TMC supporters celebrate their party's lead in the West Bengal state legislative assembly elections on May 2. (File photo) Exclusive
TMC supporters celebrate their party's lead in the West Bengal state legislative assembly elections on May 2. (File photo)

In Bengal, the story of BJP, TMC and the Dalit and tribal vote

Bengal has 66 seats reserved for SC, which form roughly a quarter of the state’s population and 16 for ST, which make up about 6% of the population. SC seats are spread across the southwest, north and southern parts of the state while the ST seats are mainly in the north and western parts of the state
UPDATED ON MAY 10, 2021 12:37 PM IST

Rahul Das lives in Bongaon in the north 24 parganas district of West Bengal. Sarala Murmu lives roughly 250km away in Jhargram district in the heart of Bengal’s tribal-dominated hinterlands.

One is a small shopkeeper, the other a part-time agricultural labourer. The political landscape of their constituencies is completely different – Das’s area of Bongaon is dominated by concerns around citizenship, refugee welfare, alleged infiltration and development, while Murmu’s region is shaped by questions of tribal identity, and everyday demands of water and jobs.

Yet, both behaved identically in the recently-concluded West Bengal elections – they switched their vote from the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) to the Trinamool Congress (TMC), albeit for different reasons. The results were different: the BJP still won Bongaon Dakshin, albeit by a margin much slimmer than its 2019 victory, while TMC flipped the Nayagram constituency.

“Everyone in our neighbourhood went with BJP in 2019 but we didn’t see much change in this area. So this time, we went with TMC,” said Murmu. Together, they represented an interesting trend among some SC/ST voters this election that saw BJP largely hold onto its 2019 positions in reserved seats but with a deep erosion in its winning margins.

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Bengal has 66 seats reserved for scheduled castes (SC), which form roughly a quarter of the state’s population and 16 for scheduled tribes (ST), which make up about 6% of the population. SC seats are spread across the southwest, north and southern parts of the state while the ST seats are mainly in the north and western parts of the state.

These regions were in sharp focus during the month-long election campaign, especially because the BJP was confident of winning these seats with a big margin and spoke of its inroads among Matua voters, an anti-caste sect that draws its membership largely from the Namashudra caste, due to its efforts to pass the Citizenship Amendment Act.

But as the election results showed, there are many SC communities spread across Bengal and their concerns are multi-faceted. “I wanted better job opportunities for my children, but they only spoke of citizenship. I am already an Indian citizen,” said Das.

There are three broad ways to see voting patterns among SC-ST communities.

One, as reported previously in HT, BJP did relatively better in SC-reserved seats than in unreserved seats this election. It won 32 of the 68 SC-reserved seats, one down from its 2019 tally while TMC won 36, up two from its performance in the Lok Sabha election.

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In this, too, there was a regional divide, with BJP doing better in north Bengal but lagging TMC in southern districts.

In north Bengal, BJP was ahead of TMC. BJP won 11 of the 20 SC-reserved seats, while TMC won nine. In 2019, BJP had done even better, winning 13 seats. In south Bengal, considered a TMC bastion, the BJP couldn’t match the regional powerhouse.

The BJP won 21 of 48 seats while Mamata Banerjee’s party won 27. This was more-or-less the same situation as 2019, when BJP won 20 and TMC 28 – indicating BJP’s appeal among SCs in south Bengal was limited.

The reversal among ST seats was more dramatic. In 2019, the BJP won 13 of the 16 seats and the TMC just three. This was largely due to the BJP’s sweeping of the Jangalmahal region, which accounts for 40 seats across four districts in the western part of the state. This time, BJP could win just seven, while TMC won nine.

“In the tribal belt, the BJP’s inroads started from late 2017 and then in the 2018 panchayat elections. But problems with land tenancy, forest rights and lack of recognition for our faiths created discontent. The insistence that adivasis were Hindus didn’t help BJP either, especially because there was local anger against incumbent MPs,” said Sasi Kanta Murmu, a professor at Mahatma Gandhi College in Purulia.

The comparisons are with the 2019 Lok Sabha elections and not the 2016 assembly elections because BJP was a marginal force in the latter and only emerged as a serious challenger two years ago.

Two, in many SC-reserved seats BJP won – such as Bongaon Dakshin -- its victory margin was lower than what it was in 2019, indicating some voters had moved from BJP to TMC. In north Bengal, BJP won 11 SC seats. In nine of them, its victory margin was lower than what it was in 2019. In south Bengal, BJP’s win margin decreased in 15 of the 21 seats it won.

To be sure, overall, this only translated in a one percentage point drop in its vote share among SC-reserved seats, partly because of large margin of victories in seats such as Matigara-Naxalbari, which posted the largest percentage difference in votes between victor and runner-up at 29.45%.

All seven ST-reserved seats won by BJP in 2021 were with a lower margin than in 2019

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Three, it is difficult to approximate voting patterns among SC communities because they are spread out and reserved seats don’t always have Dalit voting majority; moreover, disaggregated booth-level data is not always available and there is no official estimation of the SC population according to Lok Sabha or assembly constituency. In comparison, ST populations are more concentrated.

Experts point that SC populations don’t vote in a bloc, and their choices are also swayed by regional and other concerns. For example, in this election, the Rajbongshis, concentrated in north Bengal, voted in larger numbers for BJP while Namashudras and smaller SC castes, who largely live in south Bengal, appear to have backed TMC.

SC-reserved seats are an approximation of Dalit voting preferences but of 66 seats, only 13 have an SC population of 50% or above – meaning the support of upper castes is just as important for the victory of the candidate. These numbers are estimations done by How India Lives.

Another approximation can be done by district, where there is official data on SC population. In Cooch Behar, where SC population is about 50%, the BJP won seven seats and the TMC won two, indicating the preference of the Rajbongshi community.

In contrast, the south 24 parganas, where the SCs make up a third of the population, the TMC won 30 of the 31 seats and the BJP won none – underlining that large sections of Namashudras and smaller SCs like Poundras backed TMC. This was crucial in the electorally significant region of south Bengal.

“We saw that factors such as strength of local leadership and Bengali sub-nationalism also helped TMC in SC areas. Additionally, TMC’s welfare agenda, its many schemes and Banerjee’s personal appeal were big influences because many SC people were among beneficiaries,” said Jaydeep Sarangi, principal of Alipore College in Kolkata. Before the election, TMC’s Duare Sarkar (government at your doorstep) initiative disbursed tens of thousands of SC certificates and Banerjee set up development boards for different Dalit castes, and a state Dalit literature academy. This boosted TMC prospects, added Sarangi.

All these factors came together to help TMC’s most-talked about Dalit candidate, award-winning author Manoranjan Byapari, snatch an improbable win in Hoogly’s Balagarh seat. Byapari won by about 6,000 votes in the rural seat, where BJP was ahead by 35,000 votes in the 2019 election and campaigned hard on grassroots corruption, riverbank erosion and Muslim appeasement. “In the end, people kept their faith in Didi; the downtrodden were drawn to her and the BJP couldn’t match that,” he said.

(With additional reporting by Abhishek Jha)

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