The Left’s big battle in Bengal

Activists of the Left parties and the Congress participate in a campaign rally in Purulia on March 25, 2021.   | Photo Credit: AFP

As West Bengal gears up for the final round of polling for the high-stakes Assembly election, a steady drop in Left votes in the State during the last decade calls for a careful analysis. While the Left’s electoral rule for over three decades in the State is a huge feat, it is difficult to understand how the front, which, despite losing, bagged nearly 41% vote share in the 2011 Assembly election, could manage only around 7% support in the State in the 2019 Lok Sabha election.

It is often argued that a major part in the Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) rise in West Bengal has been at the expense of traditional Left votes. The Left Front’s poll prospects in 2021 may be assessed through the sociopolitical dynamics in the past and also the changing scenario in the State at present.

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While many political experts explained the Left’s astonishing success story in West Bengal by its organisational coherence, analysts such as Partha Chatterjee and Dwaipayan Bhattacharyya attributed it to the structure of the State’s society, which is visibly different from many other parts of the country. Dr. Chatterjee observed a “political society” in the State formed by a party’s mediation between the government and the population as the magic formula for the Left’s success; Dr. Bhattacharyya argued that the rural situation in the State is “ontologically different from the urban political society”, and “party-society” is “the modular form of political society in West Bengal’s countryside”, whose roots can be traced to the violent class-based movements of poor peasants against the domination of landlords. The “party-society” acted as accepted moral guardians in the public life of the society and the private lives of families, and panchayats intertwined with political parties in their functioning. The dynamics in rural and urban Bengal are different, but rural voters certainly hold the key to political power.

The collapse of the Left Front’s long-standing control over Bengal’s party-society, triggered by a pervasive distrust of the moral authority of the mediators, is often presented as an important reason for the electoral debacle in 2011. Though it may now be in decline, the decades-old party-society format could be traced in the Trinamool Congress regime as well, perhaps with a changed style of functioning in the absence of inclusive politics. And that is an added difficulty for the Left’s attempts at resurgence.

In sharp contrast to other parts of the country, West Bengal’s politics was built on social justice, and caste played a marginal role. In 1980, Jyoti Basu, the then Chief Minister of West Bengal, said, “Caste is a legacy of the feudal system and viewing the social scene from the casteist angle is no longer relevant for West Bengal.”

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However, Basu could not foresee Bengal four decades on. It is clear that caste-based identities had just been in a “recessive” state, and have now become a “dominant” feature of the State’s electoral politics. The redefined political arena goes against the Left’s age-old ideology, where it publicly regarded caste as an irrelevant category, and hence, today, the front is bound to find this new domain a difficult turf to play in.

A two-party system

The Left’s decline over the years can also be partly explained by ‘Duverger’s law’, which says that a first-past-the-post electoral system tends to favour a two-party system. Traditionally, in West Bengal, the two main parties or alliances often get nearly 80% to 90% of the vote share among them. With the emergence of the Trinamool and the BJP as the two major political forces in the State in the current election, the Left would have to portray itself as a key player for its revival.

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It is widely believed that a section of Left voters “tactically” supported the BJP in the 2019 Lok Sabha election. A post-poll survey by Lokniti, however, showed that about 39% and 31% of the traditional Left voters voted for the BJP and the Trinamool, respectively.

A study published in the journal Political Behavior in 2013, by Jørgen Bølstad, Elias Dinas and Pedro Riera, used data from before and after the 2001 and the 2005 U.K. elections. It was observed that voting for a party can increase its preference score to the voter, potentially changing the order of preferences over time. Thus, voting, in general, may be more of a matter of habit than ideology. A large percentage of voters of a party are usually ‘floating voters’, who may at most be soft supporters of that party. If the pattern stands similar everywhere, some traditional Left voters in West Bengal who voted “tactically” in 2019 might have already changed their preferences.

Still, as a legacy of its 34-year rule, the Left has a strong position in West Bengal. The State’s politics would be shaped by how the alliance’s support base evolves and impacts the Trinamool Congress and the BJP.

The author is Professor of Statistics, Indian Statistical Institute, Kolkata

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Printable version | Jun 22, 2021 11:00:01 PM |

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