Mamata Banerjee and Narendra Modi
West Bengal Chief Minister and Trinamool Congress supremo Mamata Banerjee, and Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Image Credit: PTI and AFP

Dubai: Sample this: “Didi [‘elder sister’ — a reference to West Bengal Chief Minister and Trinamool Congress supremo Mamata Banerjee], you are scared. And that is why you have unleashed a reign of terror on the voters of Bengal.” (Prime Minister and Bharatiya Janata Party stalwart Narendra Modi, while addressing an election rally in Bengal before the sixth phase of polling.)

And this was Mamata’s retort: “Let the elections be over ... Will take revenge in every inch of turf.”

Also, factor this: According to Election Commission’s (EC) figures, after Jammu & Kashmir, the highest deployment of central security forces has been made in Bengal. In spite of that, incidents of booth-capturing, intimidation of voters, attacks on candidates have already been reported from the state that has seen at least two deaths to poll-related violence until the end of the penultimate phase on May 11. The latest being the violent incidents on the streets of Central Kolkata on Tuesday over a roadshow conducted by BJP president Amit Shah. Clashes between TMC and BJP supporters led to the vandalising of a bust of Iswarchandra Vidyasagar -- academic, educator and one of the foremost figures of Bengal’s Renaissance.

In almost all these incidents, it’s a Trinamool Congress (TMC)-vs-Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) turf war that has come to the fore, relegating the other two major national parties in the state — namely Congress and Communist Party of India (Marxist) or CPM — to also-rans.

Supporters of Bharatiya Janata Party
Supporters of Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) break police barricades during clashes outside the Calcutta University in Kolkata, India, Tuesday, May 14, 2019. Image Credit: AP

Things have come to such a pass in the state that the EC has decided to end all campaigning in West Bengal at 10pm on Thursday, 24 hours ahead of the scheduled close for the May 19 final phase of polling. This is something unprecedented in the history of the state and also in the history of the EC as the electoral regulatory authority used Article 324 of the Constitution for the first time in India’s electoral history. Over and above that, Rajeev Kumar, the additional director general (CID), and Atri Bhattacharya, the state’s principal secretary (home), were removed with immediate effect on Wednesday evening under EC orders. All through Wednesday, allegations and counter-allegations were hurled at each other by TMC and BJP leaders. While Shah alleged that the violence during his roadshow in Kolkata on Tuesday was a TMC “conspiracy”, TMC Rajya Sabha member of parliament Derek O’Brien attacked the BJP president, referring to him as a “dhokhabaaz” (fraud) and “pukeworthy”.

The question that obviously arises here is that how could BJP — which, in a best-case scenario, could not muster more than just a couple of parliamentary seats in the state until recently and with an all-time high general election vote percentage of around 17 per cent in 2014 — manage to suddenly emerge as the ruling TMC’s biggest challenger in a state that has historically been averse to any ultra-rightist political agenda. In fact, it is quite an anomaly that though Syama Prasad Mukherjee — the founder of Bharatiya Jana Sangh, to which the BJP owes its ideological DNA — was a Bengali, yet, in his own backyard, the political template designed by Mukherjee for a right-wing mainstream party never found any traction worth the mention.

West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee
Mamata Banerjee walks with her supporters as she takes part in a protest march after a statue of Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar, an academic, was damaged during Tuesday's clashes between supporters of her party Trinamool Congress, a major regional party, and India's ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), in Kolkata, on May 15, 2019. Image Credit: REUTERS

“Do not be surprised if BJP comes up with something like a 30-35 per cent vote share this time. In terms of number of seats, it may not make any significant gains over its 2014 tally, but this ever-increasing vote share for BJP is likely to see the ‘eye-for-an-eye’ brand of politics take an even more gory course with 92 municipalities going to the polls next year and of course in the run-up to the 2021 assembly polls,” Biswajit Bhattacharya, political analyst, told Gulf News from Kolkata on Tuesday.

So what has changed in 2019?

Well, the tide had actually started turning during the 2014 Lok Sabha polls when BJP, for the first time, amassed a vote share of a little over 17 per cent in Bengal. Thereafter, four significant political developments have taken place, of which three are local and one is more of a national paradigm.

