Ins and Outs: A Quick Glance at West Bengal Assembly Elections 2021
Election 2021 for Bengal is not just any other state assembly election mainly due to the very close contest uncharacteristic of Bengal politics in general that we all are witnessing this time, the possibility of an overturn of the government, and the larger implications the results shall essentially have on the path national politics and politics in Bengal might take in the run up to the 2024 general elections as well as in the long run. The conventional wisdom for Bengal polls since the late 60s and early 70s has been that whoever wins, bags it all comfortably. But this time, chances for such a happening is quite slim indeed.
What figures say: Trends from the Previous Elections
Since the Left front was ousted from power after its 34-year-long rule with the “poriborton (change)” of 2011, it has sustained but crushing defeats in polls, and every election – whether state assembly or parliamentary – has seen its tally decimate further. Yet for some time till 2016, it managed to hold on to a substantial vote share (29.71% in 2014 and 26.1% in 2016) and formed the principal opposition along with the Congress, with whom they had entered a seat-sharing arrangement in 2016. However, the BJP’s graph was rising in the state since the 2014 Lok Sabha elections which catapulted it into power at the centre and which saw it winning a seat all by its own in Bengal for the first time, besides another seat in the hills which it won thanks to the Gorkha Janmukti Morcha’s support. The BJP also increased its vote share to an unforeseen 17% in the state. Notwithstanding this performance in the Lok Sabha, the state assembly polls in 2016 saw the BJP end up with a tally of mere 3 seats in the 294-seat assembly, now with a lesser vote share (10.2%), while the TMC swept the polls clean bagging 211 seats in all. But the real big jolt to the status-quo came in 2019 when the BJP won 18 seats of 42 with a formidable vote share of 40.3%, breathing down the neck of the TMC’s 43.3% - something that really woke many up from their slumber. Particularly noticeable was the way the Left got almost wiped off – left with their vote share of a meagre 7.5% and, more ominously, failing to register a lead even in a single assembly segment in the state. If leads in 2019 polls are something to go by, the BJP secured 121 seats – somewhat close to the majority mark of 148 – while the TMC ensured 164. With a mounting anti-incumbency against the Trinamool, a host of defections of prominent leaders and consequently ground-level workers from the TMC to the BJP and raging communal polarisation, circumstances seem favourably tilted towards BJP’s improving its 2019 tally.
However, some other factors too remain, clouding the BJP’s prospects. Statistics from across the states in India show that the BJP’s vote shares in state assembly polls have almost invariably dwindled compared to those in the general elections. Furthermore, much of the BJP’s rising vote share in Bengal has been attributed to the decimation in the share of the Left, just the way a large share of Congress’s votes started shifting to the TMC since 1998-99. That being the case, it is quite likely that the phenomenon has maxed out already and that further gains for the BJP from the Left’s vote-bank is unlikely. This time around the Left Front, allied with the Congress and the ISF, have put up a Samyukta Morcha and are appealing to the voters lost to the BJP to come back, mounting its pitch on Mamata Banerjee and Trinamool. This might keep off the BJP and help the TMC make a narrow escape, unless the ISF eats well into TMC’s Muslim votes and gives BJP the edge in many key constituencies.
However, beyond the surface of these well-known statistics lie other facets of this election. The biggest of them is perhaps identity. Without disregarding the question of economy, enterprise, jobs, socialist promises that have come to the fore in this election, Bengal is no doubt seeing identity politics working beyond all this as the cornerstone and the central pivot of all equations in this election.
