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A New Trajectory of Politics in West Bengal

Jyotiprasad Chatterjee (jyotichatto@rediffmail.com) is with the Department of Sociology, Barrackpore Rastraguru Surendranath College, Barrackpore, West Bengal. Suprio Basu (suprio.2009@gmail.com) is with the Department of Sociology, University of Kalyani, Nadia, West Bengal.

The electoral implications of the 2019 Lok Sabha election results in West Bengal are traced, and whether it heralds a movement from “poribarton” to “real poriborton,” is analysed. The National Election Study 2019 data is used to explain the rise of the Bharatiya Janata Party in the state and the eclipse of the Congress as well as the Left Front.

The 17th Lok Sabha election in 2019 has signalled certain new directions in West Bengal electoral politics. First, it appears to have brought the decade-long process of political change continuing since 2009, to near completion. The electorate of West Bengal seems to have responded positively to the Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) call of “real poribarton” (change) displaying scepticism over the All India Trinamool Congress’s (AITC) much fancied narrative of poribarton. Second, the success of the BJP might be a popular referendum on its nationalist project against the similar effort either of the AITC to showcase the regional Bangla identity, or the Communist Party of India (Marxist)’s—CPI(M)—version of Bengali left politics (Palshikar 2019). Third, the success of the BJP vis-à-vis the AITC might be indicative of the political futility of the loosely organised “individual centric” politics of the latter. Finally, the future course of party competition in West Bengal might acquire a new configuration of bipolarity, where the ruling AITC would be facing off against an upbeat BJP.

Table 1 clearly reflects the political ascendance of the BJP in West Bengal. Compared to the 16th Lok Sabha election of 2014, it has secured 16 more seats with a significant increase of more than 23% in its vote share. Although the AITC has managed to increase its vote share a bit, its seat share has fallen by 12 seats as compared to 2014. Both the Indian National Congress (INC) and the left have been pushed to the background, but the magnitude of this is indeed very steep for the latter. The left parties, particularly the CPI(M), besides failing to win the two seats it had in 2014, have registered a massive decline in vote share to the tune of 22 percentage points.

The AITC and the BJP, as the election results show, have between themselves garnered over 80% of the votes in a four-cornered electoral contest. The drive towards polarisation between these two parties has been so powerful that even the traditional left voters appeared to switch towards the right as data showed that four of every 10 of those who earlier voted with the left indicated that they had voted for the BJP this time (Chatterjee and Basu 2019). The fact that three of every 10 of the traditional left voters voted for the left’s arch-rival, the AITC is also indicative of the decline of the left and challenges the currently popular discourse regarding the success of the BJP being exclusively built upon the frustrated traditional left supporters. Similar shift from the INC has also been there, but compared to the left its magnitude is much less.

The visible decline of the secular forces like the left and the INC and the rise of the BJP with its much publicised Hindutva agenda, coupled with the apparent Muslim appeasement by the ruling AITC, leads one to ponder over the nature of the evolving electoral polarisation. The fundamental question is how far the perceived communal electoral polarisation can be regarded to be a reflection of a similar social cleavage. Conversely, one may question the possible influence of such electoral polarisation in shaping and reshaping the contour of political culture, to create communal fault lines at the level of society and social institutions.

Nature of the Polarisation

The long history of the secular Bengali public sphere is a definite obstacle to communal polarisation of the society and politics in West Bengal. The National Election Study (NES) 2019 also confirms this assertion. During the course of the survey in West Bengal, when the sampled voters were asked to rate the nationalist orientation of the Muslim comunity, a little over one in every 10 reported the community to be non-nationalist. Compared against the all-India figure of about one-fourth, this is indeed a secular expression. This also finds support in the opinion of the electorates about the demolition of the Babri Masjid in 1992. The NES 2019 data set reflects that more than half the respondents in West Bengal, who have heard about the dispute, consider it to be unjustified. Strikingly, among those who have voted for the BJP in
the 2019 Lok Sabha election, close to six of every 10 hold this view. Moreover, from the fact that over nine of every 10 respondents considered it important for the Prime Minister of India to be inclusive and secular, their overall secular orientation becomes prominent.

The NES 2019 data set indicate that more than communal polarisation, the voters are politically polarised between the AITC and the BJP, since a majority of them have decided whom to vote for during the campaign period itself. In a communally polarised environment, the voters hardly wait for the campaign of the competing parties to determine their choices. The survey brings out the influence of campaigning on electoral preference, since close to half the respondents stated that they decided whom to vote for during this phase, have actually voted for the BJP (Chatterjee and Basu 2019). Undoubtedly, the duel between Narendra Modi and Mamata Banerjee, witnessed throughout the campaigning period in West Bengal, helped in this polarisation. Through his 17 public meetings in West Bengal, Modi relentlessly tried to break the hegemony of the AITC by showcasing the developmental achievements of the BJP-led central government vis-à-vis the failures of the state government on these issues. Modi even termed Banerjee as the speedbreaker in Bengal’s development. As suggested in Table 2, he was successful in his efforts as the net satisfaction with the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government at the centre registered a sharp rise in the two months of campaigning. In the same period, the net satisfaction with the incumbent AITC government in West Bengal registered a comparatively smaller growth. This has been clearly revealed by the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies (CSDS)–Lokniti pre-poll survey of end March 2019 and the post-poll survey of May 2019.

