The political importance of Left parties in West Bengal seems to have been eclipsed by the Bharatiya Janata Party’s thumping victory
On the stage of Indian democracy, political parties often perform without a script. Their roles, actions, and salience are perpetually subject to unpredictability and change. People never guarantee any sort of security or permanence to any single political actor. It is this changeability that marks the essence of politics in a democracy. This argument was reconfirmed again with the victory of the Bharatiya Janata Party.
However, change itself demands critical interrogation. What does the appeal for achche din exactly mean? What implications does this change actually have for Indian democracy?
Let us revisit the election results. The BJP alone secured a clear majority with 282 seats, a number too big to be compared to the seats won by other parties. The results give us two immediate implications. One, the sheer numerical strength of the BJP has left the present government with no effective opposition. Two, the results this time, quite shockingly, signal toward a temporary suspension of the autonomous roles played by regional parties. The political importance of regional players and Left parties, who have been playing a significant bargaining role at the national level since the 1990s, seems to have been eclipsed by the BJP’s thumping victory. The party-wise representation in Parliament shows that, except in the cases of Tamil Nadu, Odisha and West Bengal, all other major regional parties have hardly managed to gain considerable numbers.
The BJP is now recruiting activists and mobilising support in various States, particularly where its machinery had been weak so far, including in West Bengal.
Changing political dynamics
In the last few months, West Bengal has witnessed a rising number of political clashes between the BJP and the Trinamool Congress. From Sandeshkhali to Basirhat, and from Anandapur to Falta, instances of violent tussles between party workers and supporters of both camps have occupied headlines. It seems that with its growing support base the BJP at present stands as the principal threat to the ruling party in West Bengal.
In the election, the Trinamool Congress secured 39.3 per cent votes, whereas the BJP bagged 16.8 per cent of the vote share and two seats from the State. The two other main contenders in the last election: the Left Front and the Congress managed to secure 22.7 per cent and 9.6 per cent of the votes respectively, but their organisational machinery seems to be limited in terms of scope and political influence. Three important questions crop up at this juncture. How did the political dynamics in West Bengal undergo such a sudden transformation? How is the BJP penetrating and gaining popular support in the State? And how is the Trinamool Congress responding to the increasing influence of BJP in the State?
It must be noted that the foundation stone of this changing picture was laid during the days of decline of the longstanding Left Front regime. For over three decades, the Left Front almost monopolised all avenues of public life: social, cultural, economic and political. With the collapse of the Left Front, this monopoly was broken, and the phase was marked by the emergence of community organisations as political mouthpieces of different population groups (Matua Mahasangha, Gorkha Janmukti Morcha, etc.). Since Mamata Banerjee and her party could not reproduce the well-orchestrated organisational network of the Left, the Trinamool Congress had to thrive on the politics of populism. Apart from her party machinery, Ms Banerjee has to constantly woo and rely either on various community organisations (the Matua Mahasangha for support of the Matuas, for example), or on a selected section of the civil society (mostly film stars and public icons), to mobilise support.
The BJP is posing itself as the only political option that can resist the whimsical politics of the Mamata Banerjee government
The rise of community organisations as important political actors, who are capable of bargaining with the orderly world of party politics, has affected the voting behaviour of the people. Every single party in West Bengal at present therefore aspires to be a game-changer in the near future.
The BJP, too, has similar aspirations. Its campaign appealed hugely to the urban middle class voters, especially the youth. However, in the context of rural West Bengal, the politics of the BJP has replicated the model of populism established by the Trinamool Congress. In the case of Darjeeling for instance, it wooed the community organisation of the Gorkhas by responding somewhat positively to the demand of Gorkhaland. In the case of Asansol, the party nominated the popular singer Babul Supriyo as its candidate. Even on the question of attracting Dalit votes, Narendra Modi, during his election campaign in Krishnanagar, Nadia district, gave assurances of granting citizenship to the Matuas. Now, with the ascent of the BJP at the Centre, the party is keener on expanding its influence among different sections of the population by addressing their demands and offering governmental benefits. Moreover, immediately after the elections we have seen senior political leaders (like former Congress leader Pradip Ghosh) shifting their party allegiance to the BJP. The party therefore is now posing itself before the people as the only political option that can resist the whimsical politics of the Mamata Banerjee government.
Mamata Banerjee is surely well aware of these developments. Her party workers have been engaged in almost regular fights with their BJP counterparts in the last few months to contain the latter’s increasing influence. But, although the Trinamool Congress is one of the foremost regional players with 34 seats, it has little capacity to bargain with the Centre for benefits. Moreover, the election results this time show a serious fragmentation of the percentages of votes among four prominent political parties. Such a trend in West Bengal, where there are multiple important actors, will lead to a severe division of votes and popular support in the future. Keeping an eye on the State Assembly election in 2016, all parties are trying to secure their vote banks and improve their performances. But they do not have a script to follow. The script in a democracy is always written and re-written by the people. The poribartan (change) in West Bengal had been quite farcical; the promise of acche din, too, seems bleak in our diverse polity. The people once again have to decide what’s next.
(Praskanva Sinharay is a PhD scholar at the Centre for Studies in Social Sciences, Calcutta.)