PARLEY Comment

Will West Bengal tilt towards the right this election?

The first phase of the West Bengal Assembly elections is only a few weeks away. While the BJP and Trinamool Congress (TMC) are locked in an intense battle, the Left-Congress alliance is attempting to win back voters. In a conversation moderated by Varghese K. George, Prasenjit Bose and Snigdhendu Bhattacharya discuss the issues dominating this election. Edited excerpts:

What issues do you think will be determining this West Bengal election? Prasenjit?

Prasenjit Bose: We should look at the BJP’s surprise performance in the 2019 election in which, for the first time, it crossed the 40% vote share threshold and won 18 seats. Although one could see it coming up in a big way, the extent of its surge was not expected. You should start from there. Has the BJP gained further momentum since then? Or has the TMC been able to retrieve some ground, which it appeared to have lost in 2019? Or has anti-incumbency just continued to grow?


So, you have anti-incumbency, you have the BJP’s attempt to create a hyper-nationalistic national narrative on questions like the Citizenship (Amendment) Act, and West Bengal has a history of class politics. Which of these issues could dominate this poll?

Prasenjit Bose: I think anti-incumbency would be number one, because ultimately, it’s an Assembly election. There are enough reasons for people to be extremely dissatisfied with the TMC government. But there have been some government initiatives which have helped the TMC retrieve some of those groups. Again, I think, borrowing a term coined by a political analyst, it was ‘subaltern Hindutva’ which enabled the BJP to cross the 40% vote share. Identity issues will have a very important role to play.

Snigdhendu, we have a larger frame of incumbency factors, and we have identity politics at play. There is a very strong pitch for religious consolidation under the BJP. How would you characterise and explain the strength of each of these factors?

Snigdhendu Bhattacharya: The influence of caste politics died down long ago. In its last leg, the Left regime was no longer taking up caste issues as such. In 1977, the Left came to power and implemented Operation Barga, perhaps the largest government-backed land redistribution programme ensuring the hegemony of the farmers. In 2011, Mamata Banerjee came to power by hijacking the Left agenda…

You are saying caste is not a factor. Is Hindutva a factor?

Snigdhendu Bhattacharya: Identity is a factor, but anti-incumbency is the main factor. With Hindutva, the BJP could have, at most, surpassed the 25% mark, but could not have touched the 40% mark [in 2019]. This anti-incumbency is essentially due to two reasons: one, corruption at the grassroots level and the arrogance of TMC leaders; and two, political violence. The turning point was the 2018 panchayat elections, which the TMC captured by violence. People just took revenge on the TMC in 2019.


Who will be the beneficiary of that anti-incumbency sentiment? There are two claimants: the BJP and the Congress-Left alliance.

Prasenjit Bose: I think the BJP is going to benefit much more. As pointed out, the TMC won the 2018 panchayat elections in a visibly high-handed and violent manner. That created a tremendous amount of backlash, especially in the rural areas. The BJP has emerged as the strongest opposition, as it could face that onslaught in a more effective manner. It has been very aggressive in opposing the TMC government — in educating the public, street politics, etc. — much more than the Left and Congress have. The BJP is in the Central government; it occupies media space; the Governor appointed by the Centre has been running a parallel government... The BJP has already occupied the mind space of the people as the key opposition. Though the Congress-Left alliance will try to leverage the organisational strength of both parties, it is perhaps too late for it to outrun the BJP.

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Besides being the main beneficiary of the anti-incumbency sentiment, the BJP is also trying to rope in Dalits, tribal communities and backward classes under the Hindutva fold...

Prasenjit Bose: The BJP is doing that with remarkable success. The 2019 results speak for themselves: the tribal-dominated areas of the State voted for the BJP. Within the Scheduled Caste (SC) communities, the two largest communities are the Rajvanshis and the Namasudras. And many of them are post-Partition refugees. Through the citizenship tripod of the CAA, National Register of Citizens (NRC) and National Population Register, the BJP said it was trying to champion the cause of these sections. The Left and Congress had absolutely no clue that this was happening until 2019. I would say that the TMC this time appears to have done some damage control.

Is there a sense among the subaltern sections that the non-BJP parties are controlled by urban elites?

Snigdhendu Bhattacharya: I don’t think so. Because if you look at the construct of the Left parties, it might be true that the top brass in the Central Committee or within the State Committee consists mostly of Brahmins. But they have leaders from the SC, Scheduled Tribes (ST) and Other Backward Classes (OBC) at all other levels. So, that wasn’t the issue. I think the major reason behind this switch of SC, ST and OBC votes is that the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) has been consistently working on these communities. Throughout India there are RSS-backed organisations working tirelessly and quite silently among the tribal communities. The second point is about the corruption, high-handedness and malpractices of the TMC. These backward communities are the most affected by these, so, possibly, the anger was greater among them.