That this satisfaction with the BJP-led central government or AITC-led state government’s performance has a direct relationship with political preferences is also brought out by the NES 2019 study. Table 3 depicts this, revealing that those who are satisfied with the performance of the central government have largely voted for the BJP. Similarly those satisfied with the state government have mostly preferred the AITC. The same clear relationship is also found in the cases of the Balakot air strike and demonetisation drive; the contentious actions of the incumbent Modi government, which had created enough political debate in the country. Hence, more than caste or communal attachment, the voters seem to prefer the party or coalition by assessing their respective government performances. This is evident from the fact that for more than three of every 10 respondents (29%, as reported by NES 2019), development has been the most important electoral issue.

The issue of development was constanly visible in the political discourse of the 17th Lok Sabha elections. While Banerjee talked about sarbic unnayan (comprehensive development), Modi and other leaders of the BJP stressed on inclusive development. Both the AITC and the BJP tried to place before the electorate the efforts of their respective governments to improve the conditions of the Scheduled Castes (scs), Scheduled Tribes (sts), Other Backward Classes (OBCs), minorities and other marginalised segments of the population. Besides, to attract the young voters they also touched on the issue of job creation through increasing employment opportunities. To gauge the effect of such a competitive development rhetoric, a brief look at the electoral choices of some of these segments seems well in place.

Electoral Choices

The BJP’s “new politics” of development to bring in the “New India” has been successful in winning the attention of the young voters. The NES 2019 data show that the BJP has been more successful than the AITC among the voters up to 35 years of age, while the latter has relatively better representation among those aged more than 35 years.

Since the voters up to 35 years are primarily composed of students and jobseekers, it can well be the case that they have considered the BJP as a party with greater commitment to do that. This is well corroborated by the overwhelming support the BJP has received (46% against AITC’s 36%) from the “college and above” educated voters, as indicated by the NES 2019 data set.

The electoral tendencies of the “college and above” educated voters might be a proof of the growing popularity of the BJP among the middle class. Although the AITC is still represented more and more by the middle class, the BJP is not far behind. Compared to the 2014 Lok Sabha election, the BJP in 2019 has actually increased its middle class vote share by almost 17% compared to AITC’s 7%.

Perhaps, the resentment of the middle class over the AITC for its alleged indifference to some of their issues, was the chief reason for them to move closer to the BJP. The NES 2019 has noted that among the salaried segment of the electorates almost six of every 10 have opted for the BJP against one in every three for the AITC. The failure of the AITC government to fulfil some of the important demands of the public sector employees like proper payment of dearness allowance, implementation of the Seventh Pay Commission in the state, might have prompted them to seek an alternative in the form of the BJP. Electoral promise of the BJP President Amit Shah to fulfil these might have facilitated this move.

A nuanced understanding of the 2019 electoral outcome calls for a brief account of the electoral preferences of the different social categories and communities. It can be clearly seen from Figure 1 (p 18) that except the Muslim community, the BJP comfortably leads the tally in all the social categories vis-à-vis the AITC. Not only the upper caste, the BJP’s vote share has surged among the OBCs, SCs, and STs, as well. Although the AITC has put up some challenge to the BJP among the OBCs, its performance among the SCs and the STs should be a matter of grave concern to it. The BJP has not only managed to have a good lead over the AITC among these categories, but, more importantly, this has been secured at the cost of the declining support of the AITC among them. The NES 2014 and 2019 data sets reveal that the AITC has lost 13% and 7% of the support of the SCs and the STs respectively in the 2019 Lok Sabha elections compared to 2014. Among the SC communities, the loss of the AITC is quite prominent among the Rajbansis (almost 25%) and the Namasudras (about 6%). Considered against the backdrop of the AITC government’s formation of development and cultural boards for the Rajbansis and Namasudras, this raises some important questions pertaining to the efficacy of governmental top-down developmental intervention in satisfying the aspirations of different communities.

Along with the SCs, the fact of the AITC trailing behind the BJP among the STs might be yet another proof of its declining acceptance among the marginalised communities. The shrinking constituency of the AITC among the Adivasi (STs) has been primarily responsible for its loss of all the five seats to the BJP in the south-west region, also known as the Junglemahals, where the numerical strength of different Adivasi communities is relatively high.

