Union home minister and BJP leader Amit Shah addresses an election campaign rally, ahead of West Bengal assembly polls, in Bankura. (PTI)
Union home minister and BJP leader Amit Shah addresses an election campaign rally, ahead of West Bengal assembly polls, in Bankura. (PTI)

West Bengal polls: BJP’s tryst with a party-society

The BJP realises that unless the TMC’s hold over party-society is broken, it will be difficult to capture political power in the state. It is this realisation which has forced it to woo TMC leaders and cadre to join the party
By Roshan Kishore, Hindustan Times, New Delhi
UPDATED ON MAR 17, 2021 06:35 PM IST

The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) seems to be facing an interesting predicament in selecting candidates in the West Bengal elections. Of the 122 candidates it has declared so far, four are sitting members of Parliament, though Swapan Dasgupta has resigned from his Rajya Sabha membership after his candidature was found to be in violation of norms for nominated members in the Upper house. The party has also not declared any chief ministerial candidate in the elections, even though Mamata Banerjee’s personal popularity is supposed to be the Trinamool Congress’s (TMC) biggest trump card in these elections. Many commentators have pointed out that it suggests a dearth of candidates in the BJP.

That doesn’t fit with reports of large-scale protests at the BJP’s office in Kolkata and elsewhere by party workers who are dissatisfied with the candidate selection. This underlines an intense inner-party competition for securing nominations in the forthcoming polls.

So what explains this seeming contradiction?

This is best understood by deploying the concept of “party-society”, an idea developed by Dwaipayan Bhattacharyya, among the most eminent social scientists to have worked on the state’s politics, and currently a professor of political science at Jawaharlal Nehru University.

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A brief recap of the BJP’s rise in West Bengal and the existing state of play in the state’s politics is useful before getting into Bhattacharyya’s idea and its relevance to the question at hand.

Usurping the CPI(M) vote bank will not be enough for the BJP

The BJP first made its impact in the state in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections, when its vote share jumped to 17% and it won two Lok Sabha seats. The BJP’s rise came at the cost of the Communist Party of India (Marxist) or CPI(M) led Left Front, which suffered an almost equal erosion in its vote share. This trend gained further momentum in the 2019 Lok Sabha elections, when the TMC suffered a huge fall in seat share—its tally went down from 34 to 22 between 2014 and 2019—despite the party increasing its vote share by around three percentage points. The CPI(M) led Left Front suffered a collapse of sorts in these elections with a vote share of less than 10%, the BJP again gaining most of it.

While the BJP’s gains were impressive, even a repeat of the 2019 performance will not be enough to bring it to power in the state. An assembly constituency (AC) wise disaggregation of 2019 results would give the TMC and BJP 164 and 121 seats respectively. The halfway mark in West Bengal assembly is 148.

Winning 18 Lok Sabha seats is one thing; forming a state government, entirely another. Here’s why.

West Bengal has the second largest share of Muslims—the 2011 census puts it at 27%—in any state in India, after Assam. This basically means that the BJP must win around two-thirds of the non-Muslim voters to try and reach a 45% vote share in what has become an almost entirely bipolar contest to get past the halfway mark.

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This is a very different sort of a challenge compared to a state such as Assam, which has the largest share of Muslims—34% according to the 2011 census—in India. The BJP formed a government in Assam with less than 30% of vote share, because it was in alliance with other regional parties. There are no such allies for the BJP in West Bengal. Having usurped most of the CPI(M)’s base—at least a significant part of what is left with the CPI(M) is its ideological cadre that would be ideologically averse to voting for a Hindutva driven party—the only logical option for the BJP is to target the TMC’s non-Muslim vote bank.

TMC defections to the BJP: a bitter pill which must be swallowed

The BJP realised this much before the 2021 elections. While Mukul Roy, once considered Mamata Banerjee’s trusted lieutenant in the TMC switched sides in 2017 itself, Prime Minister Narendra Modi gave a hint of what was to come when he claimed during the 2019 campaign that at least 40 TMC MLAs were in touch with the BJP and would quit the TMC after declaration of results.

Even in 2019, the BJP successfully fielded TMC turncoats such as Arjun Singh, a four-time TMC MLA, from Barrackpore. After the BJP won 18 Lok Sabha seats in the 2019 polls, the floodgates seem to have opened as far as exodus of TMC leaders to the BJP is concerned. The most prized post-2019 defector has been Suvendu Adhikari. His defection has forced Mamata Banerjee to shift her assembly constituency and face Adhikari in Nandigram to preserve the aura of TMC’s invincibility in the strategically important South Bengal region.

