The ‘Khan Market consensus’ on the 2021 West Bengal assembly election seems to be that the Bhartiya Janata Party is going to win it.
We are constantly told the BJP won 40 per cent votes in the 2019 Lok Sabha election, just a little less than the incumbent Trinamool Congress (TMC) that won around 43 per cent seats. The BJP, we are told, is almost near the finish line, about to overtake the TMC. It is presumed that what goes up, goes further up. After morning, comes noon, and after 40 per cent comes 45 per cent. If only politics was mere statistics.
Even if politics was merely a statistical problem, consider the BJP’s voteshare over the last three assembly and Lok Sabha elections in West Bengal:
Lok Sabha 2014 — 17.02 per cent
Vidhan Sabha 2016 — 10.16 per cent
Lok Sabha 2019 — 40.7 per cent
Lovers of statistics should take these and conclude that the BJP does considerably better in Bengal in the Lok Sabha election than in Vidhan Sabha. You could say that’s a sole instance, but then those who think the 40 per cent in 2019 will automatically become 45 per cent in 2021 are also going by a sole statistic.
In fact, there are a lot of data points to suggest that the BJP’s voteshare can only come down and not go up between 2019 and 2021. There is perhaps no state assembly election where the BJP’s vote share has increased over the Lok Sabha election.
Let us take some recent elections.
The National Democratic Alliance in Bihar:
Lok Sabha 2019 — 53.25 per cent
Vidhan Sabha 2020 — 37 per cent
The BJP in Jharkhand:
Lok Sabha 2019 — 55 per cent
Vidhan Sabha 2019 — 33 per cent
The BJP in Haryana:
Lok Sabha 2019 — 58 per cent
Vidhan Sabha 2019 —36 per cent
The BJP in Delhi
Lok Sabha 2019 — 56 per cent
Vidhan Sabha 2020 — 38 per cent
These indicate that the BJP’s vote share not only goes down in state elections from the Lok Sabha elections, but it does so substantially. And this is true of different scenarios: when the BJP retains a state (Bihar), when it loses a state it has (Jharkhand) and when it plays opposition to a popular incumbent (Delhi).
Having said that, we must remind ourselves that politics is not mere statistics. Like mutual funds, it is hazardous to rely on past performance to make assumptions for the future. After all, we do have an example where the BJP drastically increased its vote share from Lok Sabha to Vidhan Sabha. In 2014, the BJP won a mere 5.7 per cent voteshare in Tripura. But in the 2018 assembly election, the party’s voteshare in the state increased to 43 per cent, giving it a clear majority.
And while Tripura may be a tiny state, it was also a state with Communists and Bengalis.
The point here is not to compare Tripura and Bengal, because the BJP exploited a 17-year anti-incumbency against the ruling Communist Party of India (Marxist) there, and the Trinamool may well not be the CPM.
But now that we are clear about the perils of seeing elections through only statistics, let us consider the political churning taking place in West Bengal.
The BJP has four things going for it in the state
Firstly, the anti-incumbency faced by the Mamata Banerjee government which will complete 10 years in power in the state. This is not your usual anti-incumbency, since there have been specific issues and complaints such as corruption and political violence by TMC cadres, the massively rigged panchayat elections and so on.
Second, the decoration of the CPM in the state. CPM cadres, workers and voters have moved en masse to the BJP. A friend in Kolkata tells me of the story of a CPM youth activist joining the Bajrang Dal! This way, the BJP has become not only the principal opposition party but the sole opposition party. Those who point out the BJP’s increased voteshare in Bengal in 2019 must remember that the TMC’s own voteshare fell only by a fraction since the BJP’s increase came from taking over the CPM’s place in the state.
Third, the popularity of Narendra Modi. The BJP’s campaign in Bengal is all about Brand Modi, as his attempts to resemble Tagore tell us.
The BJP’s main plank has vanished
Such factors are often enough for the BJP to win a state by putting up a massive anti-incumbency campaign and creating a sense of a wave. The TMC leaders joining the BJP will no doubt create a perception that the BJP must be winning, because on the eve of elections politicians switch to parties that are likely to win. (There may be some disincentives too, such as visits by central agencies, but never mind.)