Class had more or less superseded all other identities in post-independence Bengal as the most important political factor, although caste and religious community hadn’t completely ceased to play some part. Since the communists came to power they came to be seen as the party of the peasants – big and small – and sharecroppers, who formed the bulk of the party-workers in the countryside, albeit led by disciplined cadres, Bhadrolok leaders and well-educated ideologues. The dispossessed large landholders in the countryside, however, were repulsed by this rise of Chotoloks and, wet with nostalgia, reminisced the heydays of the Congress years – “when there was proper respect” for them and all that. However, party control of all affairs of the state, gradual de-industrialisation, sustained political violence and many more gave rise to discontent mainly among the upper and middle classes, and always ensured there was an opposition to the Left rule whose votes went to the Congress while it could never upset the Left. This opposition, led by the Congress, changed allegiance when the firebrand Congress leader Mamata Banerjee came out and started her new party Trinamool Congress which at different times allied with the then ruling parties at the centre – the BJP and the Congress – took on the Left. Finally, the Left scored a self-goal when it angered its support base of rural peasantry by its mishandling of the Singur and Nandigram anti-land acquisition movements of 2006-07, whose benefit Mamata Banerjee actively appropriated and finally dispossessed the Left of state power in 2011. Rising on the anti-incumbency votes, Banerjee had come to power but had no clearly delineated ideology. So, she first ensured her party takes over control of the party society (see below) in the countryside and decimates all opposition, i.e., mainly the Left. Apart from public infrastructure-development, what she then embarked on were a form of populist economics imported from the southern states marked by direct transfer of benefits and a renewed identity politics, especially around large, somewhat organised, but under-privileged communities like the Matuas of South Bengal and Rajbanshis of North Bengal, besides ensuring that she had a good share of Muslim votes which begun moving away from the Left around 2006 – when the Sachar Committee report came out and the land agitations in Singur and Nandigram were dealt with an iron fist by the Left government. When one form of identity politics had come, why would the most dominant identity politics in India remain far behind? Thus were opened the gates of the majoritarian identity politics of Hindutva, which the RSS-BJP had always wanted to succeed in Bengal but had failed till then – the previous high-point of Hindutva politics in post-independence Bengal was the 1991 Lok Sabha elections when the Ram Janmabhoomi movement saw the BJP increase its vote share to 11% in Bengal. A novel combination, what Sajjan Kumar calls “Subaltern Hindutva”, now began taking shape where the under-privileged castes are taking to Hindutva actively and even leading it while the upper castes are not shying away from aligning themselves with such a movement where the subalterns are numerous. The BJP very adroitly hung the carrot of assured citizenship by means of CAA to the Matuas, Rajbanshis and the likes, many of whose members have been migrating from East Pakistan or Bangladesh to Bengal beginning from the years after partition and well into the present times, and made huge gains in 2019 elections. This time around, it is a similar battle, perhaps more pronounced and better articulated, around who bags the Matua votes, Rajbanshi votes, other SC votes and ST votes. Such times have come that castes like Mahishyas and Tilis who are never known to have done block-voting are being offered job reservations by both the TMC and the BJP.
The Bengali culture in the conception and perception of a large mass of Bhadroloks too has been essentially, though not expressly, Hindu, and it was among them that the early forms of Hindutva had taken shape in the 19th century. So, it would be nothing too odd if the silently-communal Hindu Bhadrolok is drawn towards Hindutva, albeit with a supercilious reserve for the abominable “Biharis” and chotoloks dancing to its tune. The BJP has also promised to act tough on infiltrators, though this issue has been less virulently articulated than earlier. Although the infiltration issue is beyond mere identity politics and more of a socio-economic problem, the BJP has taken this up mainly because infiltrators are supposed to be predominantly Muslim and obtaining citizenship at the behest of “secular” parties.
Amid all this, influential cleric Abbas Siddiqui, scion to the pir of the most popular Sufi shrine of South Bengal, Furfura Sharif, jumped into the fray with his newly launched party, Indian Secular Front. The Left too, has finally decided to take recourse to identity politics beyond class, using Abbas’s influence to reach the Muslim electorate. Notwithstanding all of “Bhaijan” Siddiqui’s public appeal to secular class interests of the poor and the marginalised, the alliance is undoubtedly aimed at winning back Muslim votes, because if that were not the case, the Left were alone enough to address the said issues and would not require a cleric to side with them.
The Anti-incumbency Factor
In Bengal, during the protracted Left rule, the party had entrenched itself very well in the rural and semi-urban society, which helped it stay in power at all levels of government for such a long time. It was the party that provided jobs to the locals at the panchayats or municipalities, or at other government departments; it was the party that settled local disputes between and within families; it was the party through which the people received benefits of the government schemes; and it was the party to which people had to pay tributes. All this made the party immensely important in the day-to-day survival of the people. People identified themselves and others most importantly with the party they supported or belonged to. Here “all types of disputes (familial, social or cultural) took little time to assume partisan forms” because of “the popular acceptance of political parties as moral guardians not only in the public life of the society but also in the private lives of the families”. This is what the political scientist Dwaipayan Bhattacharyya described as a “party society”. (Bhattacharyya, 60) In other words, while Indians under the long practice of rule by a Socialist state have been accustomed to “mai-baap sarkar”, Bengalis have had to go a step further and appeal to political parties, especially the party in power, for virtually everything. This made the access to political power so important and rendered political violence so ubiquitous in Bengal. However, the practice had started already with the Congress. Its ministers were known to have inducted people from their constituencies into government offices where they had clout and the practice is so normalized to this day that people recount having enjoyed such favours to media. As the Left came, the practice became more institutional with the disciplined party. But when the TMC came, owing to its lack of discipline, often there were many leaders vying with each other for the leadership of the party society as well as the police and bureaucracy at their locality. This made political struggles all the more violent and the local complaints are that with many leaders competing for extortion of tributes from the people, they are made to pay to more than one politician for their businesses.