While these defections are important in bringing popular faces and politically necessary muscle to the BJP on the ground, they also cause some collateral damage. An important reason for defection of CPI(M) supporters to the BJP was the former’s inability to take on the TMC cadre’s strong-arm tactics.

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This was best seen in the 2018 Panchayat polls in the state, which saw the highest share of seats being decided without any contests (in favour of the ruling party). This basically means opponents were not even allowed to file nominations. While this is not a unique thing in West Bengal politics, the scale was unprecedented. This figure was 34% for gram panchayats in 2018, more than three times the previous record of 11% under the CPI(M) in 2003. In some districts, the share of uncontested seats was at least 50%. A 2018 HT article by political scientist Neelanjan Sircar discussed this issue in detail. With some of the TMC leaders who helped achieve this now joining the BJP, those who were already part of the latter, or moved to it from the CPI(M) are not just likely to feel disappointed but also upset at their one-time oppressors joining the same camp.

Anecdotal accounts confirm that giving tickets to TMC turncoats is a major factor behind BJP workers protesting against the party’s ticket distribution.

But winning West Bengal is crucial for preserving the BJP’s dominant party image

Why is the BJP doing what it is doing? West Bengal is perhaps the most important state election the BJP will face before the 2024 Lok Sabha elections. In some ways, the political importance of 2021 West Bengal contest can be compared to the 2017 Uttar Pradesh contest, where the BJP’s victory gave it a huge boost.

The BJP, under its current leadership, is not averse to taking positions which contradict its larger politics in order to win elections or secure power. The party’s failed coalition with the People’s Democratic Party in the erstwhile state of Jammu and Kashmir is one example. The BJP wants complete electoral dominance and it wants it now. It is this urgent hunger for power which has necessitated the BJP’s engagement with West Bengal’s “party-society”.

party-society: West Bengal’s contribution to the political science lexicon

The CPI(M)-led Left Front ruled West Bengal for an uninterrupted 34 years from 1977 to 2011. This is a record in democratic politics not just in India but across the world. What explains the CPI(M)’s ability to win elections for so long?

As is to be expected, opinions are polarised on this issue. While the CPI(M) and its sympathisers claim that it was the Left’s pro-poor policies, especially land reforms, which ensured its victories, its opponents allege large-scale intimidation and electoral malpractices behind the dominance. None of these maximalist positions can tell us the truth. If the CPI(M) had a solid support from the peasantry, why did it risk land acquisition which ultimately cost it its biggest support base in the country? And if it was indeed rigging which earned the CPI(M) its victories, why could it not win the 2008 Panchayat and 2009 Lok Saha elections, even though it was ruling the state?

Among the most cogent explanations of this issue has been given by Dwaipayan Bhattacharyya, who has evolved the concept of something called a party-society in response to the concept of Political Society, which was developed by Partha Chatterjee, a political scientist based at Columbia University and the Centre for Study of Social Sciences in Kolkata.

A 2009 Economic and Political Weekly paper called Of Control and Factions: The Changing ‘Party-Society’ in Rural West Bengal by Bhattacharyya discusses these issues. Chatterjee describes a Political Society as “made of poor and marginal population groups which, in absence of citizen’s rights, protect their livelihood demand along the lines of communities (not primordial but strategic solidarities in response to concrete governmental policies) as they negotiate with the state and civil society”. A group of slum dwellers who have encroached upon government land and use politics to negotiate their interests is a good example of this. Chatterjee attributed the CPI(M)’s success to its “day-to-day management of political society with the help of a well-orchestrated, locally embedded and vertically connected party-machinery”.

Bhattacharya describes his idea of party-society as “a specific form of Political Society in West Bengal’s country-side” which he says was made possible by “popular acceptance of political parties as moral guardians not only in the public life of the society but also in the private lives of the families”. To simplify academic jargon, in a party-society, one can expect a political party to intervene not just in issues in the society, say something like the construction of a school, but even in intra-family disputes such as marital discord or a property dispute among siblings.

While this makes a party-society more pervasive than a political society, Bhattacharyya also underlines an important difference between the two. In the former, “the over-riding goal is to protect the constituency of a party’s support-base and expand it periodically from election to election”, he says. Because even Panchayat elections in West Bengal are held under party-affiliation, “party-society in rural West Bengal operating mainly through Panchayat elections runs the risk of being repetitive and predictable, if not explicitly bureaucratic”, he writes.

