New Delhi: The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) had established a lead in 19 of West Bengal’s 42 parliamentary seats as results of the 2019 Lok Sabha elections were announced Thursday, pulling off a grand showing in a state that has been a bastion of the Trinamool Congress (TMC) since 2011.
Although the TMC still had the overall lead, looking set to win 22 seats, the BJP’s tally marks a vast improvement over its 2014 total of two seats. The remaining seat is headed in the Congress’ kitty.
Despite its seat-share coming down from 34 to 22, the TMC has bettered its 2014 vote-share — from 39.7 per cent to 44 per cent. In the 2016 assembly election, its vote-share stood at 44.9 per cent.
This election, even in the seats where the TMC is leading, the gap between the party’s and the BJP’s vote-share has come down, a development that could pose a serious challenge to Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee’s party in 2021, when the state goes for assembly elections.
The BJP stood second in 21 seats, completely wiping out the Left, whose vote-share dipped from 22.9 per cent in 2014 to about 8 per cent in 2019.
The sole seat won by the Congress is Berhampore, which went to incumbent Adhir Ranjan Chowdhury. Former President Pranab Mukherjee’s son Abhijit, who contested from the party’s traditional stronghold Jangipur, was among the prominent names defeated.
Other key pockets lost by the Congress are Malda North, Malda South and Murshidabad.
“The result will end up damaging the character of Bengal,” said West Bengal Congress president Somen Mitra. “The discourse in the state will turn increasingly communal.”
The BJP’s surge in Bengal is significant considering the party was a footnote in the state’s electoral politics for a long time. The state was ruled by the Congress from Independence to 1977, when the Left came to power and governed for 34 years.
The BJP won its first Lok Sabha seat in West Bengal in 1997 (Dum Dum), taking its total to two (Dum Dum and Krishnagar) when elections were held again the next year.
In 2009, it won one seat, Darjeeling.
The BJP stood third by vote-share in 2014, notching 17.02 per cent against the TMC’s 39.79 per cent and the CPI(M)’s 22.9 per cent, winning Asansol and Darjeeling.
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‘Speedbreakers & expiry babu’
The Bengal election involved a bitter campaign where both the BJP and the TMC unleashed vitriol as they tried to upstage each other to project themselves as the more earnest proponents of Hindutva.
If PM Narendra Modi called West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee “speedbreaker Didi” for allegedly obstructing all central schemes in the state, she called him “expiry babu” to claim he was past his expiry date.
The campaign culminated in violence at Kolkata’s College Street on the evening of 15 May, two days before the final leg of campaigning was to get over. Owing to the violence, the Election Commission cut short the campaign by a day, but not before PM Modi addressed two campaign rallies in the state.
BJP intensified Bengal thrust after 2016
In the 2016 assembly elections, the BJP’s performance was nothing to croon about. It won just 10 of the 294 seats. The TMC won with 211 seats, followed by the Congress with 44 seats, and the CPI(M) with 26.
However, after 2016, the saffron party renewed its thrust in Bengal. The result was evident in the 2018 panchayat elections, where the BJP stood second, though a distant one at that.
The BJP-led NDA’s ascension to the Centre coincided with the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), the ideological parent of the party, expanding its footprint in Bengal.
In North Bengal, according to an RSS leader, the number of shakhas has grown approximately three-fold since 2010, currently standing at around 500.
The growth in shakhas has resulted in a spurt in the number of swayamsevaks to a little over 20,000 across the eight parliamentary constituencies in North Bengal — Cooch Behar, Alipurduar, Jalpaiguri, Darjeeling, Balurghat, Raigunj, North Malda and South Malda.
As of late Thursday evening, the BJP was leading in seven of the of the eight seats.
BJP’s rise has been mainly at the expense of Left
Maidul Islam, an assistant professor of political science at Kolkata’s Centre for Studies in Social Sciences, said the “mainstreaming of the BJP in Bengal has come at the cost of Left and the Congress”.
“Their votes, especially that of the Left, have moved en masse to the BJP,” he added.
When ThePrint travelled through West Bengal in April, many Left supporters said they would vote for the BJP as they didn’t want to “waste their votes on the Left”. They saw the BJP as the only party that could take on the TMC in the state.
The Left’s downfall started in 2011 when the TMC ended its 34-year reign in the state. The 2014 Lok Sabha elections saw a further dip in their fortunes, with the CPI(M) getting just two of the 42 seats. In 2009, it had won nine.
The downfall continued in 2016 when, in the assembly election, the Left Front parties got just 27 of the state’s 294 seats, with the CPI(M) getting 23.
There are many former Left Front leaders in the fray this time who are contesting from either the BJP or TMC. Former CPI(M) MLA Mafuja Khatoon, who contested on a BJP ticket against Congress incumbent Abhijit Mukherjee in Jangipur, stood second to the TMC’s Khallilur Rahaman.
BJP candidate from Malda North, Khagen Murmu, was a CPI(M) MLA. As of Thursday evening, Murmu was leading from the seat by 9,022 votes.
Cooch Behar incumbent Paresh Adhikary left the All India Forward Bloc (AIFB) and is contesting the seat on a TMC ticket. He was trailing.
Polarisation helped BJP
The BJP built its political discourse in West Bengal mostly around Hindutva and nationalism. This resulted in massive polarisation in the state, where Muslims constitute 27 per cent of the population.
The party has also talked extensively about the National Register of Citizens, the Assam-based initiative aimed at identifying illegal immigrants from Bangladesh.
In his very first election rally in the state, at Alipurduar on 29 March, BJP president Amit Shah said if BJP came to power, it would replicate the National Register of Citizens in the state and “throw out all infiltrators”.