Battle for Bengal is poised on a razor’s edge and promises to be a humdinger

Anti-incumbency against Mamata Banerjee is strong on the ground. But the disarray in BJP ranks and most women voters being supportive of the chief minister give her an edge

(Photo by Samir Jana/Hindustan Times via Getty Images)
(Photo by Samir Jana/Hindustan Times via Getty Images)

Abhijit Roy

Straws in the wind in Bengal portend a close finish. Despite several TMC leaders making a beeline to join the BJP, it has clearly started yielding diminishing returns. With the first phase of polling slated for Saturday and four days of campaigning left for this phase, BJP looks frayed and in a bit of a disarray in the state. Internal dissension and resentment at ticket distribution have taken a toll. But with a long-drawn polling schedule, it is possible for the party to recover and put up a fight.

But what had seemed to be an advantage for the BJP is now turning out to be a major challenge. Hordes of ex TMC leaders had to be accommodated by giving them tickets to fight the elections, disappointing old BJP cadres. This disappointment has spilled over into street fights among their own party workers, who feel they have been let down by the leadership. The turmoil has come as a surprise as it fancies itself as a party of disciplined cadres.

But though the TMC appears to enjoy an edge at this moment, the going is hardly going to be easy for Mamata Banerjee. The party has managed to declare a manifesto promising to generate 500,000 jobs in a year. It has also managed to field candidates without much hiccup unlike the BJP. But the anti-incumbency against Mamata Banerjee is also fairly strong on the ground.

There’s considerable resentment over the distribution of relief materials and funds to people affected by the Amphan super-cyclone which struck the state on May 20, 2020, leaving a trail of large-scale devastation of lives and property. The key allegation against TMC is that funds did not reach those who actually suffered but were diverted to those who did not suffer from the devastation. This forced the state government to issue show-cause notices to block development officers in some districts. The state government also threatened action against local politicians against whom there were allegations of siphoning off funds and relief materials.

TMC and Mamata Banerjee could also be ruing the decision to browbeat the opposition in the Panchayat elections in the state in 2018. While Panchayat elections in 2003 gained infamy for the death toll, the 2018 polls set a record in the number of seats won without a contest.

Back in 2003, as many as 76 people lost their lives throughout the panchayat election in West Bengal, of whom 45 died in Murshidabad district. In 2018, in as many as 34.2% seats, the only candidates to file nomination were from the TMC. It eclipsed the 2003 record of the CPM led Left Front which had then won 11% of the seats uncontested. This did not reflect well on a functioning democracy. Villagers are unlikely to forgive and forget the violent Panchayat elections of 2018 and the witch hunt against Left and Congress supporters. So, which party is likely to benefit from the disarray in the BJP, TMC’s tardy performance in Amphan relief and its undemocratic behavior during the Panchayat polls?

There’s a feeling among political analysts that the gainer could be CPM and its political allies. This time around the Left cadres are unlikely to support the BJP, but could flock back to their own party. The Left has released a list of youthful candidates, a bunch of fresh faces untarnished by corruption charges. A part of the Muslim vote, which used to go to TMC earlier, will also be fractured and shift to the Indian Secular Front (ISF). The Congress too is expected to increase its vote and seat share. All available indications predict huge vote shift from BJP to Left. Left supporters who voted for the BJP in the last Lok Sabha elections with a vengeance out of spite for Mamata Banerjee, it is said, have realized that BJP is a far more ideologically formidable force and will vote against the BJP this time.

Another X factor are the women voters. Women in West Bengal are more independent than their counterparts in Bihar and Uttar Pradesh; they are more outspoken and they take their own voting decision. They also are said to have benefitted by Mamata’s various welfare schemes. As much as 49% of the voters are women and a large number of them are said to be supportive of the chief minister.

None of this may prove to be decisive eventually. But the most important assembly election after 2019 appears poised on a razor’s edge. The outcome, by no means a foregone conclusion, will nevertheless be a tipping point.

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