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Some early intellectual arguments of Hindu nationalism began in Bengal. The State also went through communal partition more than once. How fertile is the West Bengal of today for Hindu nationalism?

Snigdhendu Bhattacharya: It is a very fertile ground for many kinds of identity politics, one of which is Hindutva. They (proponents of Hindutva) have two-three main issues. One is demographic change. They say there has been an increase in the Muslim population over the last seven decades and they want to ‘save’ West Bengal from turning into Bangladesh. Then they speak about Ms. Banerjee’s so-called ‘Muslim appeasement’. Her policies have created a certain kind of Hindu backlash.

The ground was always fertile in Bengal. There was a kind of communal mindset among sections of Bengalis in the pre-Independence era. Two factors had kept them suppressed. One was the impact of the Renaissance, which had triumphed over Hindu nationalism until the 1930s when communal politics surged across India. Bengal was one of the most volatile States during the communal clashes. From the 1940s rose the communists.

Also read | The foot soldiers of Hindutva in West Bengal

What is usually not a part of political discussions and consciousness is the fact that Bengal was divided on communal lines. How deep is the memory of Partition in West Bengal in the State’s political consciousness? How is that being resurrected?

Prasenjit Bose: Well, one way of directly not only reviving those memories but kind of utilising the dynamics of Partition politics and creating fresh polarisation is the promise of giving citizenship to post-Partition refugees. There was an influx of refugees between 1948 and, say, the early 1950s immediately after Partition. Then there was a huge refugee influx in 1971 when the war took place. Then we had several phases of influx… These are dominantly Hindus. What the BJP has been saying is that we will expel the Muslim Bangladeshis and give citizenship to Hindus. But the experience of the Assam NRC shows us that the vast number of those excluded were Hindus. In West Bengal, the proportion of excluded Hindus could be even higher. So, there is a fear of the NRC. And more the fear, the more the BJP could suffer electorally. I think that is why, after a point, the BJP put the NRC on the back burner. Whereas last year, before the pandemic, it almost seemed like that was its main game plan.

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Do you foresee all the anti-incumbency votes congregating towards the BJP? What will the BJP do to enable that? And how will the Congress-Left alliance try to remain in play?

Snigdhendu Bhattacharya: The Left-Congress alliance is looking to at least do a better performance than in 2019 when the Left and Congress contested separately and managed to get only 12% of the votes. If they can increase their vote share by even a few percentage points, that would essentially take away from the BJP and weaken its prospects. But the fact that Abbas Siddiqui (the Peerzada of Furfura Sharif) has allied with the Left-Congress alliance has started a new debate on the secular character of these parties. There is a possibility that this might help the Hindutva polarisation plan. So, in this case, Hindutva polarisation may help the anti-incumbency polarisation in favour of the BJP.

A bipolar contest rather than a triangular contest is increasingly the possibility. Do you agree, Prasenjit?

Prasenjit Bose: West Bengal elections have been bipolar contests for a long time. I think the people had made up their mind about the BJP in 2019. I don’t see any reason why they should change their mind this year. If the BJP fails to dislodge the TMC government, subsequent developments will take place where other options will be tried out. But in this election, I don’t see those wanting to dislodge the TMC being very confused about who the principal opposition is. Whatever the Left and Congress are trying to do now is too close to the election. Abbas Siddiqui could turn out to be counterproductive, especially for the Left. He is a new player, so whatever he gets, he will gain, because he was not there earlier.

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It is going to be a bipolar contest. There will be a few constituencies where the alliance will be in the contest. In the large bulk of the seats, it will be the BJP versus the TMC and the BJP will finish much closer to its 2019 vote share. At the margin, what will become decisive is social engineering or the subaltern Hindu experiment. Some of it might just unravel and that may become decisive. At the last moment, as we head towards the elections, I see the BJP losing some steam.

We haven’t discussed in detail many other factors such as the defection question. What would be the overall impact of the large-scale defection from the TMC leadership? Also, the subaltern Hindutva point: if the BJP had been so confident, why is it that it is still — so late and so close to the election — hankering for recognition by the Bengali Hindu elite? I think there is something happening on the ground where things may not be panning out in the BJP’s favour in the way it has drawn the script.

Prasenjit Bose is an economist and political activist based in Kolkata; Snigdhendu Bhattacharya is a Kolkata-based political commentator and author of Mission Bengal: A Saffron Experiment

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Printable version | Apr 16, 2021 5:43:05 AM |

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