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In Bengal, the match has only just begun. It could go either way

The TMC and BJP have opened many cards in West Bengal, but looks like they have many more to open. Before making predictions, hold your horses.

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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.

Also read: It’s 2021 and Congress continues to make the ‘Rafale’ mistake

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.

Fourth, a targeted focus on the Dalit vote in the state. The Dalit population is 23 per cent.

Also read: The 2020 Hall of Fame: The people who shone in a difficult year

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.

Also read: A government of the 38% people, by 38% of the people, for 38% of the people

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.

Also read: Why Amit Shah fights a losing election from the front

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.

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  1. Quite a superficial article, if I ever read one.
    No insights whatsoever on the intricacies of Bengali society or even journalistic deep dive into data of any sort.
    Mere writing an article based on popular newsroom chats, a lazy discourse at best

  2. Writer has tried to showcase article written with balanced approach but logics presented are far away from ground realities. In bengal TMC is facing antipathy not merely anti incumbency, reasons for that are multifold;

    1. Huge success attained in 2011 articulated by people around Mamta as her charisma which encouraged Mamta to sideline people like strategist Mukul Roy & Suvendu, a leader attached to ground with huge following just to handover baton to Abhishek, a matter of huge contention within TMC.

    2. Government in WB is running not top down but down upwards meaning every para has its own CM/Lion whose
    writ is final in the area of his/her domination barring very few Mamta, Abhishek or one or two other leaders who can dare to interfere, meaning intermediary
    MP, MLA, ministers, leaders have no power to change decisions taken by local leaders. This emboldened local leaders and as a result huge corruption, tolabazi, syndicate syndrome, deterioration in law & order situation took place. Left always had a proper chain of command to control rogue local leaders hence, were in control of the situation. This provided opportunity to knowledgeable strategist like Mukul who cleverly turned all misdeeds towards Mamta by holding her responsible for wrongs done by her local party goons.

    3. To ensure control over 30% vote kitty of Muslim votes, Mamta had gone out of way for brazen appeasement which was visible during anti CAA protests when muslims were allowed to destroy public property without any action. This was the time when secular minded bhadra bengali manush felt their privileged citizen status moving away to muslims and they started articulating impacts of changing demography and decided to weigh their scale in favor of BJP.

    4. Deteriorating law & order. Instances of combative attitude with central agencies, not allowing rally’s of other parties, no investigations against her party cadres, not allowing opposition to fight local elections, all these factors painted a grim picture of WB.

    5. No visible improvement in industrial/commercial activities in the state resulting in more & more young bengali’s moving to other states for job.

    6. Matua, SC, Adivasi who supported BJP in 2019, Consolidation of these voters will further increase BJP kitty.

    7. Mamta eliminated opposition ie left & congress which allowed BJP to grow it’s support base.

    Interestingly, aggrieved people of bengal wants change to happen, they are silently siding with BJP to defeat Mamta and BJP is winning simply because people have decided to defeat TMC. BJP has track record of good governness, rule of law, allows penetration of media, accountability and a proper chain of command in its party & government so why not give it a chance, has become a point of discussion amongst people.

    People are fighting against Mamta and BJP is destined to win because of this.

  3. @ShivamVij – your articles are the best, i read it and share with my friends too 🙂
    BJP is in full swing to hack people’s mind first, then hack EVM’s on election day, then Buy Oppositions MLA after election.

    “Bharatiya Janata Party president JP Nadda will be in West Bengal on Saturday, leading the party’s door-to-door canvassing and also to launch a new campaign ‘Ek Muthi Chawal’ (fistful of rice grains) to dispel the opposition’s charge that the BJP government at the Centre is anti-farmer.
    Nadda will launch the campaign in Burdwan district of the election bound state and the process will be carried forward by party workers who will visit farming households across 48,000 villages to collect rice.
    It is a month-long drive to collect rice, which will then be used for a community meal for farmers, and the poor.”

  4. good to see the slight change in the complexion of the narrative of this columnist…
    shivam vij is indeed witnessing the writing on the wall.

    But as they say…hope springs eternal in the human breast.. Expect another tirade soon.

  5. Clearly the attempt to write a balanced article by Shri Shivam Vij has gone awry. After all when did he last write one? This one started out well, only to let his sympathies clearly come out favouring TMC. His ignoring the Owasis factor is a just one proof of it.

  6. Even though I hate BJP-RSS, but I admire the kind of effort they put to win elections at any cost. And its in the DNA of RSS to do door-to-door campaign, have discipline till goal is achieved.
    They have clear aim to target group they want on their side(SC,ST,OBC). Never mind the joomla of equality, direct money transfer, blame British for all discrimination. Do whatever needs to be done, say whatever needs to be said. Just make them vote for you.
    And they win “first past the post”

    If we have 27% muslims, we have 27% Dalits to counter it.

  7. Shivaji one of the leftover Leftists & Jihadists in Indian Media, in one phrase he writes Muslim population in Westbengal is 27% and in other line he writes 38% , in reality Muslims are 38% in West Bengal, their numbers are going to make the difference, if Hindus unite against Jihadists Mamatha Begum BJP will win , otherwise Hindu votes divided between Communists, Congress and Mamatha, And Muslims voting in mass to Mamatha will loose BJP.

  8. “Kishor studied the situation and came to the conclusion that the TMC was becoming unpopular on account of governance issues.”……
    Wow!!! What amazing insights by Kishore!!

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