Please note that we are not counting Hindu-Muslim polarisation as a factor favouring the BJP here. Around this time a year ago, we were told that CAA-NRC were policies that were being introduced to help the BJP win West Bengal, even at the cost of some damage in Assam. In fact, the ‘Khan Market consensus’ has it that this was the main reason the BJP was going to win Bengal, as it would cause extreme Hindu-Muslim polarisation.
But now the BJP is not talking about CAA, NRC or even NPR. If this had happened to any other party, we would have been told that the party is not going to win the state, as its main plank has gone awry.
Incidents like Mamata Banerjee reacting badly to BJP workers screaming “Jai Shri Ram!” on her face and Banerjee falling into the trap by shouting back at them — we haven’t been seeing them lately. And to the extent that there will still be some polarisation, it will also help the Trinamool. For voters, it is clear that this election is between only the TMC and the BJP. So, just as the BJP will win many CPM stronghold seats, the TMC is likely to win Muslim seats that used to be bastions of the Left parties or the Congress. Polarisation works both ways — remember that the Muslim population in West Bengal is a significant 27 per cent.
Imagine it like this: the BJP is just a new avatar of the CPM. It’s an election between the TMC and the CPM, except that it is as if the CPM is now saying it no longer wants Muslim votes. Who do you think is going to win?
The BJP can win such an election only with an extreme polarisation. To its credit, its 40 per cent voteshare in 2019 suggests it won 60 per cent of the Hindu vote. That’s very impressive. But even this massive consolidation saw the TMC ahead. And in the Vidhan Sabha, where people are not voting to make Narendra Modi prime minister, this voteshare could well come down.
TMC is addressing its weak points
We have so far looked at the election scenario from the BJP’s perspective. The ‘Khan Market consensus’ doesn’t even stop and ask: what has the TMC been doing?
After the 2019 Lok Sabha election, Mamata Banerjee asked political strategist Prashant Kishor for help. Kishor studied the situation and came to the conclusion that the TMC was becoming unpopular on account of governance issues. So he launched a programme called ‘Didi Ke Bolo’ to address people’s grievances. But then came Covid and Cyclone Amphan, and the corruption of TMC cadres in Cyclone Amphan relief distribution put a spanner in the works. The governance agenda is now back on the table with ‘Duare Sarkar’, which is the West Bengal government’s outreach to voters across the state to solve their pending problems.
Mamata Banerjee may not be as popular today, perhaps, as she was when she first became the chief minister, but she remains the most popular leader in the state. The India Today Mood of the Nation survey put her popularity at 59 per cent in August 2020, when she was arguably at a low point.
She has always had this trick of playing the good cop while the party organisation plays the bad cop. She has worked on addressing governance issues as well as reforming her party. This is akin to how Narendra Modi addressed the issues that could have hurt him in the 2019 election, such as alleviating the financial pain of farmers by launching the PM-KISAN cash handout scheme.
This does not mean the TMC is playing entirely on the defensive. It has used the NRC issue and the Hathras gang-rape and murder to woo the Dalit vote. Mamata Banerjee even did a rally in Kolkata on the Hathras issue. She is also competing with the BJP to lay claim to Tagore’s legacy as part of a large claim of being the real Bengali and painting the BJP as un-Bengali.
We don’t even know what we don’t know
The match has only just begun. We don’t even know what we don’t know about what the BJP and TMC are going to say to voters in the next four-five months. This is a hotly contested, high-stakes, high-pitched election. Both parties are determined to make it a do or die battle.
Who knows if the anti-incumbency sentiment becomes a tsunami for change, which the BJP has successfully done in anti-incumbency campaigns elsewhere? Who knows the BJP could find another way of causing extreme Hindu-Muslim polarisation? Who’s to say Mamata Banerjee won’t distribute cash in her own version of PM-KISAN to make voters forget anti-incumbency? We don’t know if the BJP’s sharp attacks on ‘Didi’ could actually create sympathy for her, or who knows the BJP could sell another version of ‘Acche Din’ as ‘Sonar Bangla’ despite the economic recession? Perhaps voters could buy the simple give-Modi-a-chance logic?
There’s so much still to play out that those who are forecasting results either way are just shooting in the dark. The match has only just begun. Keep the popcorn ready.
The author is a contributing editor. Views are personal.