Why the battle of Bengal matters
In West Bengal, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has emerged as the chief challenger to the ruling Trinamool Congress (TMC), which has ruled West Bengal for 10 years. This, in and of itself, is a major change in Bengal’s politics, where the BJP had never been much of an electoral factor.
Building on an astounding performance in the 2019 election, where it won 18 out of 42 seats, the BJP has a genuine opportunity to win in the upcoming state election. If it does win, it will have major reverberations across Indian politics. To date, the vast majority of the BJP’s electoral dominance has been built in areas where its chief opponent is the Congress, and in large Hindi-speaking states such as Bihar and Uttar Pradesh. For the party, states such as Tamil Nadu or West Bengal ruled by “vernacular parties” — regional parties that use linguistic nationalism as part of their appeal — were once considered unattainable.
A careful look at how the BJP has risen in Bengal, and how the ruling TMC has sought to counteract its growth, is instructive in understanding the new dimensions of the BJP’s appeal and possible templates to defeat it.
If we calculate the 2019 Lok Sabha results by West Bengal’s 294 assembly constituency (AC) segments, the BJP led in 121 ACs with an average of 40.6% constituency-wise vote share. The TMC won 164 ACs on a 43.6% average of constituency-wise vote share. The Congress and the Left had a combined average constituency-wise vote share of just 13%, with the Congress winning nine ACs and the Left winning none.
In addition to subsuming the vote share of the Left and the Congress, there were strong identity-based factors to the BJP’s rise. Unlike in other states, where the BJP has an upper-caste base, the BJP support has grown the fastest among West Bengal’s marginalised communities. The BJP led in 46 (55%) of the state’s 84 Scheduled Caste or Scheduled Tribe reserved seats, while winning just 75 (36%) of the remaining 210 ACs. High levels of Hindu-Muslim polarisation were also observed. According to Lokniti’s 2019 National Election Survey, 57% of Hindu voters selected the BJP as compared to 32% of Hindu voters supporting the TMC. By contrast, the TMC won 70% of Muslim voters with the BJP winning a negligible amount (4%).
This identity-based polarisation is visible on the ground today and is the key demographic heuristic one can use to analyse the BJP’s chances.
Approximately 30% of West Bengal’s voters are Muslims and, as a rule of thumb, we can classify the remaining 70% of the state’s voters as Hindu. Given a negligible amount of Muslim support for the BJP, this implies that the BJP is likely to win if it can get about 60-65% support among the Hindu population. To tap this, the BJP has begun a poriborton yatra, one that looks strikingly similar to the rath yatra that yielded national electoral dividends for the BJP in 1990.
The pattern of extreme Hindu-Muslim polarisation and campaign strategies that exacerbate the divide between these communities have been seen as a trump card for the BJP. To be sure, there are other concerns for the TMC, from a series of high-profile defections to concerns that its ground-level cadre is excessively dominant and violent. But the TMC’s core challenge is to prevent an “identity-based” vote along caste, tribe, and religious lines.
In a similar position, Delhi’s Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) sought to reduce polarisation by taking more ambiguous stands on Hindu-Muslim political issues. And one might have assumed that the TMC’s approach would be to “pander” to the Hindu vote given the situation.
But the TMC, along with political strategist Prashant Kishor, who also advised AAP, has taken a different approach.
The party has positioned itself as a “progressive” alternative to the BJP and its vision of India. In addition to linguistic nationalism, the TMC has projected itself as concerned with gender equity and social delivery. (This is all the more noticeable as the Left and Congress look to ally with controversial cleric Abbas Siddiqui).
In one strikingly visual example, on Republic Day, when the vast majority of states opted for religious or tradition-themed tableaus, West Bengal featured a schoolgirl studying in front of a laptop (a latent advertisement for state government schemes targeting girls and women).
In December 2020, the state government also initiated the duare sarkar (government at your doorstep) programme, in which people can avail of state government schemes by visiting local melas — the government claims this reached 22 million citizens between December 1, 2020 and January 18, 2021.
This narrative fits well with the popularity of Mamata Banerjee as the only female chief minister (CM) in India, and one who has focused on delivery. Indeed a recent CVoter poll found that 55% of voters want her to continue as CM, and almost half of voters believe duare sarkar will help the TMC’s re-election.
We do not yet know which way the wind will blow in Bengal. If the TMC achieves the unthinkable — a big victory amid large-scale attempts at polarisation and pressure from central agencies — it will set a template for how to fight the current dispensation and show that voters are willing to vote for a progressive alternative to the BJP.
Neelanjan Sircar is an assistant professor, Ashoka University, and senior visiting fellow, Centre for Policy Research
The views expressed are personal