First, the national perspective. Having felt that five years of governance at the Centre didn’t quite bring in the fruits of a promised “achhey din” (better days) — as tom-tommed by Modi in his glib-talking, suave sales pitch for the 2014 elections – the BJP top-brass went gung-ho with its “look East” policy to offset anticipated electoral reversals in northern and central India. Thereafter, success in the Assam and Tripura state elections made the saffron brigade realise that Bengal, with 42 parliamentary seats, is too big a pie to be neglected any longer.

Such a scenario coincided with certain factors that were brewing within Bengal. And that brings us to the second factor. Since the ouster of the CPM-led Left Front from power in Bengal in 2011, the vast majority of Left-leaning political activists, ideologues and grass-roots cadres started feeling increasingly isolated and intimidated by the TMC-led new political order in the state. This section started seeing the BJP as a source of salvation and some sort of a socio-political shield against a hegemonic TMC. From a vote share of just 10 per cent in the 2016 assembly elections, BJP polled around 24 per cent of the votes in the Cooch Behar parliamentary byelection held later that year, surprising just about everyone. And that trend is likely to continue in this election as well — thanks to a ‘transfer’ of votes to the right-wing party from erstwhile hard-core Left sympathisers and supporters, for whom, ideologically, TMC is still ‘enemy No 1’.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi
Prime Minister Narendra Modi gestures while addressing an election campaign rally in support of BJP candidate Nilanjan Roy for Diamond Harbour constituency seat, in South 24 Parganas districts of West Bengal, Wednesday, May 15, 2019. Image Credit: PTI

Next, the fact that TMC candidates in 34 per cent of the seats in last year’s Panchayat (rural self-government) elections were elected unopposed — which the opposition attributes to a fear psychosis unleashed by TMC cadres — hasn’t gone down well with many voters. Parts of rural Bengal are likely to see a backlash to this.

The fourth factor is that after exactly eight years in power, ruling TMC is definitely facing some sort of a voter-fatigue and anti-incumbency in the state. A clear case in point: During the sixth phase of polling last Sunday, in Moyna, East Midnapore, believed to be a TMC stronghold, in as many as 25 booths there were no polling agents from the ruling party! Something unthinkable until the other day. This issue has been further compounded by intense infighting within the TMC rank-and-file in various districts of northern, southern and western Bengal and even in areas in and around the metropolis of Kolkata.

There are also reports of largescale use of money-power in these elections that is likely to do much more damage to TMC at the grass-roots level than what the party had initially anticipated.

BJP still doesn’t have the organisational strength that is required to hit an entrenched TMC hard, but the ever-diminishing difference in vote-share between TMC and BJP is likely to keep the state on the edge for some time to come.

Two ‘X’ factors in Bengal

1. The Millennial vote: According to a rough estimate, there are around 120,000 voters on an average in each of the 42 parliamentary constituencies in West Bengal, who were either born in or just after 2000. This is a very crucial age-group that can make or mar both the TMC and BJP’s poll prospects in the state since in 2014, in 22 seats across Bengal, the victory margin was less than 100,000 votes. It is still not clear whether the millennial voters will go with Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee’s assiduous pitch for a non-Congress, anti-BJP Federal Front or be swayed by Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s nationalist pitch.

2. Women vote: West Bengal is set to see a 2 per cent rise in the number of women voters in the 2019 elections. According to data available on the 2014 elections, around 33 per cent of male voters and 29 per cent of female voters had voted for the BJP nationally. In other words, the vast majority of women voters did not vote for BJP and the trend was somewhat similar in Bengal, where Mamata Banerjee still finds enormous traction among females. With the number of women voters in the state set to increase, it will be interesting to see how this particular category exercises its rights.

On the saffron radar

There are roughly 16 seats in West Bengal, primarily in North Bengal, out of a total of 42 in the state, where BJP is likely to come up with a strong showing:

Darjeeling, Alipurduar, Balurghat, Raiganj, Cooch Behar, Maldah North, Maldah South, Asansol, Jhargram, Barrackpore, Barasat, Basirhat, Dum Dum, Kolkata North, Krishnanagar, Bongaon.

Note: In 2014, out of these16 seats, BJP had won 2 – Darjeeling and Asansol – and had the second-highest vote share after TMC in eight others.