Dynamics Of Bengal Politics
By Afroz Alam
30 March, 2016
Electoral stakeholders in West Bengal have now finally geared up for the sixteenth Assembly election. More than 65 million electors will go on poll scheduled for 4th April-5th May, 2016 to elect 294 delegates to represent more than 90 million state populations. In the last three months, the state has witnessed elaborate road- shows, bike rallies, and intense door-to-door campaigns with a mix of local and national political issues that have put the political character of West Bengal on full display. Multi-lingual manifestos, party anthems, jingles, the audio-video campaign songs, large hoardings and posters add further colour to the election campaign of West Bengal.
The most interesting part of this 2016 election is the link between voters, candidates and parties and the inﬂuence of the campaign context on these relationships. Keeping in view of local popularity, political parties have nominated candidates from across the professional spectrum including actors, sports persons, corporate sectors, media persons, lawyers, doctors and so on. Congress-Left-BJP have introduced new and young faces while the ruling TMC has retained its 90 per cent of the MLAs. Above all, Bhawanipore Assembly constituency of South Kolkata is going to witness the most interesting electoral contest between Didi (Mamata Banerjee), Boudi (Deepa Dasmunsi spouse of the seasoned Congress politician Priya Ranjan Dasmunsi) and Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose’s grandnephew (Chandra Kumar Bose).
Additionally as the campaign unfolded, allegations and counter allegations swirled fast and furious. Opposition parties started counting on the power of ‘rumerology’ to demonstrate how West Bengal experienced “democratic deficit” during the last 5 years of Mamata Banerjee tenure. To cast serious doubt on the legitimacy of Mamata Banerjee regime, a barrage of issues that plagued her administration in the first term is raised. It comes as no surprise when Congress-Left-BJP alike in their lacklustre campaign portrayed the image of Mamata Banerjee as “dangerous tyrant” who aimed to control the total aspect of people’s life not only by allowing her party cadre to prevail over the routine matters of general and police administration, public or private appointments and promotions but also remaining exhorted the cadre to use violence against political opponents with great sense of impunity. The most damaging amongst all are the corruption charges including Shardha Chit Fund scam to Narada sting that embarrassed the Trinamool Congress more heavily.
Despite the strategic deployment of these issues,neither the opposition parties are able to turn public support in their favour nor the ruling TMC appear to lose the ground substantially.The only outcome is the turning of West Bengal’s electoral scene more interesting and slightly competitive but without favourable outcome for the opposition. The electorates do not appear extremely frustrated with the TMC rule as they still are with the possibility of Left-Congress forming the government in the state. She is a success in connecting decisively with the electorates by her simplistic strategy of offering centrist issues to public. Mamata’s re-election prospect is certainly not dim if we go by the trend witnessed during the 2014 Lok Sabha, subsequent by-elections and the most recent local elections. The opposition parties are once again find themselves without a strong issue or strategy to use against Mamata Banerjee’s rule with a certain success.
The early trends reflect that West Bengal is certainly going to be another state after Delhi and Bihar which will successfully contain the rise of right wing BJP and its ‘wild rhetoric’ to appeal the communal sense of low caste groups. An attempt has been made by the BJP to change the nature of campaign environment not by urging “TMC-free Bengal” but the sizable presence of SCs, STs and OBCs among the 245 candidates announced so far. In first glance, this may sound party’s effort to shed its bhadralok (upper caste) image by means of appropriating Chotoloks (lower castes) agenda. Given the pattern of ‘conspiricism’ as a core component of right wing populism, it can be argued that the present strategy of BJP is merely to use the lower caste as scapegoat to turn the electoral climate of the state inflammatory so that an easy violence could be scripted.
Strangely, no party has yet seriously looked at the low-caste dynamics of the state politics. The state remained confined to class, community, students, peasants and workers politics. But recently, the state has witnessed the articulation of Dalit voice through the Matua Mahasangha. Come what may, the articulation of autonomous voice of lower castes and other indigenous groups like Gorkha, Lepcha, Limbu, Bhutia, Rajbangshis, Santhals, Gonds and Ugra Khatriyas are certainly the most important emerging trend in the state politics. Any attempt to ignore such voices will help the right-wing BJP in fulfilling its dream project of winning Bengal if not this time then in years to come.
However, unlike Delhi, Bihar and even Assam, there is a conspicuous absence of aggressive campaign by the BJP. It is not without reasons.The vulgar pragmatism of ‘anti-minority overtones’ failed to charm the Bengali electorates. The party appear to have failed in attracting people to dance to the tune of right-wing populism and thus the possibility of polarisation is soundly defeated. Given the circumstances, BJP turned soft to avoid media criticism as well as to explore the possibility of persuading TMC as a potential post-poll partner to garner its support in Rajya Sabha as West Bengal sends 16 representatives to the upper house. The residual campaign of the BJP is to attract ‘anti-TMC’ vote, if any, that too to hurt disproportionately the Congress-Left combine and most importantly to carve out an existential space keeping in view of 2019 Lok Sabha and 2021 Assembly elections.
Tactically to create confusion among voters on ‘voting choice’ and to send ‘pride-signal’ to BJP supporters, Prime Minister Narendra Modi maintained a strategic pause during ‘Azaan’ in his recent election rally. In an earlier instance, Arun Jaitley, while citing data from a recent report “Living realities of Muslims in West Bengal”, argued that the living conditions of Muslim minorities are “extremely inadequate” despite the political stability in the West Bengal. These gestures are merely an attempt to create ‘reference bites’ to establish inclusive credential of a known right-wing party on TV debates and international platforms.
Be that as it may, Muslim vote matters. The early trends show that Congress-CPI(M) duo are not able to split the votes of Muslim who constitute more than 27 per cent of state population and having 30-50 per cent presence in 95 out of 294 Assembly constituencies with additional 40 constituencies where they constitute 20-30 per cent. There is a tactical shift of Muslim vote from Congress and CPI(M) to TMC as the trend is aptly clear in 2014 Lok Sabha and the recently held local elections in Muslim dominated districts of North and South Bengal including Birbhum, Hooghly, Howrah,Malda, Murshidabad, Nadia, South 24 Pragnas, Uttar Dinajpur earlier known as Congress-Left strongholds.
At the same time, TMC may face serious challenge from the two important regions, Jangalmahal and Darjeeling Hill areas. The salience of 49 Maoist affected Assembly constituencies known as Jangalmahal consisting of Purulia, West Midnapore and Bankura districts cannot be denied when certain left-out Maoist issued a statement against the TMC. However, the Jangalmahal areas are also not an easy gain for Congress-Left-BJP. Similarly is the case of Darjeeling Hill areas where Gorkha Janmukti Morcha (GJM) entered into an alliance with BJP just to avoid the division of anti-TMC vote.
While calculating the overall gains and losses, opinion polls show that TMC is in a clear lead. This can only be counted as good news for the party if the poll predictions are even vaguely accurate.Trends over time show that all that is solid about an opinion poll lead can easily melt into the electoral air once the election results are declared. Let’s wait to see how informative have the polls in West Bengal actually proven to be.
Associate Professor of Political Science
Department of Political Science
Maulana Azad National Urdu University, Hyderabad