The TMC did not dismantle the party-society CPI(M) built, it merely usurped it

Bhattacharyya’s paper, which was written before the 2009 Lok Sabha elections, is a prescient account of the CPI(M)’s eventual fate. In one of the villages where he did field work, the CPI(M)’s local leadership, which included its Panchayat functionaries had to adjudicate issues catering to various vested interests such as sale of land which was supposed to be under the possession of tenants, and where the pursuant wanted to build residential properties but the party, read the CPI(M), wanted a factory built. The final decision by the party was not made on merits of the case but depended on factional balance of power within the higher party organisation.

As is to be expected, such activities are bound to create a set of gainers and losers, and it is entirely likely that the latter would constitute the majority of voters. It is this pent-up discontent against the CPI(M) cadre which was exploited by the TMC to perpetrate large scale violence against the left’s grassroots leadership in large parts of the state after 2011. In many of these instances, the TMC leadership forced the opposition cadre to switch sides in return for “physical safety”, a tactic which was borrowed from the left’s playbook but magnified manifold.

Once in power, the TMC found it useful to usurp the party-society model rather than dismantle it. If anything, the TMC’s party-society is a cruder version of what existed during the CPI(M), because unlike the latter, there is no coherent ideological core to the TMC’s politics.

The unprecedented level of intimidation in the 2018 Panchayat elections, which were held in the backdrop of a surprise BJP victory in CPI(M) ruled Tripura, which also has a significant Bengali population, was a clear attempt by the TMC to tighten the party-society’s hold in West Bengal’s rural political landscape.

2021 is the BJP’s tryst with party-society

The BJP realises that unless the TMC’s hold over party-society is broken, it will be difficult to capture political power in the state. It is this realisation which has forced it to woo TMC leaders and cadre to join the party.

However, there are two reasons why the BJP’s attempts to usurp West Bengal’s party-society will be even more chaotic than the TMC’s.

The CPI(M) controlled the party-society beast through a highly disciplined organisation, which worked on Stalinist lines and where questioning the party leadership meant expulsion. What the TMC lacked in organisational discipline, it compensated for in Mamata Banerjee’s personal charisma, which is what has been driving the party’s electoral fortunes. The BJP has neither at the moment. While it has a committed cadre drawn from the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), this is not enough to catapult the party to power in the state. The lack of a clear leader in the state also means that it is easier to rebel against the leadership’s decisions on questions such as ticket distribution without antagonising the central leadership. The blame can be conveniently put on the state-level leadership. Such disputes will only increase when it comes to elections for local bodies.

Because the BJP’s political modus operandi involves not giving tickets to Muslims, who have a sizeable presence in the state, non-Muslims would have bigger expectations of getting a nomination in the BJP than any other party. Think of a Muslim majority AC which would have not had any Hindu leader hopeful of securing a nomination. The BJP does not have this luxury. The BJP’s model of building a rainbow Hindu coalition in the name of Sabka Saath, Sabka Vishwas —(support of all, trust of all)—is also a recipe for Sabka Saath, Sabka Vivaad—(support of all, dispute among all.)

This does not rule out the BJP’s chances in West Bengal

None of what has been discussed should be inferred to conclude that the BJP does not stand a chance in West Bengal in the short-term or medium-term. The BJP was just about three percentage points behind the TMC in the 2019 Lok Sabha polls. West Bengal will be a closely contested election. What can be said is that West Bengal is bound to undergo a deep political churning, which will last beyond the forthcoming elections.

The BJP’s current dominance in Indian politics has triggered its own set of socio-political processes. Political scientists Sudha Pai and Sajjan Kumar offer an insightful analysis of this process and described it as “Everyday Communalism” in their 2018 book published by the Oxford University Press called Everyday Communalism: Riots in Contemporary Uttar Pradesh. The authors argue that the ability to convert even day to day disputes, some of them really petty, into communal conflicts is crucial the BJP’s political success in the state. It will not be an understatement to say that the BJP is trying to deploy this tactic in the West Bengal contest as well, as was described by Kumar in an HT article explaining the salience of the BJP’s Jai Shri Ram push in West Bengal.

The BJP clearly hopes to co-opt parts of what constitutes the TMC-dominated party-society today and eventually reshape West Bengal’s polity on the lines where political polarisation is driven by questions of Everyday Communalism. Irrespective of what the results are on May 2, this ambition is bound to generate a lot of churn and disruption in West Bengal in not just the short but also medium-term.

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