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West Bengal Chief Minister and Trinamool Congress chief Mamata Banerjee and India's federal Home Minister and BJP leader Amit Shah. Image Credit: ANI

Kolkata: The portends were there during the run-up to the 2019 Lok Sabha elections. And they became only more pronounced once the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) ended up winning 18 out of the 42 seats in the state. With just about four months to go for assembly elections in West Bengal, the turf wars between ruling Trinamool Congress (TMC) and BJP — the two main contenders for power — have got only more gory. The attacks on BJP national president J.P. Nadda’s convoy last week, while he was on a two-day visit to Bengal, have opened up a new front for political brinkmanship and a slanging match between the TMC and BJP leaderships.

It is indeed fascinating how the political template in West Bengal has been recalibrated ever since TMC — led by its supremo Mamata Banerjee, who is now the Chief Minister — sent the Left Front packing from power after 34 years of uninterrupted rule, in 2011. While the first five years of TMC rule in Bengal saw a huge vacuum exist in the form of a lack of a potent opposition force, particularly with the Left parties losing ground in the hinterlands of Bengal and Congress reduced to a bit-player since the late 1970s — it is the BJP’s growing footprint in the state that has turned the tables on a hitherto invincible TMC in more ways than one in the last couple of years. In that sense, BJP — a party that could traditionally muster a meagre 3 per cent of the vote share in the state, or even less at times — winning 18 seats and garnering around 43 per cent of the votes polled in Bengal in the 2019 general elections was little short of a political earthquake. Given such a scenario, as the 2021 assembly elections approach, for both TMC and BJP, the stakes will only tend to get higher and higher.

Gulf News takes an in-depth look at the approaching elections in one of the most populous states in India — a state whose history is as much a subject matter of intense debate and academic scrutiny, as it is a case study in political point-counterpoint.

Why are these elections so crucial

Since the time of India’s independence in 1947, Congress party had a stranglehold over public opinion in the state for a very long time. Following the Emergency in 1975, Congress started losing ground among the electorate in Bengal, like in most other parts of India. However, unlike in most other parts of India, where the Congress party managed to make periodic comebacks to power, Bengal, by and large, has not shown any interest in a Congress resurgence. Once Congress was voted out of power in 1977, the Left Front, led by the Communist Party of India (Marxist), held sway for the next three-and-a-half decades in the state, until it was punctuated by Mamata and her TMC in 2011. Thereafter, until the 2014 general elections, the Left parties and Congress were in such a shambles that they couldn’t even hold a candle to the cause of opposition politics in the state and TMC made full use of this stasis.

The first signs of change to this one-sided narrative could be seen during the 2014 general elections when BJP emerged as a counter-balance to TMC, winning close to 16 per cent of the votes polled — something unprecedented in Bengal for a party that had traditionally been seen as a primarily North Indian influence in Indian politics. BJP won only two seats in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections in Bengal, but with a never-before 16 per cent vote share, the seeds for a saffron surge in the state were sown in the most definitive terms.

Thereafter, the turf wars between TMC and BJP have got more and more intense and BJP winning an eye-popping 18 seats in the 2019 general elections was clearly a watershed in the state’s political history. It was only natural for the party to try and maximise on those unprecedented gains and establish itself as the principal opposition force in the state in the days and months leading to the 2021 state elections. TMC, too, knows that a gung-ho BJP, backed by its muscular central leadership, constitutes its biggest challenge and the most potent threat to its political future since its inception in 1996.

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The shattered windscreen of a vehicle belonging to BJP national president J.P. Nadda's convoy that was attacked during Nadda's visit to Diamond Harbour near Kolkata last week. Image Credit: ANI

If TMC manages to retain power, it will help Mamata grow in stature not just in Bengal, but in national politics as well and TMC’s hold on the pulse of the Bengal voter will once again be proved beyond doubt. However, if BJP manages to topple Mamata’s applecart, it will help them finally make inroads into a long-cherished territory that until the other day was considered by most observers as an impregnable political turf for any party with a fundamentalist identity.

The major issues

Honestly speaking, apart from the fact that the 2021 polls will primarily be a test of strength and endurance for the two main political forces in the state — BJP and TMC — there are no major social, political or economic issues that are a talking point right now.

