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Mainstream, VOL LIX No 15, New Delhi, March 27, 2021

2021 West Bengal Assembly Elections and its implications for national politics | P S Jayaramu

Friday 26 March 2021

by P. S. Jayaramu

An attempt is made here to understand the significance of the upcoming Assembly elections in West Bengal and the possible implications of its outcome on national politics. Since the analysis is about ongoing events in an extremely fluid and dynamic environment, the prognosis is also necessarily tentative.

Assembly Elections: The Setting

Amidst the second wave of the Covid 19 pandemic, the Country is poised for Assembly Elections in the four States of West Bengal, Assam, Kerala, Tamil Nadu and the Union Territory of Puducherry. The elections will be held from 27th March to 29th April with counting of votes slated for 2nd May. While it is true that each of these elections are going to be significant from the perspective of the States and the Political Parties contesting them, my focus here is entirely on the West Bengal elections as the outcome there is likely to have a significant impact on not only the incumbent Government headed by Ms.Mamata Banerjee and the BJP which is fighting a no holds barred election to capture power in the State. For the BJP, which has not won any Assembly elections after the Lok Sabha electoral verdict of 2019, an outcome in its favour will come as a great morale booster to its image. More so, for the Modi-Shah duo who are investinng heavily in this election, with preparations having begun nearly six months ago,though the President of the State unit of the Party says preparations to win Bengal started five years ago itself.

Some Factual Considerations:

The upcoming polls in West Bengal are being held for a House consisting of 294 seats. The Trinamool Congress has been in power ever since it was founded by Mamata Banerjee in 2011 after she parted company with the Congress. The Left Front held office for seven terms, two terms by Buddhadeb Bhattacharya and five terms earlier under the Chief Ministership of the CPM veteran, the late Jyoti Basu. TMC’s coming to power heralded the end of of Left Front era in State Politics. In the out going Assembly, the TMC had a huge majority of 211 seats, with Cheif Minister Ms. Mamata Banerjee’s writ running large, bordering on some kind of an autocratic rule, as perceived by the combined Opposition consisting of the Left Front, the Congress Party, not to forget the BJP and sections of the media and intelligentsia . The criticism has been that her nephew has wielded extra constitutional power with corruption charges against him, affecting the image of the Cheif Minister. The Opposition space was occupied by the Congress and the Left Front who had a combined strength of 76 seats, BJP 03 and others 04.

Election process and campaigning:

As per the decision of the Election Commission, elections will be spread over eight phases, a decision which has been criticised by the TMC as being designed to favour the BJP to help its national leaders crisis cross throughout the State adjusting their campaign tours in the other poll bound States. While the criticism appears valid at one level, it should not be forgotten that the 2016 elections too were a long drawn affair spread over seven phases. One more phase has been added this time round!

As for the electoral battle itself, the contest is principally between the TMC and the BJP. The BJP has made a few of its sitting MPs and Central Ministers resign to contest the polls, like Union Minister Babul Supriya from South Kolkota and the Rajya Sabha President’s nominee Swapan Das Gupta, who has resigned his seat, to file his nomination. Reportedly, BJP has given tickets to 46 of those who joined it in less than two years, 34 of them from the TMC, 06 from the CPM, 04 from the Congress and one each from Forward Bloc and Gorkha Janmukti Morcha, resulting in widespread discontent among its original members and the cadre. Swapan Das Gupta defends bringing in outsiders as social expansion of the Party!

Mamata Banerjee, on her part has giving tickets to an impressive array of film stars along with some fresh faces. She has put up women candidates in 51 constituencies to retain their support. To hold on to and expand her socio-political base, she has put up 79 SC,17 ST and 42 muslim candidates. The ugly phenomenon of MLAs becoming commodities to be bought over by rival Parties, mainly the BJP and the TMC, is depressing indeed. The new entrant to the TMC Mr. Yashwant Sinha says their job is to stop the BJP’s ‘Aswa Medha’ on the door steps of Bengal. The Congress-Left understanding has resulted in the former putting up candidates in 94 (some reports say 92) constituencies. On its part, the Left Front has put up a few new young faces to bolster its sagging image among the electorate.

Campaigning is an area where the TMC is facing a tough challenge from the BJP, which is using the services of a good number of its Central Ministers in addition to the sustained campaign unleashed by Modi, Amit Shah and Party President J P Nadda. BJP’s organisational machinery, well honed electoral skills and money power along with its hunger for power are unparalleled. The TMC is relying largely on its Party supremo Mamata Banerjee, who is travelling extensively throughout the State, now in her wheel chair. The epic battle will be in Nandigram where Ms. Banerjee is determined to defeat her old time loyalist Mr. Suvendu Adhikari, BJP’s prized candidate. She enlisted the services of the well known election-cum-political strategist Prashant Kishor well in advance to help her come up with the right slogans, use of social media platforms and in campaign strategy. As an astute Politician, Ms. Banerjee is harping on the Bengali pride and identity to appeal to the voters. Her appeal to the electorate to vote their daughter for the third term is striking. Mamata’s campaign is also marked by a combination of appeal to the Hindu voters, going by the way she is invoking Goddess Durga and chanting Chandi Paath, while trying to retain the minority (muslim) vote .She is projecting the the insider- outsider or ‘us vs they’ issue, consciously to keep the voters on her side.

