It was not the high voltage campaigns of Prime Minister Narendra Modi or Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee or Union Home Minister Amit Shah that set the tone for the Assembly election in Bengal. It was the historic rally of the Left-Congress-Indian Secular Front (ISF) on the Brigade Parade Ground on February 28 that did it. It destroyed the popular perception that the election would essentially be a bipolar fight between the ruling Trinamool Congress and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and established without a shadow of a doubt that Bengal was about to witness a triangular contest in one of the most unique Assembly elections in recent times. The event also brought to the fore a new political force that will not only have an immediate impact on the elections but may be a major factor in Bengal’s electoral politics in the days to come, for sharing the stage with the Left-Congress leaders was Abbas Siddiqui, the influential Islamist cleric and founder of the newly floated Indian Secular Front (ISF). The new alliance has changed the political dynamics in the State and sprung several possibilities, including those of post-election adjustments.
The 2019 Lok Sabha election established that the Trinamool and the BJP were the two biggest political parties in the State. While the Trinamool secured 43 per cent of the votes, the BJP came a close second with around 40 per cent. The Left and the Congress, which have entered into an alliance for the 2021 election, could only manage 7.5 per cent and 5.6 per cent respectively in 2019. In the given scenario the Left and the Congress were perceived as parties that would have to struggle just to remain relevant. However, much has changed in the two years since then. The BJP’s rise has slowed down to some extent—in spite of all the defections from the Trinamool—owing to popular disenchantment with the policies of the BJP-led government at the Centra. The Trinamool Congress, meanwhile, faces a strong anti-incumbency sentiment and is struggling to keep its house in order. The Left and the Congress, on the other hand, have been quietly asserting themselves both politically and socially. Several incidents gave further impetus and momentum to the Left-Congress combine. However, it was not until Abbas Siddiqui took the stage alongside the Left-Congress leaders, and lakhs of ISF supporters lent their voice to the massive roar of the crowd at the Brigade Parade Ground that a third alternative emerged for the electorate.
The development has thrown open the field for everyone, making it impossible to predict any outcome with certainty. The Brigade rally was an eye-opener for both the Trinamool and the BJP. While the huge turnout of Muslims supporters of the ISF was a cause for concern for the Trinamool. Muslim votes have long been firmly behind Mamata Banerjee. In the 2019 parliamentary election, her party had a lead in 81 per cent of the 74 Assembly segments in which the Muslim population was above 40 per cent. With the BJP breathing down its neck, the Trinamool needs the support of the minorities more than ever now. But the massive turnout of the youth at the rally does not bode well for the BJP either. With its promise of development and employment, the saffron party hopes to secure the support of young voters. Siddiqui, though a new face in Bengal politics, has a large following, particularly in south Bengal, which is known to be Mamata Banerjee’s stronghold. According to political observers, he can be a factor in the electoral outcome in over 80 constituencies in south Bengal.
Also read: Trinamool faces split in Muslim vote
The Trinamool leadership has claimed that it welcomes the revival of the Left as that would mean a weakening of the BJP. The BJP’s growth in the State is seen to be concomitant with the decline of the Left. Between the Assembly election of 2016 and the Lok Sabha election of 2019, the BJP’s vote share rose from 10.16 per cent to 40.3 per cent, while the Left’s share fell from 26.6 per cent to 7.5 per cent. State Panchayat Minister Subrata Mukherjee said: “We want even more people to attend the Left-Congress rallies, and we want the Left and the Congress to put up a strong united front, so the supporters who had left the CPI(M) to join the BJP will return to the CPI(M).” According to him, if such a shift does take place, then the Trinamool is certain of winning a two-thirds majority in the 294-seat House.
However, political observers feel that allying with an Islamist leader like Siddiqui may also bring certain risks for the Left-Congress combine and even certain advantages for the BJP. The psephologist Biswanath Chakraborty said: “While there is a chance of the Muslim votes getting split between the Trinamool and the Left-Congress-ISF, there is also the possibility of polarisation of the Left-Congress combine’s Hindu supporters towards the BJP. There is another possibility of this development reducing the chances of the Hindu votes returning to the Left-Congress from the BJP.” According to a highly placed BJP source, the ISF’s political move has raised the prospects of the party in 20-25 seats which it had not earlier hoped to win.