Any incumbent government is bound to generate some opposition among the people. Given the sketch of the present-day party society, the provenance of dissatisfaction is not hard to surmise. This disaffection was there during the Left rule but mainly among the middle and upper middle classes. The Left had brought about land reforms for the peasants, strengthened Panchayati Raj institutions and, on the whole, the disciplined party society kept the larger peasant-artisan population satisfied. Even, the “[p]arty-society was a big step in democratising rural politics” as “[i]t gave respite to the rural poor from their dependency on the exploitative landed families”. (Bhattacharyya, 69) But, with the passing years, with the ensuing “comfort of social stasis”, it “lost its ethical charge and transformative agenda”, and all hell broke loose when the Left government decided to push through land acquisition riding roughshod over the unwilling peasant’s movement. The TMC utilized this massive discontent and riding over the already-extended support from a large section of the middle and upper middle classes, ended the Left rule. The Trinamool, however, in its 10 year long rule, has given rise to a massive anti-incumbency, which, besides identity, is going to be the most important factor in this election. Widespread political violence and voter suppression in the countryside, micro-level corruptions at almost every sector from education and government recruitments to building infrastructure and disbursement of direct benefits, harrowing extortion and mafia-raj – all add up to the major allegations that people seem to have against the ruling party and provide as reasons why they want to vote them out. Once the Left lost power, many workers gradually joined the TMC to remain in the leadership of the local party society, but a large chunk of Left workers now could not enter the party where old workers of the TMC had already saturated the space of dominance. These Left workers were now suppressed by TMC goons in the locality. As the Left failed to put up a strong organisation against the TMC in face of the latter’s violent and protracted programme to finish all opposition in general, and the CPI(M) and other Left Front parties, in particular, Left workers and voters began to look for a new power that could match the TMC’s. The BJP emerged as a credible choice since it was now at power in the centre. The Left had not done enough to secularize its cadre; and given the circumstances they were in, they quickly jumped ship to a rising BJP. The TMC’s programme to wipe out all opposition can be said to have reached the apex in 2018 panchayat polls when it shifted from voter intimidation to stopping candidates from other parties from filing nominations altogether so that no election is fought and a complete TMC dominance over the rural party society is created. Over 34% of seats in the state remained uncontested while in some districts like Birbhum, the same figure was 88%. Perhaps this single event gave rise to such anti-incumbency as no other incident alone could. The BJP has, thus successfully used this place, meanwhile wooing Left voters by attacking the Trinamool government using the left’s symbol and language and appealing to the cultured Bhadrolok repelled by an “uncultured” Trinamool by ferrying the dreams of bringing back the golden era of Bengal.
Yet, even after taking in left votes, the BJP may fail to reach the majority mark. That realization has driven it to induct TMC leaders into its party and field them in the polls so that, with the help of the ground-level workers they bring, the BJP spreads its clout on Bengal’s “party society” and wins a substantial share of non-Muslim TMC votes. Some, however, feel that the BJP has kicked in its own shins by inducting much hated establishment faces from the TMC, like Rabindranath Bhattacharjee in Singur, since it can alienate the BJP’s main vote bank – the anti-incumbency voters who, along with devoted BJP cadres, are quite upset by this. If this strategy spoils the BJP’s game, the likes of Mukul Roy and Kailash Vijayvargiya who are believed to be the mind behind the induction strategy may have to face the music.
Can the Third Front pull off anything?
It is the irony of ironies when a novice Abbas asks the Muslim electorate to vote for veteran Left and Congress leaders and says that he will ensure that the veterans, once elected, do their job and remain accountable to the electorate.
While the Left Front lost a substantial part of its vote-bank the Congress had until recently clung on to its bastions in Maldah, Uttar Dinajpur and Musrshidabad. The 2019 elections saw only Berhampore remain while the rest fell, with most of its Muslim voters finding the last resort in Trinamool. Their widely dispersed votes, along with that of the ISF would by no means be enough for them to form a government. But the return of Left voters could hurt the BJP. Likewise, however, the division of Muslim votes among the TMC and the ISF could hurt the TMC.
Calculations pertaining to a Hung Verdict
Puzzling calculations as regards which sinuous course to traverse once a hung verdict emerges is at the back of the mind of all sides – with buying winners up in a horse-trade not out of consideration for the main contenders.
