Assembly Elections: West Bengal

Resounding victory

Print edition : June 10, 2016

Mamata Banerjee greeting party workers near her residence in Kolkata on May 19 as elections results started pouring in. Photo: DIBYANGSHU SARKAR/AFP

Former Chief Minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee sharing the dais with Rahul Gandhi and at election meeting in Kolkata on April 27. Adhir Ranjan Chowdhury, chief of West Bengal Congress; Manas Bhunia; and Deepa Dasmunsi are also seen in the photograph. Photo: Ashoke Chakrabarty

The CPI(M) State headquarters in Kolkata wears a deserted look on May 19. Photo: PTI

Mamata Banerjee returns to power with a massive mandate. The Trinamool Congress wins 211 out of the 294 Assembly seats, while the Left-Congress alliance manages only 77.

Some time around the middle of the long-drawn Assembly election in West Bengal, stretching for a month over six phases, there was a buzz that Mamata Banerjee’s Trinamool Congress government would fall. As the elections progressed further, the speculation grew in strength, to the extent that even the ruling party began to doubt its chances of returning to power. Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee’s body language during that period betrayed a nervousness over the fallout of the elections. However, on May 19, when the election results were declared, the illusion that the opposition and a section of the media had created was shattered as it hit the harsh wall of reality. Let alone defeat, the contest, as it turned out, was not even a close one. The Trinamool stormed back to power, winning 211 of the 294 seats.

The alliance of the Left Front and the Congress managed only 77 seats. The Congress got 44; the Communist Party of India (Marxist) 26; the Revolutionary Socialist Party three; the All India Forward Bloc two; the Communist Party of India one; and an independent candidate supported by the alliance one. The Trinamool polled a massive 44.9 per cent of the votes. The CPI(M) came a distant second with 19.7 per cent, and the Congress third with 12.3 per cent. The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) won three seats and secured 10.2 per cent of the votes, its best-ever performance in the Assembly elections in West Bengal.

This victory has been a particularly significant one for Mamata Banerjee. Never has the run-up to any election in West Bengal in the recent past been so dramatic and fraught with uncertainty. It was like a roller-coaster ride where the political fortunes of a party would appear one day to be soaring and then appear to plummet on the very next day. Even the most experienced psephologists would dare not commit themselves, and their guarded observations served to enhance the tension. Added to all this were rumours and perceived signals that foretold a veritable “political earthquake”.

Pressure began mounting on the ruling party from the moment the Left, the Congress, and other secular democratic forces forged a seat-sharing understanding. It gave them, at least theoretically and arithmetically, a fighting chance to topple the government. The alliance, or “Jote” as it came to be known, produced the impression of a revival of the opposition parties, which until then appeared to be directionless and dwindling into political obscurity. The opposition got a further fillip as the ruling party received one nasty jolt after another just before the first phase of the election began on April 4.

Weeks before the election, footages of a sting operation carried out in 2014 by the news portal Narada News were released, showing top Trinamool leaders—legislators, Ministers and the Mayor of Kolkata—accepting cash on camera. While still reeling from the shock of this expose and desperately trying to salvage the situation, the ruling party was struck another serious blow. Just three days before the elections, a flyover that was under construction in the heart of Kolkata collapsed, killing 27 people. The tragedy not only exposed a serious administrative lapse but also brought to the fore the nexus between local Trinamool leaders and the subcontractors engaged in the construction. The new developments also revived memories of the alleged involvement of some senior Trinamool leaders in the multi-crore Saradha deposit collection scam of 2013, which had ruined lakhs of poor investors all over the State.

All this seemed to give an edge to the opposition. The Trinamool’s reputation and credibility seemed to have hit rock bottom, and the party seemed to be hemmed in by issues of its own creation. All that was left was the persona of Mamata Banerjee. For the Trinamool supremo, it became a do-or-die struggle against all odds. In her rallies she would exhort her supporters to believe that they were not voting for any other candidate but herself in all the 294 seats.

