The assembly elections in four states and one Union Territory will in all likelihood produce a mixed result and largely influence the future course of Indian politics. As in any other election, the general atmosphere is acrimonious this time as well, more so in West Bengal.
Besides the evidently high-pitched animosity, there are other reasons for the Bengal election to be different from the rest — Assam, Kerala, Tamil Nadu, and Puducherry. West Bengal is the only state where the party in power, the Trinamool Congress (TMC), is facing the electorate with a definite chief ministerial candidate, Mamata Bannerjee, who is seeking her third term. The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is putting up a tough fight but without projecting any CM candidate.
So far, Bengal also appears to be the only state that is witnessing maximum number of turncoats. More than a dozen senior leaders of the TMC have quit the party and joined the BJP. It is nothing unusual because switching parties is a common phenomenon during election times.
Religion and violence in Bengal
The increasing number of attacks on BJP workers is a serious matter and could result in the BJP gaining ground due to the sympathy factor. In fact, during the Left Front’s rule, the numerous attacks on TMC workers and office-bearers had resulted in the party gaining the sympathy of the voters. Mamata Bannerjee successfully projected the twin image of a victim and a fighter at the same time. Strangely, the Congress party was also the victim of extreme Left violence at a time when it had a strong and popular leader in Siddhartha Shankar Ray, the former CM of Bengal. But the party could neither gain sympathy nor project a leader whom the cadre and the general voter could look up to in the face of organised violence unleashed by the Left.
It would be interesting to see how the religious voting pattern goes in Bengal this time around. In the contest between the Left and the TMC, this factor was less important. But over the years, Mamata Banerjee seems to have developed sufficiently good rapport with the Muslim vote bank. This will help her to some extent due to the consolidation of votes on religious grounds. But employment, poverty, safety and security, and above all language, are factors that unite the voters.
This is one reason why the All India Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen (AIMIM), which won five seats in Bihar assembly election last year, preferred to remain out of the fray in Bengal. The ‘local’ identity factor may work for Mamata Banerjee just like it did for the Shiv Sena in Maharashtra when they harped on “Marathi Asmita” (Marathi pride) in the early ’80s.
Struggle for all in Tamil Nadu
Strangely, Tamil Nadu seems to have come out of this syndrome in recent times. The BJP’s stakes are much lesser in Tamil Nadu where it is contesting just 20 seats. If it gets a big chunk of these, that itself would be a big feat. This is the first assembly election in Tamil Nadu when the two main regional parties do not have the benefit of their respective stalwarts. Besides, the withdrawal of cine star Rajinikanth from electoral politics makes this election free of silver screen personalities for the first time.
Both the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) and the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) are struggling to make a mark with no leader and no major electoral issue. The withdrawal of V.K. Sasikala from the electoral scene, perhaps only for the time being, looks to be a strategic move. If the AIADMK benefits out of this, Sasikala can always claim to have helped improve its tally and bargain for a rapprochement. If the Amma Makkal Munnetra Kazhagam (AMMK), Sasikala’s nephew T.T.V. Dinakaran’s party, cuts into AIADMK’s votes, she will have a good reason to storm into the latter’s headquarters and take over the leaderless party.
Though Puducherry has only 30 seats, its importance is no less for the BJP, which engineered several defections and got the Congress government dismissed. Ironically, here too, the Congress is unable to generate sympathy over the dismissal of its government. But if the Congress voters turn to the DMK, it will be a challenge for the BJP, which again seems to be depending on the personal appeal of the defectors.
Congress’ missing acts
Assam is one state where the Congress could have easily put its act together for a revival. But the apex leadership has done nothing for the state. This makes the contest in Assam almost one-sided. Ironically, even the BJP is not projecting the sitting chief minister Sarbananda Sonowal as the face of the party. Nor is the party seeking votes on the performance of its government in a big way. The biggest asset for the BJP in Assam is the popularity and charisma of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and the strategic planning of Union Home Minister Amit Shah.
Kerala is another state where the Congress had an opportunity to strengthen its roots, cadre and prospects. It has leaders who have good community following. By making the election three cornered, the Congress could have got seats to keep the party going. This time the anti-BJP voters may ditch the Congress and tilt towards the Left Front, making it a straight contest between the BJP and the Left. Therefore, the BJP is likely to open its account with double digit numbers in a straight contest.
Assam crucial but Bengal matters more
For the BJP, winning Assam and retaining the state will be very important. Going by the reports from ground zero, Assam seems to be easy to retain for the BJP. The Congress had a formidable leader in former chief minister Tarun Gogoi, who successfully kept the BJP out of power. In fact, as a leader, his stature was much higher than that of the central leadership of his own party. The Congress does not have another pan-Assam leader. Tarun’s son Gaurav Gogoi, a Member of Parliament, has reportedly declined to be the chief ministerial candidate. In any case, his appeal does not seem to match that of his late father.
But retaining Assam alone will not be a reason enough for the BJP to celebrate. The real victory for the party will be in wresting power from Mamata Bannerjee in West Bengal.
Seshadri Chari is the former editor of ‘Organiser’. Views are personal.