Radical shifts: The changing trajectory of politics in West Bengal
The Bharatiya Janata Party has remarkably consolidated its position in Indian politics with its sterling electoral victories in the 2014 and 2019 Lok Sabha elections. The victory in 2014 marked the beginning of a new era for the nation, after which the BJP won several electoral battles in major states culminating in an impressive mandate in 2019. The rise of the party and the decline of the main opposition have been evident across the country – from Karnataka in the South, Gujarat in the west to Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh in the North. The victory of the BJP-led NDA in the Assam legislative assembly elections in 2016 marked the beginning of the front gaining a strong foothold in North East India, which had hitherto remained immune to right wing politics. As West Bengal is poised for the legislative assembly elections in a few weeks, it is important to analyse the dynamics of the right wing politics in the state, which had remained as the citadel of the Left Front (LF) for more than three decades and later of the All India Trinamool Congress (AITC). Moreover, the West Bengal elections would create strong ripples in the national politics and further the discourse on vexed issues like the Citizenship Amendment Act.
The LF ascended to power in Bengal for the first time in 1977 and remained there for seven consecutive terms until the AITC ousted them in 2011. Since 2011, there has been a steady decline of the LF vote share in the state. The average vote share of the LF, which was around 48 per cent between 1977-2009, has declined to 41.1% in the 2011 assembly elections, 30.1% in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections, 25.6% in the 2016 assembly elections. They were finally reduced to 7% in the 2019 Lok Sabha elections, with no seats in their account. On the other hand, BJP steadily increased its vote share in the state except for a marginal decline in 2016 owing to the alliance between the LF and the Indian National Congress (INC). The party’s vote share, which was 4.1% in 2011, increased to 17% in 2014, 10.3% in 2016, and spectacularly reached 40.3% in 2019, closing its gap on AITC (43%). The AITC, which formed an alliance with the INC, contested the elections in 2011 and defeated the LF while securing 38.9 percent votes. Its vote share was 31.18% in the 2009 Lok Sabha elections but showed a steady increase in 2014 (39.8%) and 2016 (44.91% ). AITC suffered a marginal decline in its vote share (43.69%) in the 2019 Lok Sabha polls when compared to the significant rise of BJP’s share. This has given the latter more confidence in its battle against AITC. As the LF and the INC are virtually decimated in the state, the BJP has emerged as the major opposition and is now the prime contender for power in the 2021 elections.
The main factor working against the AITC is anti-incumbency. The party which has been in power for a decade with Mamata Banerjee as Chief Minister is accused of corruption, nepotism and misgovernance. Recently, with the elections around the corner, AITC leader and MP Abhishek Banerjee has come under the radar of the CBI in connection with a coal scam case. Similarly the Amphan cyclone has opened a Pandora's box of allegations regarding misappropriation of relief funds. Dissidence and defection are threatening AITC, with several high profile leaders like Mukul Roy, Suvendu Adhikari and Rajib Banerjee with extensive supporter bases leaving the party and being accommodated in important positions within BJP. The herculean task for AITC, INC and the Left is to keep their flock together in light of the calculated moves by the BJP to attract more sections to their fold.
The BJP’s poll strategy is focussed on the consolidation of Hindu votes through emotive slogans, extensive campaigns and highlighting issues of identity politics. This strategy gave rich dividends for the NDA in the 2019 LS polls when BJP won seven out of eight seats in North Bengal where Hindus and tribals constitute a major chunk of the population. The party hopes to improve its performance in the Hindu-majority border districts of the state such as Bankura, Purulia, Midnapur and 24 Parganas. The Rajbanshi community which forms a large share of the electorate in Cooch Behar, Alipurduar, Jalpaiguri and North Dinajpur districts and holds major influence in around 50 percent of the 54 assembly constituencies in North Bengal has become another major source of support for BJP, through such a campaign centred around the unique historical and cultural icons from the community.