Having said that, there are three areas that will still be keeping the TMC and BJP at daggers drawn: BJP’s promise to go ahead with the rolling out of the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) in West Bengal; the issue of defections from the party and intra-party feuds that have wrecked TMC for several months now; and the possibility of the minority Muslim vote in the state getting split with All India Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen (Aimim) chief Asaduddin Owaisi declaring that his party will be contesting the Bengal polls.

TMC has been steadfast in its opposition to the enactment of both, CAA as well as the National Register of Citizens (NRC), in West Bengal. Given the TMC’s traction with the minority vote, it is obvious that its opposition to NRC and CAA is a direct attempt to placate the minority vote bank. And it is precisely for this reason that the BJP wants to take a more bold stance on these issues because with border infiltrations into Bengal still being a matter of grave socio-political and economic concern, CAA for BJP can prove to be a potent tool to fight the polls on a more polarising plank.

But here, BJP is caught in a bit of a Catch 22, because although its pitch for CAA can find favours in a communalised electoral amphitheatre, pushing ahead with NRC may turn out to be no less than conceding a self-goal of sorts because enactment of NRC may see a sizeable section of Hindu voters rendered persona non-grata. The exclusion of about a million Hindus under NRC in Assam is still a sore point among many in Bengal and BJP will have to steer clear of raking up another unsavoury debate on the same issue ahead of the Bengal polls. Clearly, on both CAA and NRC, TMC will try and create as many uncomfortable touchpoints for BJP as it can.

If CAA and NRC are areas where the BJP leadership will have to tread with extreme caution, what have kept TMC and Mamata on tenterhooks are the steady stream of defections from the party and even sitting ministers openly criticising the TMC leadership. While Transport Minister and heavyweight leader from East Midnapore district, Subhendu Adhikari, has quit the Cabinet and is believed to be just a whisker away from quitting TMC altogether, sitting Forestry Minister Rajib Bandyopadhyay’s open criticism of rampant nepotism and sycophancy in the party has rankled the TMC top brass. If these voices of decent keep growing and if there are more defections from the party in the days ahead then TMC will be made to bleed badly in the coming polls for sure.

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Former transport minister of West Bengal and Trinamool Congress leader Subhendu Adhikari. Image Credit: ANI

What is likely to add to TMC’s list of woes is the emergence of Aimim as a political component in the mix. Aimim’s political pitch, as it is well-known, is aimed at the minority Muslim vote and its recent success in Bihar goes to show that it can indeed prove to be a factor in splitting the Muslim vote. Should Aimim manage to replicate its Bihar formula in Bengal, particularly in the districts of Murshidabad, Maldaha and the two Dinajpurs, then TMC will have a lot to worry about.

Why is the BJP suddenly so prominent in Bengal

It is indeed ironical that a party that owes its genetic configuration to the ideas of a man who had his roots in Bengal has hardly ever managed to find any traction whatsoever with the voters of that very state. Shyama Prasad Mukherjee, the founder of Jan Sangh, to which the BJP owes its ideological DNA, was a thoroughbred Bengali. Yet, until the 2014 general elections, the BJP’s vote share in Bengal never even touched double-figures. In fact, BJP president Nadda, during his recent visit to the state, said: “For a party that was founded by someone like Dr Shyama Prasad Mukherjee, it is only natural that at some point it will find traction with Bengal voters.”

By the time BJP emerged as a separate political entity, in 1980, Communist rule in Bengal was too entrenched. Riding on a massive wave of support from the working and agrarian class and banking on large-scale dissatisfaction with the erstwhile Congress governments both at the Centre and at the state, particularly over the draconian clamping down of an Emergency on India’s socio-political life, the CPI(M), led by the venerable Leftist leader, Jyoti Basu, presented itself as the repository of the middle and lower-middleclass’ hopes, aspirations as well as a weapon for mass struggle in Bengal. The rise of the CPM-led Left alliance in Bengal was a reaffirmation of the man on the street’s faith and trust in a home-grown political order that stood as an antithesis to the dumbing-down culture of a high command-led Congress dispensation. In election after election since 1977, when the Basu-led Left Front came to power, people of Bengal reposed their trust in the Left leadership. However, years of a virtually unchallenged reign led to a slow but steady decadence among the Left parties as nepotism, sycophancy and corruption took root, leading to a massive voter disenchantment that paved the way for Mamata and the TMC’s rise to power.

