There is no denying that the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has massively increased its vote and seat share in West Bengal compared to the 2016 Assembly election, and this has largely been on the back of a strong Hindu consolidation behind it (50%), as per the Lokniti-CSDS’s post-poll survey. But the party failed to retain the level of Hindu support (57%, or nearly three-fifths) it had secured in the 2019 Lok Sabha election, thus ending up faring way below its own expectations and its performance in the last general election.
The Trinamool Congress was a direct beneficiary of this erosion of votes, with the party registering an increase in Hindu support from 32% in 2019 to 39% this time. This seven-percentage-point shift from the BJP to the Trinamool happened despite the former running a high-pitched Hindutva campaign that was aimed at exciting Hindus through Jai Shri Ram slogans, talk of illegal migration, allegations of ‘Muslim appeasement’ against the ruling party, and anti-Muslim dog whistles, such as raising the spectre of West Bengal becoming a ‘mini-Pakistan’ and calling Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee ‘ begum’ and ‘ khala’ .
The post-poll survey conducted by Lokniti-CSDS and data from our study after the 2019 Lok Sabha election together point to the story of limited Hindu consolidation. This has also to do with the way the Hindu mind in West Bengal seems to be working at the moment.
In our 2019 survey, we asked respondents in West Bengal (and the rest of the country) a set of questions to gauge their views on secularism, the temple-mosque dispute and minority rights. Surprisingly, despite political polarisation, full-fledged communalisation had not occurred in the State, as it was found that many Hindus, including those who voted for the BJP, gave highly secular and pluralistic answers to most of these questions, and far more so than their counterparts in other regions of the country.
For instance, on a question on the 1992 Babri Masjid demolition, only one in every five Hindus in Bengal had said that demolition was justified, as opposed to two-fifths in the rest of the country. Similarly, a huge majority of Hindus in Bengal (81%) held that India is a country of all religions, and not just Hindus. The same figure among Hindus in the rest of the country was 74%.
On the issue of protecting minority rights, 38% of Hindus in West Bengal agreed with the proposition that even if it is not liked by the majority community, the government must protect the interests of minorities. This sentiment, in fact, strengthened further to 58% this time, when we repeated this question in our survey.
What these responses indicate is that even as average Bengali Hindus may have supported the BJP in large numbers in 2019, the reasons for doing so were different and not necessarily an endorsement of the BJP’s Hindutva agenda. This perhaps explains why the BJP’s support among Hindu voters declined this time instead of increasing. Heavily polarising rhetoric by the BJP in the recent election may well have alienated the liberal tolerant section of the Bengali Hindus from the BJP, particularly the traditional Left voters, who had shown interest in the party in 2019. It also seems to have had the effect of scaring Muslims who consolidated in even larger proportions (75%) behind the Trinamool Congress than they had in 2019. The Trinamool, thus, ended up benefiting both ways.
The story, of course, has another side. There is some traction to the idea that the government accorded undue favours to minorities. While a majority of the Hindus in the rest of the country had no problem with it, in West Bengal, the support for the idea was lukewarm, with many being ambivalent on the issue. In fact, in the 2021 survey, most Hindus, even the ones who ended up voting for the Trinamool Congress, agreed with the proposition that the party had given undue favours to Muslims during its tenure, an issue that the BJP had raised. It is nonetheless interesting that many of them continued to vote for the Trinamool despite holding this view.
None of this is to say that there was no polarisation on religious lines in this election. But the divide was mostly restricted to seats where the Muslim population was higher in proportion. It is also important to note that the Hindu share in the Trinamool’s votes was 57% this time and the Muslim share was 42%; in 2019, it had been 50% for each.
In sum, the BJP, which prides itself on knowing the Hindu mind, may have failed spectacularly in deciphering the Bengali Hindu psyche. It has been unable to transform the majority community into a minority-hating monolith.
Moreover, the majority community was also divided on the basis of caste, class, gender and other social identities, and the Hindutva campaign clearly fell short in catering to everyday concerns around development and livelihood. In the cultural rubric of Bengal’s politics, there was limited room for uni-dimensional religious polarisation, a fact that the BJP took very lightly.
Suprio Basu is with the Department of Sociology, University of Kalyani; Jyotiprasad Chatterjee is Associate Professor of Sociology at Barrackpore Rastraguru Surendranath College; Shreyas Sardesai is a Research Associate at Lokniti-CSDS, Delhi; Suhas Palshikar is the Co-Director of the Lokniti programme