Elections in Bengal: Intense Political Battle Ahead

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by Rajesh Kumar Sinha    21 February 2021

The state assembly elections are about to take place in five of the Indian states in the next few weeks. Tamil Nadu, Kerala, Pondicherry in the south and Assam and West Bengal in the east, will have the election process underway soon. Elections in India, are a huge political, intellectual and logistical affair. The process involves weeks of intense, animated political, intellectual discussions, arguments’ in the media, online and offline as well in the physical shape.

Now with elections in 2021 are about 36 months ahead of the national elections, due sometime in April-May, 2024. The performance of the ruling BJP in the forthcoming elections in five states is going to be keenly watched, analysed and commented upon. Among them, in Kerala BJP has yet to merge as a serious contender for power and it is likely to remain a fight between Leftist LDF ruling combine and the Congress-led UDF combine. There, the BJP is most likely to improve its performance winning more seats and affecting the political prospects of the two main political combines.

In Tamil Nadu again, BJP as an ally of the ruling AIADMK party, is certain to enhance its performance, winning a few seats. However, if it will end up on the winning side is a bit uncertain since the state’s main opposition party DMK is likely to throw a major political challenge to the ruling party. In neighbouring Pondicherry however, BJP could just make it and form a government, indicating its growing footmarks all over India, including south. In Assam BJP as the ruling party, is already in a comfortable position and with various development works initiated there along with the politically volatile CAA-NRC issue, it is likely to sail through and retain power there.

In West Bengal however, the political battle is grim, both for the Mamata Banerjee-led ruling Trinamool Congress (TMC) and the Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP). The interesting part about the political battle of Bengal lies in that BJP till three-years ago was not even considered to be a frontline political formation in state. Ms Banerjee herself at many public platforms had talked about the BJP, disdainfully. She openly wondered if BJP would be even able to win a few seats in the state, forget about forming the government. And the same party today, is not only giving political nightmares to Mamata Banerjee but actually is quite close to snatching power from her.

The Banerjee-led TMC party actually is a breakaway faction from the Indian National Congress (INC). When Mamata Banerjee failed to get a plum political prize by being in the INC, she formed a regional outfit, named TMC. Over a period of time, she even became a coalition partner of what she calls the BJP, a communal party and enjoyed the fruits of power at the national level. She used the time, resources and political patronage to ensure the growth of her party at the state level, resulting ultimately in a bloody political battle where she was able to form a government on her own in 2011.

Her huge popularity in the state and the uncertain political scenario at the national level during the pre-2014 election phase, encouraged her to grow political ambitions for emerging as the likely coalition choice for the country’s Prime Ministership. No wonder, she went berserk and abused the BJP’s the then PM nominee Narendra Modi like anything, including declaring in an election rally of tying him with ropes and putting him in the jail. That was when she was the Chief Minister of West Bengal while Modi was the Chief Minister of another Indian state, Gujarat.

That was the beginning of the really strained relations between Mamata’s TMC and the BJP. While post-2014, BJP has become a virtual winning machine, winning elections from the corporation/municipal, state to national elections, TMC is staring at a defeat in its own backyard in the forthcoming elections in the state.

The other major political parties/formations in the state including the INC and leftists, have emerged as big pushovers. The CPI-M-led leftists who ruled uninterrupted for 34-years in the state, today have lost virtually the entire ground. With very few pockets of committed supporters, leftists have very limited financial and human resources to campaign and reach out to most sections. Also, with a very outdated ideology and sulking, disgruntled leaders who prefer to spend time away from the masses and continue to talk of impractical social, economic ideas while acting as the unofficial spokesperson of the Chinese in India, leftists have very limited following today and in the 294 seats state assembly, are unlikely to even win more than 29-seats.

The INC continues to be gripped by uncertainly and indecisiveness. With most senior leaders afraid of talking for a leadership change, the so-called Nehruvian democratic party continues to be marginalised by ever-growing BJP. Rahul Gandhi, as the Vice-President and de-facto leader of the party (his mother Sonia Gandhi is the President of the party) has decided to contest the elections in state in alliance with the leftists. For him, ideology or practical differences do not matter since the two are fighting elections against each other in Kerala.

For him, his own/family’s political survival only matters because his party has already become insignificant in almost the whole of India, except states of Rajasthan, MP, Chattisgarh and Punjab. While political analysis suggests otherwise, he continues to hope that dividing votes, winning a few seats in West Bengal and stopping BJP from forming a government, will help Mamata Banerjee and that his enemy’s (BJP) enemy TMC is and will be his friend. No wonder, in Rahul Gandhi we find a leader who is all out to save his family, retain power in his hand and let his party’s slide to insignificance continue.

While the trends and various opinion polls suggest that the INC-leftist combine is unlikely to secure even 50 seats together, the entry of Owaisi-led AIMIM party from Hyderabad has spiced up things. While the BJP continues to polarise Hindu votes in the state, Ms Banerjee has rightly been criticised for consolidating Muslim votes for herself. In fact, during her 10-years of rule her party has done many things, openly and covertly, that suggest the appeasement of Muslims instead of working for all citizenry of state, and that is being exploited today by her political opponents.

However, desperate for retaining power, Mamata Banerjee continues to play votebank politics against BJP, the main rival who indulges even in more acute form of polarisation. Though unlike in some other parts of India, the substantial 30-percent Muslim electorate in the state do not vote en masse, TMC continues to provoke them by suggesting that once BJP comes to power, they will be destroyed and killed. While Banerjee has castigated Owaisi’s AIMIM (which is likely to garner a fair share of Muslim votes) as acting as the front for BJP, she herself has floated an unknown political entity named Ansari, to secure Muslim votes for her. Owaisi’s alliance with Abbas Siddiqui’s newly-launched Indian Secular Front is also likely to make things difficult for ruling TMC in Bengal.

The BJP however, is enthusiastic about winning the state this time. Politically, a win here will have great implications since it will be in power in almost the whole of north-east and eastern India sans Orissa. Its poltical and ideological rivals, INC and the left are unlikely to survive politically if the BJP comes to power in the state. Ideologically too, BJP will have an opportunity to re-paint the state and its culture with its own brush.

The ruling TMC has lost many of its top leaders recently who have defected to its main rival, BJP. Their political background and manipulation will certainly help while the very unsavoury poltical violence and killings that have emerged as the hallmark of Mamata Banerjee’s party, has alienated a significant part of state’s middle class from TMC. Corruption and hooliganism are rampant while party has many factions and all of them are allegedly coercing money from corporates and small businessmen. Socio-economic development in the one decade of Banerjee’s rule has been very limited though frequent doles in the form of bicycles, school uniforms and slippers for students, has been highly publicised. Unemployment situation continues to be grim and state employees too, are not very happy with the current state.

How the situation unfolds in the next few weeks, will be interesting. As situation stands today, Mamata Banerjee’s TMC is fighting hard to stop the BJP from winning the state. INC-Left combine continues to remain a distinct, third and insignificant player. If there is a change in the power, Mamata’s political stock, already on a downslide will go down further and she could end up as another Lallu-Mulayam-Mayavati. However, if BJP is able to secure power it will again be on a high and even otherwise, if it fails to form government but secures more than 110-seats (148 is required to form government), that will be huge leap from a mere 6-odd seats in the current assembly. Whichever way the results go; BJP is certain to emerge as a big winner in the state.

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