National impact of the Bengal elections
No assembly election in recent times has attracted as much attention as the recent exercise in West Bengal. For a state that has, since 1977, alternated between 34 years of uninterrupted Left Front rule and 10 years of a government led by the mercurial Mamata Banerjee, this eastern corner of India has quite abruptly been posited as a barometer of India’s future politics. With Prime Minister (PM) Narendra Modi and home minister Amit Shah, not to mention the entire national leadership of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), throwing their entire weight behind the party’s challenge, the outcome on May 2 seems calculated to reverberate nationally—although in ways no one is entirely sure about.
The eight-phase poll that concluded on April 29 can broadly be divided into two distinct parts. The first six phases of polling took place in the backdrop of a boisterous and bitter campaign where there was an interplay between regional concerns, national issues, and the invocation of Bengali exceptionalism. By contrast, the final two phases were overshadowed by the sudden re-emergence of the Covid-19 pandemic, the severe curtailment of the campaign and the panic in the urban areas that contributed to significantly lower voter turnouts in Kolkata and its adjoining regions, Durgapur and Asansol.
On counting day, it will be interested to monitor the impact of the voter turnout on the outcome. However, even if the final two phases produce a verdict at variance with the first six phases, the voters of West Bengal will have the satisfaction of knowing that the votes registered in the electronic voting machines (EVMs) were authentic. Such an assertion may seem strange in an all-India context, but the sad reality is that West Bengal has led the way in elections that were clouded in intimidation, booth-capturing and partisan administration.
It is to the credit of the Election Commission that the conduct of the 2021 assembly election was exemplary. Intimidation may not have entirely ceased but voters this time had the satisfaction of voting without being told at the booth who to vote for and, worse, having someone peering over their shoulder. The decision to keep the local police 200 metres away from the polling stations contributed immeasurably to enhanced voter confidence. In the context of elections in West Bengal, this assembly election was quite emphatically a landmark.
What was also significant about this election was the very distinct nature of support for the BJP. That there was a visible undercurrent of Hindu-Muslim polarisation has been detected by many observers. However, the striking feature was not merely the BJP’s natural dependence on Hindu voters and the Trinamool Congress’s over-dependence on minority support. In rural Bengal, where support for the BJP was very marked, the party’s campaign was spearheaded by youth, women, and voters from the poorest communities—sections that in an earlier era had formed the backbone of the Communist Party of India (Marxist). The lopsided and corrupt distribution of state welfare payments, particularly in the aftermath of the Amphan cyclone that hit the state last summer, was unquestionably the main source of anger against the Mamata government.
To this was added a belief in the youth that a BJP government in the state would witness a rush of either jobs or opportunities at the local level. By contrast, the Trinamool support came from more established families, particularly those who benefited from the state government’s welfare projects. In many ways, the leadership of the Trinamool in the districts was a mirror image of the support enjoyed by the undivided Congress in the heyday of CPI(M) dominance. It was the BJP which succeeded in rallying the subaltern classes with its cry of Jai Shri Ram.
Traditionally, the anti-establishment forces in West Bengal had originated in urban centres. In the 1952 elections, the undivided Communist Party of India had performed exceptionally well in and around Kolkata, whereas the Congress made a clean sweep of the countryside. Mamata Banerjee’s revolt against the CPI(M) too was centred on Kolkata and adjoining regions. In social terms, the Trinamool galvanised that very section of the youth which had been at the forefront of the fight-back against the Naxalite movement in the early 1970s. The BJP challenge, on the other hand, has been centred on North Bengal, the Jungle Mahals and districts which had always lost out to Kolkata, at least in the 10 years of Mamata rule.
The relative importance of the districts in the BJP’s ecosystem may be a factor behind the party’s relative inability to make a big dent among those who see themselves as custodians of ‘enlightened’ and cosmopolitan Bengali bhadralok values. During her campaign, Mamata Banerjee attacked the BJP as outsiders, a shorthand for Hindi-speakers. While this may certainly have swayed a section that equates Bengali pride with Bengali exceptionalism, it masked the profound wariness of a section of ‘secularists’ with a Bengali rural and small-town culture that is explicitly Hindu. What was witnessed in Bengal in recent months was an understated but very real culture war that heightened modernist fears of the barbarian at the gates. It was this dread that Bengal would be overwhelmed by a new breed of outlanders that prevented the more recognised Bengali intellectuals from speaking out against the misrule and corruption of the past 10 years.
Like the Lutyens’ elite at the national level, the social leadership of the Bengali bhadralok sought to cling to their relevance in a changing world. The results will indicate if Bengal clings to a decrepit status quo or embraces a new world.
Swapan Dasgupta is a BJP candidate in the West Bengal assembly elections and political commentator
The views expressed are personal