No core issues, parties fight polls in West Bengal over viral content

Political observers say social media posts, viral videos and AI-powered content are dominating the election campaign in the State; Trinamool’s attempt to use Bengali identity by labelling the BJP as ‘outsiders’ has not gained traction among voters

Published - May 09, 2024 02:22 am IST - Kolkata

A vendor sells flags and umbrellas printed with the symbols of different policital parties at a market ahead in Kolkata.

A vendor sells flags and umbrellas printed with the symbols of different policital parties at a market ahead in Kolkata. | Photo Credit: ANI

After three phases of voting in West Bengal, the stage is set for polling in south Bengal where 32 out of the 42 Lok Sabha seats in the State will go to polls in the remaining four phases. Halfway through, the 2024 Lok Sabha election in West Bengal has not seen a single issue or thread dominating the election campaign.

The 2021 Assembly election was fought on the BJP’s promise of ‘Sonar Bangla’ (Golden Bengal) that the Trinamool Congress successfully countered with Bengali identity and sub-nationalism. In the 2019 Lok Sabha election, when the BJP was on an upsurge in the State, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s campaign struck a chord with the voters and the BJP won 18 seats.

The ongoing election is very different from the earlier two polls with no central issue dominating the political discourse. This year, the Trinamool’s campaign of ‘Bangla Birodhider Bishorjon’ (immersion of those opposed to Bengal) has not generated much enthusiasm. The Trinamool has tried to mock the Bengali pronunciation of Hindi-speaking BJP leaders, such as Amit Shah and Yogi Adityanath, to keep the ‘outsiders versus Bengal’ divide alive, but such campaigns have also fizzled out.

Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee and Trinamool general secretary Abhishek Banerjee, who are addressing a couple of meetings every day, have been talking about the denial of funds from the Centre, termination of jobs by the Calcutta High Court, opposition to the Citizenship (Amendment) Act (CAA) and the welfare schemes of the Trinamool government.

For the BJP, Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who has addressed more than half-a-dozen rallies, the alleged atrocities on women in Sandeshkhali remains the focal issue of the campaign, followed by charges of corruption against the Trinamool government and attacks on INDIA bloc parties. Mr. Modi too has touched upon the termination of jobs in the State-run schools that was stayed by the Supreme Court on May 7.

Regional issues such as the demand for Gorkhaland in Darjeeling, the crisis of the tea industry in the north, jute industry in south Bengal, river erosion, the issues of the Sundarbans and the Jangalmahal are missing from the campaign by major political parties.

For a State that elects 42 MPs and is spread from the eastern Himalayas in the north to the Bay of Bengal in the south, the absence of any issue has puzzled many observers.

Biswanath Chakraborty, who teaches political science at Rabindra Bharati University, said the elections are being “fought on misinformation spread by political parties”, be it on Sandeshkhali or on CAA. “Elections in West Bengal were once influenced by key ideologies and issues relating to those ideologies. Over the years, these ideologies have got diluted and the issues are getting blunt,” Mr. Chakraborty said.

Pointing out that social media has emerged as a major tool for campaigning, the academic said the Election Commission of India has so far failed to check the spread of misinformation propagated online.

“For instance, there was a manufactured video where Congress leader Adhir Ranjan Chowdhury was seen asking people to vote for the BJP and not the Trinamool. The video was circulated by the Trinamool leadership on social media and by the time we learnt that it was fake the damage was done,” Mr. Chakraborty said.

Political observers and academics say in the absence of issues, campaigns on social media, videos and AI-powered content are dominating the elections in the State. The Trinamool leadership has circulated a video in which a local BJP leader from Sandeshkhali is heard saying that allegations of sexual assault by the women of the region were orchestrated at the behest of the Leader of the Opposition Suvendu Adhikari. The BJP has denied such allegations and released videos of villagers countering the allegations. During his last rally in West Bengal five days ago, Mr. Modi said that he had heard a song from women in Sandeshkhali where they were singing about their plight.

The campaign has seen the use of artificial intelligence with CPI(M) releasing videos of former Chief Minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee urging people in the State to vote for “Left and secular candidates”.

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