In case of a hung verdict, if we keep defection out of consideration for a moment, the TMC would strive to coax the Congress out of Samyukta Morcha. If need be, it may call the ISF, although it would mean a political blunder for the TMC. No hyphen can link the Left Front and TMC however. At most, the Left can stage a walk-out during a floor-test to help ensure a minority govt of TMC. It is unlikely that they would support any such government from outside even. However, the arithmetic of horse-trade obviates all this speculation.
The BJP’s path to power, if it does not cross the majority mark and finishes off close to it, can be horse trade. Such has happened in recent years in Madhya Pradesh, Karnataka, Maharashtra, and Puducherry and there is no reason to believe such will not happen in Bengal, more so since Bengal has already seen many TMC and Left MLAs jump ship to the BJP just before elections. Anti-defection laws that are put in place shall mean the defectors will have to run for fresh elections, however. Yet it is also true that by-polls can be won more easily once a government has been formed.
Future Course of Bengal politics Post-election
A TMC victory would consolidate Mamata Banerjee’s image as a possible challenger to Modi’s BJP nationally. Nonetheless, maintaining a stable government following a TMC victory would still be a challenge in the face of expected attempts of the BJP to topple the government. A coalition government would be all the more susceptible to such blows. A BJP victory, on the other hand, would give a stable government and the question then would be who might put up the main opposition. A TMC defeat would mean the party ranks breaking away, but a victory for Mamata Banerjee at Nandigram, if that happens, would see her fiercely rallying the moderate strength she would be left with. An alliance with the Congress may take shape, if the high-command prevails upon the state unit. Many of the Left workers who moved to the BJP en masse maintain that once the TMC is ousted, they would return to their old party. But that is quite unlikely, once they taste power again. Still, without them returning, the Left shall certainly find an open field if the TMC withers away. How the Left reinvents its strategy, builds its organization – at many places right again from the notch – will be something to watch. If the poor and the marginalized among the Hindus have consciously chosen this brand of Subaltern Hindutva, and it fares well enough to bring the BJP to power, there is no guarantee that later dissatisfaction with the government won’t form among them. To address that, a politics of subaltern consciousness independent of Hindutva might rise as the antithesis – something that Ambedkarite politics might look forward to providing. Bengali nationalism, even if it fails this time round, has chances of making a comeback as more of a radical fringe element led by the likes of Bangla Pokkho, more so, if the BJP government fails to appropriate Bengali culture and language and is seen to be alienating Bengali masses. The ISF, though at present having little penetration into the Muslim electorate, might aim at increasing its influence. If a Sufi cleric Abbas has gone for it, Ulema clerics might not be far behind. The BJP would benefit at large from the rise of such conservative parties representing Muslim identity, as both forms of right-wing politics are likely reinforce and amplify each other. To sum up, identity politics is back and is unlikely to lose its importance soon.
In the post-globalisation era, globally the Left suffered a setback, and in the vacuum created by its decline, identity politics – subaltern as well as nationalist – has risen, most of them marching in to fill the opposition to Liberalism but some of them also supporting economic freedoms while standing up for social conservatism. (Duttagupta, 18) Bengal, however, hasn’t seen any committed Liberal politics. If the TMC as well as the Left cave in, is there a chance that some liberal force shall emerge to challenge the BJP? Firstly, there is no such entrenched liberal party anywhere in Bengal, or, for the matter, in India. It is only possible if some existing party takes the sharp turn towards liberalism, which, given the spurt in populist politics, is quite unlikely. Nonetheless, if for the sake of argument, we consider that such a thing happens, then can it take on the BJP? Tough is the call since the BJP has marketed itself as an economic reformist force, and therefore, is difficult to be portrayed as party against the free market, more so, when it is the only party pushing for reforms while others are opposing it. So, however easy it is to portray the BJP as a conservative force against social freedom, it would be tough for any liberal bloc to make the few free market friendly lay citizens agree on the point that the BJP has actually betrayed free market and given them crony capitalism instead. Anyway, sufficient scope that liberal politics can exploit has never grown in Bengal. Socialism and left politics have impressed the collective psyche so much so that there is hardly any genuine support among the intelligentsia or the people for liberal economics, except for intermittent calls for rapid industrialisation. So, chances are indeed slim for any liberal power rising in the void. The opposition can be better expected to be filled by identity politics of some kind. But at least, immediately after the results, if the BJP triumphs, an ominous vacuum or utter confusion may persist for some time in the space of opposition.
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