TMC regains ground; tribal and Dalit voters in some districts stay loyal to BJP
As Mamata Banerjee trounced the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in the Bengal assembly polls, securing 213 of 292 seats against 77 by the BJP, the results showed that Trinamool Congress (TMC) managed to regain the trust of many Hindu, tribal and Dalit voters who backed the saffron camp in the 2019 Lok Sabha polls in the south Bengal region which comprises 240 assembly segments.
In north Bengal, on the other hand, two prominent TMC ministers lost while BJP candidates stood its ground at 30 of the region’s 54 assembly segments where identity politics played a key role.
The Election Commission’s (EC) data on Monday showed that TMC secured 47.9% of the votes polled across Bengal against the BJP’s share of 38.1 %, marking a difference of 9.8 percentage points. Even in 2011, when the TMC and Congress fought as allies and ousted the Left Front government, the different in vote share was 7.4 %.
In 2011 and 2016, TMC had won 184 and 211 seats respectively. The BJP could not win any assembly seat in 2011 but wrested three in 2016. In 2019, the saffron camp turned around and won 18 of Bengal’s 42 Lok Sabha seats. In terms of those results, the BJP was ahead in 121 assembly segments but the picture changed in most districts during an unprecedented eight-phase election.
In both north and south Bengal, the BJP bagged sizeable votes in constituencies located close to the Indo-Bangladesh border where Hindus migrated from East Pakistan either after 1947 or the 1971 Bangladesh Liberation War.
This happened even in Malda and Murshidabad districts where Muslims are in the majority.
In Malda district, where Muslins comprise 51.27% of the population, BJP bagged the Habibpur seat with 47.52 % votes while the TMC trailed with 37.66 %. This was among the five seats the BJP wrested in Malda while the remaining seven went to TMC.
In adjoining Murshidabad, which is part of south Bengal, the Muslim population, at 66.28 %, is the highest among all districts in Bengal.
Bengal has 294 seats but polls were held in 292 as two candidates at Jangipur and Samserganj in Murshidabad died of Covid-19 in mid-April. On Monday, the Election Commission (EC) deferred polling in these two seats for an indefinite period. Earlier, it said the polls would be held on May 16.
In Murshidabad district, the BJP won two of the 20 seats where polls were held. These are the urban constituencies of Murshidabad and Berhampore where Hindus live in large numbers.
The BJP’s success in 2019 was credited largely to its ability to reach out to upper caste Hindus, tribal people and Hindu Dalit or Namasudra voters. Of the registered SC communities, the Rajbanshis of north Bengal and Namasudras of south Bengal comprise the highest numbers. These are the two segments the BJP targeted. The Matuas, a sub-caste, comprise around 4 % of the Namasudras. There are 14 more SC communities in Bengal that are not part of the Rajbanshis and Namasudras. To secure the votes of citizens representing various castes, sub-castes, religions and linguistic groups in recently concluded contest, the TMC and BJP banked on strategic campaigns.
The hideout of armed cadres of the CPI(Maoist) in the last years of the Left Front regime and home to a sizeable tribal population, the rough terrains of Jangalmahal -- a region spread across West Midnapore, Purulia, Bankura and Jhargram districts -- witnessed a tough electoral battle last month. The BJP made maximum inroad in these south Bengal districts in 2019.
The state’s scheduled tribe (ST) population stood at 5.29 million during the 2011 census, accounting for about 5.8% of the whole population. Over the last few years, Banerjee created separate welfare boards for tribal communities such as the Santhals, Lodhas and Kurmis. The districts witnessed new roads, hospitals, schools and polytechnic colleges.
The 13 assembly segments in Bankura district are part of two Lok Sabha seats, Bankura and Bishnupur, that BJP had won in 2019. The party also bagged the Midnapore, Jhargram and Purulia seats.
The assembly poll results show that contest in the tribal belt was a tough one with the BJP winning seven of the 12 seats in Bankura district. The competition was so close that in the Bankura assembly seat, the BJP defeated TMC’s Sayantika Banerjee, a young actor, by less than one per cent votes.
In the adjoining Purulia district, the TMC managed to win three seats but the BJP wrested the remaining nine.
The TMC made up for this loss in West Midnapore. It retained 13 seats but the BJP won Kharagpur Sadar and Ghatal. The margin of BJP’s victory at Ghatal was only 0.43 %.
In the much smaller Jhargram district, the TMC retained all four seats.
“Our performance was not bad in several south Bengal districts, such as Purulia and Bankura. The TMC outdid us in a big way in Kolkata, Howrah, Hooghly and South 24 Parganas districts,” said BJP state general secretary Sayantan Basu. Voters in Kolkata, where TMC won all seats, and the three other districts Basu mentioned, comprise Hindus as well as Muslims who live in some large pockets.
Alongside religious polarisation, caste politics became an important factor in large parts of North 24 Parganas and Nadia districts in south Bengal where the Hindu Dalit community has a sizeable presence. In 2019, BJP wrested the Ranaghat and Bongaon Lok Sabha seats in Nadia and North 24 Parganas respectively, largely because of the support from this community.
To attract Dalit voters, the saffron camp promised to enforce the Citizenship Amendment Act in Bengal so that the Matua community, which is a part of the larger Namasudra community and who came from Bangladesh as refugees, could be granted citizenship.
Poll results show that BJP wrested 12 of the 14 assembly seats in Ranaghat and Bongaon Lok Sabha segments. In Nadia district, the BJP wrested nine of the 17 assembly segments. The TMC retained the rest.
BJP Lok Sabha member from Bongaon and head of the All India Matua Mahasangha, Shantanu Thakur said, “The verdict clearly shows that Matuas stayed by the BJP.”
In north Bengal, the scheduled caste Koch Rajbanshi community comprises a sizeable section of voters, especially in Cooch Behar district. Before the polls, Banerjee announced several sops for the community, which included a second campus of the Panchanan Barma University. Barma is the most prominent face of the Rajbanshi community since he carried out the first movement against caste politics in the last century.
The BJP, too, reached out to the Rajbanshis and poll results showed that its efforts paid off. Nishith Pramanik, the BJP’s Cooch Behar Lok Sabha member who contested the assembly polls, won while tourism minister Goutam Deb and north Bengal development minister Rabindranath Ghosh lost from Dabgram-Fulbari in Jalpaiguri district and Natabari in Cooch Behar district respectively.
Kolkata-based political science professor and election analyst Udayan Bandopadhyay said complete depletion in the vote bank of the Congress and Left parties helped TMC and BJP in all these regions.
“In the tribal belts, regions with high presence of the Namasudra community and the north Bengal districts, Congress and Left supporters voted either for BJP or TMC candidates by judging their strength,” said Bandopadhyay, referring to the scheduled tribes, the Namasudras of south Bengal and the Rajbanshis of north Bengal.