Unfortunately, though Mamata and TMC had a massive bank of goodwill and voter trust to encash, their dalliance with power brought all those negative traits to the fore, and far too soon, for which the CPM and Left had earlier been taken to the cleaners. “It had taken 34 years of Left rule for us to realise how and where the rot had set in. But the same rot seems to have set way faster with the current lot,” Tanmay Basu, a middle-aged bank employee in Central Kolkata, told Gulf News. “Years of violence and coercion by the CPM had created a massive disenchantment among the masses. And TMC was our weapon to tide over that coercion. Unfortunately, when we see that more than 20,000 seats in the Gram Panchayat [village council] polls go uncontested because of a reign of a terror unleashed by the ruling party, we wonder if this is indeed the ‘change’ we had voted for,” said Mohua Sanyal, a part-time worker at a private nursing station in the outskirts of Kolkata.

“This is primarily the sentiment that BJP has tried to cash in on. A large number of Left-leaning people in the state, who were supporters and workers of the CPM and other Left Front allies, suddenly find themselves helplessly exposed to TMC atrocities as the Left parties are no longer strong enough to make this threatened lot feel secure. BJP has stepped in to fill that vacuum and presented itself as a plank to address the concerns of these vulnerable people. Given that it is in power at the Centre, BJP has been able to convince these hapless lot that it can take up their cause and fight for their rights from a higher pulpit. This has obviously found a lot of traction among voters and the results were clearly evident during the 2019 general elections,” Biswajit Bhattacharya, a senior journalist with a television channel in Kolkata, told Gulf News.

The North-South 'divide'

In the 2019 Lok Sabha polls, BJP swept entire North Bengal, winning seven out of the eight seats. According to most political observers, this trend is likely to continue in the 2021 assembly elections as well. Along with the districts in the north, in Bankura, Purulia and Jhargram too, BJP won majority of the seats. It is particularly interesting to note that in the former Maoist-dominated areas of Bankura, Purulia and Jhargram, where TMC once had such a massive support base — particularly after the Maoist movement was weakened, following a sustained anti-insurgency operation by the state administration — BJP has managed to make massive inroads.

Much of the credit for success in the northern and western parts of the state goes to the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS). Explaining the phenomenon, Bhattacharya told Gulf News: “Let us not forget that BJP, as an organisation, never had much of a footprint in these parts of the state. It had won the Darjeeling Lok Sabha seat on a couple of occasions, but there wasn’t much to write home about those wins because in vast areas of North Bengal and Bankura-Purulia, BJP hardly had an organisation. So the RSS had taken it upon itself to keep a silent, low-octane door-to-door campaign on in these areas. It operated almost like an NGO, concentrating mostly on the spread of education through schools for tribal children. These were mostly conducted under banners that had nothing to do with politics and the RSS name was nowhere to be seen.”

He added: “Yet, through these outreach programmes, the goodwill quotient had been assiduously worked on and that helped BJP find a lot of fertile ground when it actually launched its political moves in these areas. Support for BJP among the tribals and the reserved category voters in these areas was phenomenal in 2019. The Left parties were the first to give a voice to these people in the 1970s and 1980s, but after the end of Left rule, TMC never really managed to reach out to these segments with any sustained campaign, barring some government welfare schemes. As a result, a void always existed, which the RSS cleverly utilised, subsequently passing on the dividends to BJP.”

In South Bengal, including Kolkata, however, TMC has managed to hold on to its support base, winning a majority of the seats in the 2019 general elections. It remains to be seen how much of that remains unchanged in 2021. Whether TMC manages to retain power in 2021 will be dependent to a large extent on whether TMC can keep its ‘fortress’ in South Bengal protected from a BJP onslaught. That the party is headed for a rout in North and western Bengal looks increasingly likely. Holding its ground in south will therefore be crucial for TMC and Mamata’s political fortunes.

Nephew and ‘Team PK’: TMC’s soft underbelly

First Shubhendu Adhikari, then Madan Mitra and now Rajib Bandyopadhyay — not to mention, of course, about half a dozen other TMC party functionaries and leaders — have come out in the open, expressing their ire at the way the party was being run. Without mincing words, they have taken potshots at the party top brass in a rather brazen and unprecedented show of dissent in recent times. And their attacks have primarily been based on two contentious issues. Issue No 1 being the rise and rise of Mamata’s nephew Abhishek Banerjee in the party rank.

