It is the Congress and the BJP that have gained the most from the West Bengal Chief Minister’s sharp drop in popularity, while the Left Front is still to recover lost ground
If general elections were to be held now, the Trinamool Congress’s 2009 vote share in West Bengal would go up by just one percentage point, while that of the Congress by eight percentage points in that state, a countrywide poll conducted by the CSDS says. The Left Parties’ share, on the other hand, the poll notes, would plummet from the 43 per cent it received in 2009 to 28 per cent; the BJP’s would double from the six per cent it had to 12 per cent.
These numbers, however, need to be qualified: in 2009, as in the assembly elections that followed in 2011, the Congress and the Trinamool contested together: the two have split since. Therefore, the votes polled by the two parties, when they were a team, cannot be compared with what they might receive if they fight separately.
However, given that in West Bengal, the Congress’s current six Lok Sabha seats are all in the north, while the Trinamool's 19 are in the south, the CSDS’s findings would suggest that the Congress has untapped votes in the south – where it did not contest in 2009 – whereas the Trinamool’s support is pretty much confined to the south. That could explain the Congress’s real vote share of 14 per cent (in 2009) increasing to 22 per cent (in the poll), even as the Trinamool adds only one percentage point to the 31 per cent it polled in 2009.
Indeed, this nugget of information could influence the former partners when they eventually take a call on whether to re-unite for 2014: currently, both parties are closely following the progress of a very bloody panchayat election in the state.
The picture that emerges from the CSDS poll for the Left Parties, by contrast, is dismal. In 2009, they got 43 per cent, slipping down, two years later in the assembly elections, to 39.68 per cent, ending 34 years of Left rule in West Bengal. In 2013, the Left Parties, the CSDS poll suggests, has crashed to 28 per cent. Can this steep decline be explained by a revulsion for three decades of absolute Left rule? Or are there left supporters lurking among the CSDS poll’s 15 per cent undecided voters, too frightened perhaps to speak out given the atmosphere of terror, currently on display in the panchayat polls ?
The BJP’s vote share rising from six per cent in 2009 to 12 per cent in the CSDS survey can be explained by West Bengal chief minister Mamata Bannerjee’s overt wooing of the most conservative elements among the Muslims in a state where the community accounts for 30 per cent. It has, by all accounts, created fertile soil for the BJP to flourish in.
Interestingly, Muslims, the CSDS poll says, marginally prefer the previous Buddhadeb Bhattacharya-led Left Front government to Ms Bannerjee’s Trinamool administration, with 37 per cent plumping for the past, 36 per cent for the present. And while rural Bengal is overwhelmingly with the Trinamool, 39 per cent, as against 29 per cent for the Left, the opposite is true of urban areas: 39 per cent hanker for Mr Bhattacharya, 37 per cent appear content with Ms Bannerjee. More people in the state blame the Trinamool (29 per cent) rather than the Left (20 per cent) for the chit fund scandal, with 44 per cent saying Ms Bannerjee dealt with its fallout very poorly. If 43 per cent regard her as arrogant and intolerant of criticism, and 33 per cent feel she mishandled the Gorkhaland issue, only 26 per cent agree with her decision to leave the UPA. Her approval rating in July 2011 (according to an earlier CSDS poll), two months after coming to power in West Bengal, was 58 per cent; today, it is just 43 per cent. Notwithstanding her fall in popularity in West Bengal, the CSDS poll suggests that in the event of a Third Front government coming to power in 2014, Ms Bannerjee ranks third nationally in the choice for PM, polling eight per cent, behind Bihar chief minister Nitish Kumar (12 per cent) and Tamil Nadu chief minister J Jayalalitha (nine per cent).
The 15 per cent fall in Ms Bannerjee’s approval ratings in West Bengal, however, sits oddly with an upward trend for the Trinamool – from 31 to 32 per cent – and the 15 per cent drop in the Left Parties’ vote share in the survey. On a trip to West Bengal earlier this year, a few things became very clear: one, Ms Bannerjee was more popular than her party; two, while it was clear that it would take the Left a while to recover, its core vote remained intact; three, with the Trinamool having acquired the musclepower once associated with the Left, there were many villages where it was impossible for people to criticize Ms Bannerjee’s government; three, in urban areas, the mood was turning against the Trinamool.