High Stakes & Violence
This will be one of the most high-stakes elections in recent time, with each contestant poised for a fierce battle. While many feel that it will be a do-or-die battle for Mamata Banerjee and her Trinamool Congress, much is at stake for the BJP too. It is a prestige battle for Modi and Amit Shah, who have time and again claimed that their party will win with a thumping majority, and the fight is against one of Modi’s most vocal and persistent critics—the “street fighter” from Bengal, Mamata Banerjee. The Trinamool has labelled the election as a battle for India’s democracy. Mamata Banerjee herself has said that defeating the BJP is not just imperative for the preservation of Bengal’s culture and secular politics but also for ending the saffron party’s rule in the country. For the Left and the Congress, too, this is a chance to emerge from political wilderness and become relevant in the State again.
With the stakes remaining so high, violence—which has always been part and parcel of Bengal politics – is also increasing. There is a new chant on the lips of the local leaders, the foot soldiers, the booth-level organisers of political parties as they prepare for the upcoming Assembly election—it is “khela hobe” (the game will be played). It sounds innocuous enough until the implication of the slogan becomes apparent and the underlying menace and message come through clearly. The slogan, started off by the ruling party, quickly caught on among the opposition. “Khela hobe” has become the euphemism for hurling threats at each other. With clashes taking place almost on a daily basis and crude bombs and other weapons being discovered regularly, the 2021 election has the potential to be one of the most violent Assembly elections in recent times. Even Ministers are not spared: on February 18, Minister of State for Labour Jakir Hossein was grievously injured in a bomb attack.
Keeping this “ground reality” in mind, as Chief Election Commissioner Sunil Arora put it, the State will witness an unprecedented eight-phase election this year. The first phase will be held in 30 constituencies on March 27; the second in 30 seats on April 1; the third in 31 seats on April 6; the fourth in 44 seats on April 10; the fifth in 45 seats on April 17; the sixth in 43 seats on April 22; the seventh in 36 seats on April 26; and the eighth in 35 seats on April 29. While opposition parties have welcomed the decision of stretching out the polling process, Mamata Banerjee was annoyed. Pointing out that elections in many districts will be held in different phases, she said: “The elections will be held in three phases in South 24 Paraganas just because we are strong in that district…Has this been done on the instructions of Narendra Modi and Amit Shah to facilitate their visits to different constituencies?”
The ruling party faces perhaps its toughest battle so far. Reeling under numerous allegations of corruption and mismanagement, fighting against a strong anti-incumbency sentiment, and facing continuous defection of top leaders to the BJP, it is falling back on its successful social welfare projects like Kanyashree and Sabuj Sathi. Mamata Banerjee has also recently launched several outreach programmes—Duarey Sarkar (government at the doorstep), Paray Paray Samadhan (resolution in the neighbourhood) and the Swasthya Sathi health insurance scheme; these have had a major impact.
But the strongest trump card for the Trinamool is still Mamata Banerjee herself—by far the biggest mass leader in the State. There is nobody in the BJP who comes close to her in popularity. The Trinamool’s newly-coined electoral slogan “Bangla Nijer Meye ke Chai” (Bengal wants its own daughter) not only projects her as the face of the Trinamool campaign, but also re-emphasises the party’s main allegation against the BJP—that it is a party led by “outsiders”. The allegation stems from the perception that central leaders of the saffron party, namely Narendra Modi, Amit Shah, J.P. Nadda and Kailash Vijayvargiya, are the main campaigners and architects of the BJP in Bengal. The slogan also highlights another important aspect of the Trinamool’s campaign—protection and socio-economic uplift of the State’s women.
Also read: Do-or-die for TMC in 2021 polls
For all the problems that the Trinamool may be facing, there is no scope for complacency in the BJP camp. No matter how virulently it may attack the government on issues like corruption and failure of governance, it has no answers to its opponents’ attacks on issues arising out of the Centre’s policies, particularly the skyrocketing prices of petrol, diesel and cooking gas, which are hurting the State’s huge middle-class population. Even Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s promise of turning industry-starved Bengal into “Sonar Bangla” (Golden Bengal) cannot stop the murmurs of resentment from getting louder. Moreover, for all the top leaders that the BJP has whisked away from the Trinamool, including Mukul Roy, Suvendu Adhikari and Rajib Banerjee, and for all the money it is allegedly spending on its campaign, it still lags behind the ruling party in its organisational strength at the grassroots and at the booth level. There is a feeling that the party may be losing steam at a time when it should be accelerating its campaign. Also, the BJP’s strategy of not presenting a chief ministerial candidate is causing confusion among voters.
The election strategist for the Trinamool, Prashant Kishor, believes that the BJP will not be able to cross 100 seats. He even put his job on the line, saying, “If the BJP wins more than 100 seats in Bengal, then I will leave this job… I will do something else but not this work.”