A disproportionately high electoral support of the Muslims towards the AITC (more than 30% from 2014), in the 2019 Lok Sabha elections has salvaged its prospects. The reason for this is not difficult to understand. This certainly has a one-to-one relationship with the alleged appeasement of the Muslim community by Banerjee for developing her vote banks among them. Strikingly enough, she admits it obstinately, and argues, Je goru dudh dei tar lathio khete hoi (“if a cow gives milk, one has to be prepared for its kicks also”) (India Today 2019). Although she criticised and branded the BJP to be communal for its Hindutva outlook, her pro-Muslim stance also raises serious concerns about her secular predisposition.

Growing Weakness of the AITC

Certain distinctly political factors appear responsible for the poor show of the AITC in the 17th Lok Sabha elections. First, since its inception in 1998, the politics of the AITC veered around its primary goal to oppose the CPI(M). With the growing dissolution of the CPI(M) since 2011, the politics of the AITC, thus, increasingly became defocused. Second, in the near absence of any concrete political praxis, to attract the electorate, it had to take recourse to various populist measures ranging from arbitrarily raising the Bengali regional sentiment to the adoption of the politics of inducements. The AITC seems to have suffered on account of embarking upon such unorganised populism. Third, the blurring of the norms governing party–government relationship is yet another factor. This was witnessed during the community Durga Puja of 2018, when the AITC government spent ₹ 28 crore to assist 28,000 community Durga Pujas, each receiving ₹ 10,000 (Singh 2018). Furthering the electoral prospect of the AITC was the primary aim behind this assistance, which was indicated by Banerjee’s statement that

This is a small contribution from our side. But do keep this in mind that if someone tries to buy the puja committees with more money, do not surrender. (Singh 2018)

Possibly, the “our” she referred to was the AITC, while the “someone” was its main challenger, the BJP. Finally, politics without an ideological cornerstone paved the entry of corruption, faction feud, and arrogance within the AITC, leading it to transgress even the basic norms and expectations of democracy. This was evident in the panchayat election of 2018, where the AITC allegedly resorted to unprecedented violence and won a record 34% of the seats uncontested (New Indian Express 2018).

To conclude, the entry of the BJP as a major competitor in the mosaic of party competition in West Bengal has been perceived to be a chance of communal polarisation of the West Bengal polity and society. This is also bolstered by the result of the 2019 Lok Sabha elections where the Muslims appear to have strongly remained with the AITC and the Hindus largely behind the BJP. But, at least at present, it would be hasty to consider the chance to be a certainty, given the pluralist cultural ethos of West Bengal. The BJP appears to be careful about it as is evident from the speech of Modi, where he sets the task of winning the trust and confidence of the minorities as one of the priorities of the newly elected NDA government (Ahmad 2019). Amidst all sorts of contestations about its communal image, this certainly is an encouraging message from the BJP. How far it will be successful in accommodating the secular cultural tradition of West Bengal with its overarching ideology of Hindutva, will have some determining implication on the future course of West Bengal politics.

References

Ahmad, M (2019): “Prime Minister Modi Vows to Reach Out to Minorities and End Fear among Them, Are His Words Enough?,” Indiatimes, 26 May, https://www.indiatimes.com/news/india/pm-modi-vows-to-reach-out-to-minor... 367977.html, viewed on 26 June 2019.

Chatterjee, J and S Basu (2019): “When the Left Moved Right,” Hindu, 28 May.

Financial Express (2019): “Amit Shah Malda Rally: On Mamata’s Turf after Bitter Tussle, BJP Chief Vows to Oust TMC from West Bengal,” 22 January, https://www.financialexpress.com/india-news/amit-shah-malda-rally-on-mam... -after-bitter-tussle-bjp-chief-vows-to-oust-tmc-from-west-bengal/1451453/, viewed on 27 June 2019.

India Today (2019): “Will Attend Iftar 100 Times: Mamata over Muslim Appeasement Allegations,” 26 May, https://www.indiatoday.in/elections/lok-sabha-2019/story/attend-iftar-ma..., viewed on 23 June 2019.

New Indian Express (2018): “‘Shocked’ Over Huge Number of Uncontested Seats in West Bengal Panchayat Polls: Supreme Court,” 3 July, http://www.newindianexpress.com/nation/2018/jul/03/shocked-over-huge-num..., viewed on 10 June 2019.

Palshikar, S (2019): “The BJP’s ‘Act East’ Moment,” Hindu, 28 May.

Singh, S S (2018): “Mamata Banerjee’s Sop for Durga Puja,” Hindu, 10 September, https://www.thehindu.com/news/cities/kolkata/mamata-banerjees-sop-for-du..., viewed on 6 March 2019.

Updated On : 2nd Aug, 2019

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