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Trinamool Congress parliamentarian Abhishek Banerjee (left) and poll strategist Prashant Kishore. Image Credit: Supplied

And Issue No 2 is the role of master strategist Prashant Kishore who was hired by the TMC top leadership to chalk out a roadmap for the 2021 assembly polls, after TMC suffered a massive setback in Bengal in the 2019 general elections. Kishore and his team are trying to work out a mass outreach programme by the government to help TMC connect with voters at the grassroots level. In so doing, ‘Team PK’ has often side-stepped the local TMC leaderships in many areas and have directly got in touch with party workers and cadres. Some senior TMC leaders like Adhikari, Mitra and Sheelbhadra Dutta have taken strong exception to such ‘interference’ by an ‘outsider’ like ‘Team PK’. “If I’m to be tutored by someone on what should be the colour of my ‘kurta’ when I go out to meet voters in my locality then I have a huge problem with that,” Mitra recently told mediapersons in Kolkata in a jibe at Kishore and his modus operandi.

But even more serious than that is the shedding of a lot of bad blood within the TMC rank and file over the role being played by and assigned to Mamata’s nephew Abhishek Banerjee. It is a fact that since the last assembly elections in 2016, Abhishek has immensely grown in stature within the party and some TMC leaders have even said this in as many words, off the records, that ‘Didi’ [Mamata] is already working according to a blueprint to have Abhishek anointed as the next CM of Bengal, should she feel the urge to call it quits at some point. Abhishek is a TMC member of parliament and has also been put in charge of Yuva — the TMC youth wing. Old-timers like Adhikari and Mitra are still ready to accept Mamata as the undisputed party supremo, but they are in no way ready to play subordinates to Abhishek, whose rise within the party has made many a TMC heavyweight feel threatened.

These ill-feelings within the party over ‘nephew’ and “helicopter management” by ‘Team PK’ are issues that will keep the TMC top brass on tenterhooks the closer they get to the 2021 polls.

The ‘money bag’ and ‘outsider’ jibes at BJP

If in-fighting and claims of bowing to nepotism and sycophancy are issues that the TMC is finding increasingly difficult to handle, then for BJP, the “outsider” and “money bag” jibes are fast turning out to be embarrassments that it can no longer ignore. Given that even now the party doesn’t have a chief ministerial face in the state and also in view of the fact that the state-wing of BJP is still heavily reliant on its central leadership to add more muscle and voice to its pitch in Bengal, BJP is finding it hard at times to hit the ground with a campaign machinery that can take on the TMC in the hinterlands. With the BJP central leadership hardly conversant in Bangla and the state unit of the party looking increasingly dependent on federal Home Minister Amit Shah, party chief Nadda and other senior central leaders like Kailash Vijayvargiya to take up the cudgels against Mamata, the “outsider” tag continues to make the BJP feel rather uneasy.

BJP national president J.P. Nadda. Image Credit: Supplied

Added to that is the fact that the buzz on the ground in Bengal for sometime now is that BJP is flush with cash and it is ready to go to any extreme to “buy” political allegiance. “When Mamata decided to fund several Durga Puja organising committees in Bengal this year, even in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, it was ample indication that she didn’t want to lose out to BJP’s money power. It was more out of desperation to win over the youth. She has already backed several clubs in the state with cash infusions. This is all because of the way BJP has been throwing money around to keep the gravy train chugging!” said a student from Rabindra Bharati University who didn’t wish to be named.

So what’s on the cards

Keeping these emerging trends in mind and the way the 2021 election template in the state is shaping up, if elections were to be held today, all three possibilities are on the table: TMC winning a simple majority and retaining power. BJP winning a majority in Bengal for the first time. And a hung assembly. While there can be a debate on how the political fortunes for the two main contenders — TMC and BJP — are stacked up, heading into a make-or-break polls in the early summer of 2021, there can just not be any debate on one count: That the days of brute majorities that the state had witnessed under 34 years of Left rule and thereafter under the leadership of Mamata are now definitely over.