The BJP is at the gates in West Bengal

Trinamool Congress may be better placed to take on the BJP by forging a broader secular alliance

By Prasenjit Bose

Of the five States where Assembly elections are scheduled in 2021, the political battle in West Bengal is likely to become the most fierce, given the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)’s aggressive bid for power in the State for the first time in history. Till 2014, BJP had remained a marginal player in Bengal politics contesting the Lok Sabha polls as a junior ally of the Trinamool Congress (TMC) in 1998, 1999 and 2004. However, for Assembly elections, such as in 2001 and 2006, TMC chief Mamata Banerjee preferred the Congress over the BJP as the party’s ally. In the 2011 Assembly polls too, when the TMC finally unseated the Communist Party of India (Marxist)-led Left Front in an alliance with the Congress, the BJP ploughed a lonely furrow, securing only 4.1% of the vote share.

The decline of the Left Front

It was the ‘Modi wave’ of 2014 that enabled the BJP to achieve a breakthrough of getting 17% of the popular vote in West Bengal and winning two seats without any alliance. With the vote shares of the TMC and the Congress remaining largely unchanged between 2011 and 2014, it was clear that disgruntled Left voters had started shifting their allegiance towards the BJP. While this development rung alarm bells among many, the CPI(M) leadership both in Kolkata and Delhi remained complacent and unwilling to undertake any corrective action.

In the 2016 Assembly election, while the TMC contested alone, the CPI(M)-led Left Front forged a State-level alliance with the Congress for the first time in West Bengal. This alliance received a combined vote share of 39% against TMC’s 45%, finishing a distant second. What was more disastrous for the CPI(M)-led Left Front, however, was that it was relegated to the third position in the Assembly with 32 seats behind the Congress’s 44. Paradoxically, this dismal result was interpreted by the CPI(M) leadership as a “success” because the BJP’s vote share had declined from 17% in 2014 to around 10% in 2016. What was missed entirely was that the Left Front’s vote share had further eroded by 3% between 2014 and 2016 despite the alliance with the Congress, which meant that the votes lost to the BJP in 2014 did not return to the Left Front in 2016.

Having lost the principal Opposition status within the Assembly to the organisationally weaker and politically subdued Congress in 2016, the CPI(M)-led Left Front receded further while the BJP started asserting its presence as an aggressive opposition to the TMC. A string of communal riots was engineered across districts in 2016 and 2017, which sharpened communal polarisation. These were planned and orchestrated by the Sangh Parivar outfits on the one hand and aided and abetted by TMC’s non-secular, inept governance on the other.

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A massive vote shift

With every by-election in West Bengal since 2016, the BJP has gained in vote share at the cost of the Left Front. This vote shift from the Left to the BJP peaked in the 2019 Lok Sabha election, with the BJP winning 18 of the 42 seats in the State. The BJP’s vote share shot up from about 10% in 2016 to over 40% in 2019, with the Left Front’s vote share collapsing from 27% to 7.5%, the Congress’s vote share declining by nearly 7%, and the TMC’s by about 2%. An informally coined grassroots slogan “agey Ram porey Bam (First Ram, then Left)” gripped the masses — in absolute numbers, over 1 crore voters seem to have shifted from the Left Front to the BJP between 2016 and 2019.

The 2019 election was a watershed in two ways. First, the TMC’s aura of invincibility fell apart and discontent against Ms. Banerjee’s rule became apparent. Second, the BJP emerged as the preferred alternative to the TMC rather than the CPI(M)-led Left Front or the Congress. Despite a plethora of populist schemes, the day-to-day repression practised by the TMC party-state in the rural areas have alienated large sections of the rural populace. Over one-third of the seats in the 2018 Panchayat elections were won by the TMC without any contest, reflecting the extent of the battered opposition. In the aftermath of Cyclone Amphan, there was large-scale misappropriation of relief funds through the elected representatives of the TMC, compelling Ms. Banerjee to order her party functionaries to return the ill-gotten money. The Calcutta High Court has ordered the Comptroller and Auditor-General of India to conduct financial and performance audits of Amphan relief disbursement in response to several PILs alleging wrongdoings.

Ms. Banerjee is trying hard to beat anti-incumbency by doling out more benefits through her populist schemes, but the BJP already seems to have gained much traction by engineering defections from the TMC. Former Minister Suvendu Adhikari’s recent switchover to the BJP along with nine more MLAs (six from the TMC and one each from the CPI(M), the CPI and Congress) and one sitting TMC MP is the latest instance. While the TMC continues to put up a brave face, with its campaign manager Prashant Kishor recently characterising the BJP surge as “hype amplified by a section of supportive media” and stating that the BJP will not cross double digits, the ground beneath the TMC’s feet has become visibly shaky with the Modi government deploying its entire might to dislodge the TMC government, and the Governor almost running a parallel government from Raj Bhavan.

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No credible alternative

The recently announced Left Front-Congress alliance, which failed at the hustings in 2016, does not offer a credible alternative to the TMC. With no common alternative programme or organisational cohesion behind it, the only basis of the Left Front-Congress alliance is their leaders’ empty rage against Ms. Banerjee and a subjective desire to unseat her from power. Such a platform is more likely to facilitate the BJP’s project of capturing power in West Bengal than help the TMC by cutting into the BJP’s share of anti-incumbency votes, which had already crossed the 40% threshold in 2019. The anticipated entry of Muslim parties into the fray, especially the All India Majlis-e-Ittehad-ul-Muslimeen which has been emboldened by the Bihar election results, will further muddy the waters for the TMC.

In this backdrop, the TMC may be better placed to take on the BJP’s challenge by forging a broader secular alliance, especially with the Congress. Given Ms. Banerjee’s own experiences at coalition building, it is inexplicable why the TMC has not made serious attempts yet in that direction. Hubris or excessive reliance on outsourced strategic thinking may inflict heavy costs on it.

West Bengal is a border State with a nearly 10 crore population of which 27% belong to the Muslim minority. It is also home to millions of post-Partition refugees, a significant section of whom belong to Scheduled Caste communities like Rajbangshi and Namasudra. If the BJP comes to power, armed with the citizenship matrix of the National Register of Citizens-National Population Register and the Citizenship (Amendment) Act of 2019, and determined to weed out “1 crore Bangladeshi infiltrators” as imagined by its State President Dilip Ghosh, what lies ahead for the State’s social fabric is anybody’s guess. Unfortunately, so far none of the secular political forces appear to have a coherent strategy and appropriate tactics to prevent such a predicament.

Prasenjit Bose is an economist and activist

The article was originally published in the Hindu and has been republished here.

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