One of the factors that is advantageous to the BJP but detrimental for Trinamool is the entry of Asaduddin Owaisi’s All India Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen (AIMIM) party into the fray and his call for political unity of Muslims to safeguard their interests. Another new party, the Indian Secular Front (ISF) has been floated by prominent Muslim cleric Abbas Siddique, with claims of having sway over 5 major districts including Howrah and Hooghly. The division of the consolidated Muslim vote, as happened in Bihar polls, would eat into a sizeable percentage of the votes of the TMC in West Bengal, as Muslims have constituted a solid vote bank for the party since 2011. It may also play spoilsport for the LF-INC-ISF alliance, which has run into seat sharing disagreements and concerns over ideological alienation of the traditional Left and Congress voter base. That is why, many observers hold that the alliance may not create any decisive influence in the forthcoming elections. Moreover, like in 2016, many doubt whether there would be a ground level transfer of votes from the INC camp to the LF or vice versa because of long-standing ideological differences between the two parties. Field surveys indicate that the initial swing of votes from the AITC to the Left-INC because of disillusionment among workers and the underprivileged has come to a halt, as these sections now pin their hopes on BJP's show of strength.
Over the years, Bengal – the land of great social reformers like Raja Ram Mohan Roy - has been witnessing communal polarization and sharp fissures between major communities or groups. The BJP, by assimilating some of the local Hindu icons, symbols and culture into its nationalist Hindutva discourse, has succeeded in this regard to a great extent. The RSS and VHP carry out such campaigns effectively in rural Bengal through their grassroots organisational set-up, sometimes stirring up xenophobic sentiments by highlighting the denigration of Hindu symbols or obstruction to Hindu festivals. This transition can also be witnessed in the celebration of Hindu festivals with a distinctly masculine and violent character, that were hitherto alien to Bengal’s culture. The charged processions and show of strength on Ram Navami in recent years and a Durga Puja organised in Kolkata under the banner of the party in 2020 are clear examples of this transition. The question of caste has also come up to prominence with the decline of the Left in the state. With the ascendancy of the AITC to the corridors of power, identity politics has gained ground and there has been organised moves to mobilise votes on caste and community lines. A case in point is the Matua Mahasangha – a community of lower caste Namasudra migrants from erstwhile East Pakistan living in the border areas, and a decisive force in 30 to 35 constituencies in North and South 24 Parganas, Nadia, Howrah, Cooch Behar and Malda districts (Chatterjee 2012). The TMC had secured their support in 2011 by extending certain concessions and facilities. Now, the BJP is keeping them on tenterhooks on the promise that their citizenship issue would be settled under CAA, ensuring their security and livelihood as they have been demanding representation and reforms in the citizenship laws for years.
As indicated, the changes in the cultural canvas of Bengal are equally significant in the ongoing political debate. It has been traditionally hegemonized by the image of the quintessential Bengali bhadralok, typically an upper caste upper-middle class intellectual male figure with strong left ideological leanings. However, dialectical materialism or proletarianism which were the main plank of the Leftist ideology and strategy could not cut much ice with the 'Bengali psyche', which rests upon religious and cultural symbols. This bhadralok image has undergone drastic changes over the years with the rise of subaltern movements and voices that challenged this dominant discourse. Moreover, political parties like AITC and BJP in recent times have been able to capitalise on this dissonance through their appeal to the masses. The present political tussle playing out in Bengal over cultural icons like Swami Vivekananda and Rabindranath Tagore reflects similar attempts by the warring parties to lay claim over the socio-cultural and intellectual history of the state, in order to appeal to the electorate on a very sensitive and influential subject. It remains to be seen how the Left-Congress alliance can negotiate with these prevailing dynamics and influence voters across the state.
While Bengal voted decisively for ‘Paribartan’ (change) in 2011, a larger one seems to be looming on the horizon. Divisive politics and disillusionment with the ruling party, combined with promises of development for the common people and the image of Narendra Modi as a dependable leader and unifying force at the centre, have been the primary factors behind the ascendancy of the BJP in West Bengal. In order to combat this juggernaut of the majoritarian narrative and establish more democratic processes and institutions, it is important for all parties to take stock of their positions, identify their weaknesses, re-evaluate their strategies, and play to their strengths.
(The article has been written by KV Thomas (Senior Fellow at CPPR), Goutham KA (Associate, Projects, CPPR ) and Debapriya Chana (Intern). Centre for Public Policy Research (CPPR) is an independent Public Policy organization based in Kochi.)