There have been dramatic shifts in West Bengal politics over the past few months. The Lok Sabha elections this year demonstrated that when the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) increased its percentage of votes by over 22 per cent and its seats tally from two to 18. It is necessary to note, however, that a number of municipalities that were captured by the BJP due to defections from the All India Trinamool Congress (AITC) have changed hands again with councilors ‘re-defecting’. This happened on Saturday in Naihati, North 24 Parganas, which is a part of the Barrackpore Lok Sabha constituency, the stronghold of Arjun Singh, who defected from the AITC to the BJP just before this year’s election and won it.
The interesting part of the story is that the ruling party in the state, the AITC also increased its vote percent- age marginally but still lost 12 seats. The BJP’s gain in terms of the per- centage of votes was almost exactly the total of what the other two players in the state lost: the Left Front lost around 17 per cent of its vote share and the Congress around 4 per cent.
It is anticipated that in the foreseeable future electoral politics in Bengal will be bipolar: straight con- tests between the AITC and BJP. It is in this context that we must examine two events: the ‘defection’ of Sovan Chatterjee, AITC’s former mayor of the Kolkata Municipal Corporation (KMC), to the BJP last Wednesday, less than a year before elections to the KMC are due; and the announcement of an electoral understanding between the Left Front and the Congress for three Assembly by-elections due later this year.
Let’s take the Chatterjee defection first. The former mayor had been one of Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee’s favourite lieutenants in better days, holding at one point the post of KMC mayor, being in charge of a couple of ministries, as well as being the chair- person of the East Kolkata Wetlands Management Authority. Chatterjee’s fall from grace was occasioned by problems in his personal life. He had left his wife and was seeing another woman. Moreover, his father-in-law was an AITC MLA. This created tensions in the party and Mamata asked Chatterjee to stop this dalliance. He didn’t and was there- by stripped of all his positions. Up until the day he finally changed sides, the chief minister tried to keep him in the party through the good offices of several emissaries but failed.
The reason for recounting this background is to point to a certain fragility that has begun to plague the AITC. For a number of reasons, Mamata used to command loyalty. For a trusted lieutenant to break ranks over such an issue is not a good augury for the party.
The important point, however, is what kind of impact this ‘defection’ could have on next year’s KMC elections. Let’s look at the numbers for the 2015 KMC elections first. There are 144 wards under the corporation. Of these, the AITC holds 123, the Left Front 13 and the BJP four.
As a former mayor who served one and a half terms in office, Chatterjee obviously has significant clout among the councilors. But his influence is geographically limited mainly to some areas in the southern suburbs. It is possible that he will swing seats in these areas, but the disparity in the numbers are so great that it looks quite unlikely that the BJP will take the corporation even with Chatterjee at the helm.
One must, of course, account for another factor – the Left Front. It is probable that a chunk of the Left Front vote will swing the BJP’s way, as it did in the Lok Sabha elections. But, again, given that the Left Front’s vote share in Kolkata is not proportionate with the vote share it had in the state as a whole, even that would probably not be enough for the BJP to get the keys to the corporation.
The AITC has reason to be worried and the BJP will certainly increase the number of wards under its control. That’s a good reason for the KMC and the AITC government to get its act together. In the good news department for the AITC, the new mayor, Firhad Hakim, has been doing a decent job. He is, in fact, perceived to be more effi- cient than Chatterjee. The three Assembly by-elections in Kaliaganj (North Dinajpur), Kharagpur (West Midnapore) and Karimpur (Nadia) – are more difficult to call.
The Congress will contest from Kaliaganj and Kharagpur, while the Left Front will do so from Karimpur. The question, however, is whether this ‘arrangement’ has any real sig- nificance. Statewide, the Left and the Congress managed to get around 12 per cent between them. There is no guarantee that the two formations will not bleed more votes in bipolar contests. In other words, at this point of time, the Left and the Congress are conjointly and individually not partic- ularly relevant. The possibility is that status quo will be maintained, with the BJP re- taining the Kharagpur seat. The AITC holds the Karimpur seat and led in this Assembly segment in this year’s Lok Sabha elections. It’s likely that it will hold the seat. The Kaliaganj seat is the tricky one. It is currently held by the Congress. The Raiganj Lok Sabha con- stituency of which Kaliaganj is a seg- ment was won by the CPI (M) in 2014, but went the BJP’s way this year. It is possible that this seat will be wrested from the Congress by the BJP. This is where the understanding between the CPI (M) and the Congress could end up helping the AITC, which polled under 5 per cent less than the BJP.