The BJP campaign,in contrast, Is focused on winning the Hindu votes, accusing the TMC of appeasing the muslim voters to stay in power. It is also harping on corruption and violence as features of TMC rule and is promising a new era of peace and development. BJP’s star campaigners,(including Modi, Shah and Nadda), are campaigning in Hindi which does not resonate with the Bengali voters who are proud of their language and identity. Realistically speaking, the communal polarisation unleashed by the BJP is unlikely to appeal to the larger electorate who are hit hard by poverty, joblessness, inflation and physical insecurity.

Manifestos of BJP and TMC:

Though manifestos are theoretically an important aspect of Political Parties fighting elections in democratic systems, they remain largely of academic interest. This has not dampened the spirits of the Think Tanks of both the Parties to come up with catchy slogans and populist competitive manifestos.

The BJP Manifesto:

Anchored around its slogan of bringing about ‘Poriborthan’, the BJP, its manifesto ‘Sonar Bangla Sankalpa Patra’ (‘Sonar Bangla’ was a goal articulated by Sheikh Mujibur Rehman for Bangladesh after it became independent) has promised to implement the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA), disregarding the fact that the 140 odd cases against it are still pending in the Supreme Court, that the Centre has not yet prepared and approved the rules for its implementation and that the West Bengal Assembly passed a resolution opposing the implementation of the Act. The manifesto promises one job per family, implantation of the Ayushmann Bharat scheme and industrialisation at a fast pace. It also talks of bringing in the nationalist content in school education curriculum, instruction in Bengali from 1st to 10th standard, free education to women from KG to PG to attract women voters, transfer of ₹18000 annually to the accounts of eligible farmers under the PM Kisan Samman Nidhi Yojana, among other things, to woo different segments of the Bengali voters.

The TMC Manifesto:

The TMC manifesto, referred to as ‘Ongikars’ by Mamata Banerjee, targets different segments of the electorate like the students, women, workers, the marginalised among the OBCs , farmers and the needs of industry to keep the wheels of development moving towards a stronger and prosperous Bengal. It promises Student Credit Cards upto a limit of ₹10 lakhs to enable them to pursue higher education, creation of 5 lakh jobs a year by creating 1000 MSMEs a year, monthly basic income guarantee of ₹500 to 1.6 crore families, and ₹1000 to the female heads of families of SC, STs, besides ₹10000 as annual aid to farmers. In order to appease the OBC voters, the manifesto promises to appoint a Special Task Force to examine the inclusion of Mahishyas, Tilli, Tamul and Sahas in the group. Retaining the SC, ST votes is also a priority for the TMC. Mamata’s campaign slogan is ‘Khela Hobe, Jeta Hobe’, meaning ‘the game is on and will be won’. Bengali identity and promise of largesse to different sections of the electorate is Ms. Banerjee’s way of fighIng anti incumbency.

Opinion Poll projections and impact on national politics

Though theoritically the upcoming elections are a triangular contest, in real terms, the contest is bipolar between the BJP and the incumbent TMC Government. That is the reason why the analysis here is focused around the two Parties only. This writer believes in Winsten Churchill’s statement that predicting election outcomes is a natoriously dangerously game. Nonetheless, a brief reference to the opinion polls already in circulation is in order. The C-Voter survey, carried out nearly two weeks ago, predicts that the TMC will get 154 seats, compared to its 2016 tally of 211, that the BJP will make rapid strides to be at 107, compared to its earlier tally of 03 and that the INC/Left/ISF will have to be content with 33, compared to its 2016 figure of 76. The survey says that the others who secured 04 seats in 2016, will be wiped out this time round. The C-Voter survey generally carries credibility as past experience shows. Amit Shah openly talks of his Party winning 200 seats to form the Government, whereas Prashant Kishor has stated in an interview with Karan Thapar that he will quit his job as election strategist if the BJP crosses the 100 mark. Mr. Kishor, in an interview to the Telegraph recently has reiterated that the TMC will retain power and that there is no way of BJP winning the upcoming elections though he concedes that the Party is a formidable force in Bengal today.( The Telegraph, 21st March, 2021).

Predictions apart, it is useful to reflect on the outcome of the elections on national politics. If the TMC returns to power, it will be seen as a reiteration of the Bengali voters faith in Ms.Mamata Banerjee, along with her continued charisma and a rejection of the anti- incumbency thesis. It will be also seen as a referendum on the Modi Government, as he has invested heavily in the West Bengal polls, something which Prime Ministers have never done in the past. It will also be a set back to Amit Shah’s so called ‘Chanakyaniti’. At a larger level, a victory for Ms. Mamata Banerjee may also act as catalyst for the realignment of Opposition Parties at the national level. There are reports that the NCP President Mr.Sharad Pawar is in touch with Ms. Banerjee to launch a Third Front, minus the Congress Party, to take on the BJP juggernaut in 2024. On the other hand, a victory for the BJP, will demonstrate that Narendra Modi continues to be it’s mascot to win elections. 2nd May will provide some answers to many troubling questions in India’s electoral Politics.

(Author: Dr. P. S. Jayaramu nisvformer Professor of Political Science, Bangalore University and former Senior Fellow, ICSSR, New Delhi.)

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