with 211 seats. The tie-up did not last as the Congress seemed to benefit more from the alliance and managed to secure 44 seats against the Left’s 32.
In the 2019 Lok Sabha polls, the Congress and the Left contested as opponents but it was the BJP which won 18 of the state’s 42 seats, thanks to a huge swing in Left votes towards the saffron camp. Analysis of the 2019 poll results showed that the biggest contributor to the BJP’s performance were voters who remained loyal to the CPI(M) and its partners for more than three decades. Out of 40 Left candidates in the race, 39 lost their election deposit as they failed to secure even one-sixth of the votes cast in their respective seats.
This time around, the bigger stakeholders feel that the smaller parties, especially the CPI(M), cannot be taken lightly because Muslim voters and farmers will play a decisive role. In some of her earlier rallies, Banerjee took a seemingly softer stance towards the CPI(M) but her attitude changed after the Marxists forged an alliance with the Congress and the Indian Secular Front.
Development and unemployment are the key issues in the Bengal polls, experts said. “Although corruption is a major issue raised by the BJP and the Left, development, unemployment and industrialisation are the three key issues in this election. BJP has promised to build Sonar Bangla (golden Bengal) while Banerjee says TMC has already done enough to develop the state,” said Kolkata-based political science professor and election analyst Udayan Bandopadhyay.