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View: 3 reasons why Mamata Banerjee is expected to continue dominating West Bengal

Apr 23, 2024 05:15 PM IST

In contemporary India, West Bengal is a classic example of how politics abhors a vacuum.

The highway from Jamshedpur towards Kolkata is superb. People having tea at a Dhaba in Ghatshila in Jharkhand turn out to be Nitin Gadkari fans. As the author entered West Bengal and went off the highway towards Midnapore, he expected Ram Temple cacophony he had seen in Uttar Pradesh, Khar and Jharkhand to recede a bit in Midnapore. Not so. There were saffron flags all over jostling for space with the trademark blue of the Trinamool Congress. The author also saw tempos carrying young men and women cheering loudly near a copy of the Ram Lalla idol.

West Bengal chief minister and TMC chief Mamata Banerjee addresses a public meeting for the Lok Sabha elections. (PTI file photo)
West Bengal chief minister and TMC chief Mamata Banerjee addresses a public meeting for the Lok Sabha elections. (PTI file photo)

The author has visited West Bengal numerous times. While it was always associated with markers and displays of Hindu faith, the aggressive manner in which young BJP supporters were flaunting their faith was definitely a new phenomenon. Most people the author spoke to in Midnapore and Kharagpur were of the opinion that the 2024 Lok Sabha elections will prove to be an intense battle between the BJP and the TMC.

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In the 2019 Lok Sabha elections, BJP state president Dilip Ghosh had won the seat with a comfortable margin of about 90,000 votes. This time BJP leader Agnimitra Paul is trying her luck.

The enthusiasm was palpable as the car entered the outskirts of Kolkata. Once again, there were small trucks and lorries moving around with the Ram Lalla idol and groups of youngsters singing and dancing around the idol. This was a revelation for people like the author who have always associated Kolkata with grand Durga Puja festivities since childhood.

In contemporary India, West Bengal is a classic example of how politics abhors a vacuum. In the 2014 Lok Sabha elections, the BJP was still a marginal player and managed to win just two seats in the state. In the 2016 assembly elections that followed, the traditional Left and Congress vote virtually collapsed leaving Mamata Bannerjee as the unchallenged leader of the state. By 2018, excessive and egregious violence by TMC workers during municipal and panchayat elections gave an impression that there would be no opposition to Mamata Banerjee in the state.

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But supporters of the Left and Congress seemingly shifted decisively towards the BJP in the 2019 Lok Sabha elections, giving it 18 out of 42 seats and a near 40% vote share. A strong opposition in the form of BJP emerged. Of course, a near total collapse of the Left and the Congress in the 2021 assembly elections helped Mamata Banerjee score a landslide win. That and the violence targeting BJP workers did demoralise the party's cadre. Till last year, it appeared as if the TMC would reclaim its lost space in the 2024 elections.

But the consecration ceremony of the Ram idol at Ayodhya in January led to a new enthusiasm. More importantly, the ghastly events at Sandeshkhali where TMC workers led by Sheikh Shahjahan indulged in brazen extortion, land grab and sexual assault of women, triggered a massive revolt even among ordinary women. People in Kolkata and nearby areas agree that Shahjahan has done more to revive a flagging BJP than its own leaders. For now, the battle between TMC and BJP looks evenly matched with the former enjoying an advantage.

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There are three reasons why Mamata Banerjee is expected to continue dominating West Bengal during and after the 2024 Lok Sabha elections. The first is that Mamata Banerjee remains an extremely charismatic and popular leader in the state. The second is near dominance at the booth level by the TMC cadre in rural West Bengal, where violence always lurks around the corner. The third, most important reason was manifest to the author when he stepped out of the Park Street hotel late evening.

Also read: Lok Sabha elections ground report: In Uttar Pradesh, ‘Ram’ has already made a difference

The author's destination was a short walk ahead: a joint famous for its Kathi rolls. But the road and the adjoining streets were filled with tens of thousands of young and old Muslim men and women thronging after breaking their Roza at sunset. Literally tens of thousands of people could be seen jostling with each other and with street hawkers yelling at the top of their voices peddling dresses, clothing material, footwear, food among other things. It was virtually impossible for a car to pass. It took the author about 20 minutes to walk the one kilometer towards the Kathi roll joint.

Also read: Lok Sabha elections ground report: For voters, Ram temple matters but welfare is key to PM Modi’s electoral fortunes

Muslims constitute more than 30% of the electorate in West Bengal. With the Congress and Left in free fall, they are backing Mamata Banerjee en masse to defeat the BJP. This is the most potent weapon she has. It could also become an Achilles heel if there is a counter polarisation of Hindu votes.

(Sutanu Guru has been a journalist and author for 35 years. He is the executive director, CVoter Foundation. This is part of a series of field reports from all corners of India in the run-up to the Lok Sabha elections that aim to understand how the country is changing in fundamental ways)

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