West Bengal: Hope springs left, right and centre

The disconnect between the party’s high command, middle rung and grassroots is likely to damage BJP prospects in this election

Mamata Banerjee (centre) and TMC candidate Mahua Moitra (far right) at a Matua community meet in Betai, Nadia district
Mamata Banerjee (centre) and TMC candidate Mahua Moitra (far right) at a Matua community meet in Betai, Nadia district

Shikha Mukerjee

Everyone has high hopes in West Bengal, this time. Each of the four principal contestants — the Trinamool Congress (TMC) , the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), the Congress and the Left, led by the Communist Party of India (Marxist) — believes it will win more seats in 2024 compared to both the 2019 Lok Sabha elections and the 2021 state Assembly elections.

On the face of it, the political space in West Bengal seems fairly settled after the radical rearrangements it underwent, first in 2011 with Mamata Banerjee’s spectacular triumph over the CPI (M)-led Left Front, which ended 34 uninterrupted years of the Left being in power.

The second shakedown was in 2019, when the BJP, riding a wave of nationalist fervour post the Pulwama attack, won 18 Lok Sabha seats, and its vote share shot up from 17 per cent in the 2014 general election to over 40 per cent in 2019.

In many ways, the 2019 Lok Sabha election was a watershed. The TMC seat tally dropped sharply, from 34 seats in 2014 to 22 in 2019, though its vote share increased to 43.3 per cent, keeping it ahead of the BJP as the new challenger.

The major shift in voter preference was from the Left to the BJP. In 2014, the Left vote share was close to 30 per cent — this dropped to 7.5 per cent in 2019. The decline in the Congress vote share was around 5 per cent, a big loss but one that did not radically alter its ranking.

Given that between them, the TMC and the BJP snared 40 of the 42 Lok Sabha seats in West Bengal, with the Congress winning two and the CPI(M) none, the expectation that each will improve its position in 2024 is intriguing.

It is not as though the dominant TMC is visibly weaker or in turmoil, thereby creating an opportunity for the BJP to expand it footprint and usurp territory. As of now, there is no challenge to Mamata Banerjee’s leadership, there are no succession fights underway and the control of the organisation is still very much in her hands.

As the party with the most at stake in this general election, the BJP declared at the outset that it would win 35 seats in West Bengal. Adding 18 seats would take it closer to the target of 370 seats announced by Prime Minister Narendra Modi in his last speech at the concluding session of the 17th Lok Sabha. That was an unrealistic target.

From establishing leads in 121 Assembly segments in the 2019 Lok Sabha elections, the BJP’s tally dropped to only 77 seats in the 2021 state Assembly elections, registering a loss of advantage in 44 seats. These losses included Assembly seats in North Bengal where it had scooped seven out of eight seats in the Lok Sabha election.

Since the rout in the 2021 state Assembly election, the BJP’s problems have actually grown. There is friction within the party between the old guard who nurtured the BJP’s expansionist drive and the new entrants, almost all of whom moved from the TMC, led by Suvendu Adhikari and his associates.

There are differences within the BJP on political strategy and which issues to pitch to voters. The disconnect between the party’s high command, middle rung and grassroots is likely to damage its prospects in this election.

The BJP may also have miscalculated on the return it can expect from a botched notification of the rules under the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA). The failure of its relentless communally divisive campaign, as proven by the 2021 state Assembly results, suggests that the BJP has limited understanding of the political-social-cultural issues in West Bengal.

What the BJP lacks is what the CPI(M) has in large quantities — deep roots and formidable organisational muscle memory that came into play in full force during the enforced and abrupt Covid lockdown. Without needing directions, bands of Red Volunteers sprang into action organising relief and emergency services. This is what the CPI(M) has always done and it earned the party the goodwill it had lost in recent years.

Reconnecting with the people in urban areas and working at recovering its rural bases over the past three years leads the CPI(M) to believe its vote share will increase and that it can win more than one seat in this election.

With spiralling confrontations between the opposition and the Modi-led BJP over fundamentals enshrined in the Constitution, the successful establishment of an opposition bloc — the Indian National Inclusive Developmental Alliance — is proof that the CPI(M) and TMC can work together when it is politically imperative.

The impact in West Bengal will be evident in this Lok Sabha election. The rivalry between the TMC on the one hand and the Congress–CPI(M)-led Left on the other is no less: the difference is in singling out the BJP as their common enemy. While this is not a strategy chalked out in any dialogue between these parties, it seems to be a mutual understanding. As a nudge to voters, it could work.

Dismayed by the rampant corruption in the TMC, voters now have a choice — they could vote for the Congress-CPI(M) instead of the BJP. A decline in the latter’s vote share would hurt its prospects in this election, while benefiting the former.

There is always the risk that the micro-motives that underlie individual voter preferences may not add up to the macro-outcome desired by the anti-BJP opposition. That is a chance both the Congress-CPI(M) and the TMC seem prepared to take, because the stakes are very high at this point.

All three parties in opposition to the BJP share a common goal beyond the 2024 Lok Sabha election in West Bengal. The vacuum created after the CPI(M) was decimated was an open invitation to the BJP to step forward and fill it, which is what happened between 2016 and 2019 as the party’s vote share and presence grew.

Reclaiming the political space ahead of the 2026 Assembly elections is necessary as much for the TMC as it is for the Congress-CPI(M) to prevent the BJP from disrupting social equilibrium with its agenda of triggering majoritarian paranoia in a state where there is little hostility against the widely dispersed primarily Bengali-speaking Muslim minority.

With three phases of polling still remaining in West Bengal, the contest has narrowed to a fight between the BJP on the one hand and the three parties in opposition to the BJP on the other. Every party hopes to emerge the winner, knowing that there will inevitably be a loser.

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