The people’s faith in her seemed to have remained intact, even though her own faith in her own party was quite visibly shaken. Neither the Narada sting nor the bridge collapse had any impact whatsoever on the people’s verdict. With the exception of Madan Mitra, former Cabinet Minister and one of her closest aides, all the other five leaders who were caught in the Narada sting—Ministers Firhad Hakim and Subrata Mukherjee, party heavyweight from Purbo Medinipur and former Lok Sabha member Subhendu Adhikari, Mayor of Kolkata Sovan Chatterjee and Deputy Mayor Iqbal Ahmad—registered convincing victories. Madan Mitra, who has been in prison since December 2014 for his alleged role in the Saradha scam, lost by just 4,198 votes. Interestingly, even in the urban seats, where the issue of corruption was supposed to work against the ruling party, the Trinamool performed exceedingly well. It won all the 11 seats in Kolkata, as well as the urban seats of North and South 24 Paraganas and Howrah.

“People believe in Mamata Banerjee and believe that she will be able to run a non-corrupt, efficient, pro-poor government for the next five years. People have no doubt whatsoever on the personal honesty and integrity of Mamata Banerjee and this is why all these issues of corruption raised by the opposition have failed,” Sanjoy Banerjee, a promiment worker of the Trinamool Congress, told Frontline.

It can be argued that in the Assembly election of 2011, the mandate was for an end to the 34-year-old Left Front rule, rather than one in favour of Mamata. But there can be no doubt that the 2016 election yielded a decisive and overwhelmingly positive verdict in favour of the Trinamool. In spite of allegations of corruption, deteriorating law and order situation in the State, rising crimes against women, autocratic and intolerant attitudes adopted by the ruling party, and trampling of democratic rights of the people, the Trinamool’s vote share has continued to increase with every election. In 2011, when it came to power in alliance with the Congress, its vote percentage was 38.93; in the 2014 Lok Sabha election it alone secured 39.5 per cent of the votes; this time the figure is 44.9 per cent.

The key to Mamata Banerjee’s success lies essentially in the numerous social welfare schemes she introduced, whose beneficiaries comprise more than 54 per cent of the State’s population. Schemes such as Kanyashree (scholarships for girls) and Sabuj Sathi (cycle distribution among schoolchildren), financial assistance given to clubs, extending the benefits of the National Food Security Act to more than seven crore people in the State, and providing various benefits to the minorities along with infrastructure development work at the grass-roots level have given her rich dividends in this election.

Failure of the Jote

The much-hyped electoral tie-up between the Left and the Congress ultimately turned out to be a damp squib. The Left contested 199 seats and won only 32. The Congress contested in 91 and won 44. Only one of the four independent candidates supported by the Jote could win. In many ways, the Jote was doomed from the start, though it did inspire optimism among the supporters of the opposition. The two traditional political enemies were forced to unite against a common enemy, apparently at the insistence of the workers of both the parties at grass-roots level. Yet the unease that each felt in this new set-up was quite evident. Right from the start, the Left refused to acknowledge the tie-up as an “alliance” with the Congress, and the Congress often expressed dissatisfaction at the attitude adopted by certain constituents of the Left Front. In fact, in as many as 18 seats, the Left and the Congress contested against each other—10 of these contests took place in the Congress stronghold of Murshidabad alone. It must be said, however, that during campaigning, leaders and workers of both the parties were seen to be working together in a concerted manner. But the inordinately long time taken to finalise the alliance (the Congress high command was seen to take its time before giving its nod to the State outfit to go ahead with the tie-up) and the prolonged wrangling over seat-sharing hardly gave the Jote the scope to project itself to the people as a viable alternative. The alliance did not even have a commonl chief ministerial candidate.

Though the leaders of both the CPI(M) and the Congress maintained that it was a tie-up thrust upon them by the demand of the workers at the ground level, a section of the voters of both the parties saw it as an opportunistic and unprincipled move to try and seize power at any cost. This perception was bound to be reflected in the ballot box. According to the noted psephologist Biswanath Chakraborty, even in many of the seats where the alliance was supposed to be in place, the transfer of votes from one party to the other was not as high as expected. “In at least 20 seats we see that the Left suffered because the Congress’ votes did not go to it,” said Chakraborty. Those Congress voters who could not accept the alliance with the Left either voted for the Trinamool or NOTA (None of the Above).

The Jote did not pass muster even among the voters of north Bengal, where organisationally the ruling party was at its weakest. All calculations of the opposition and political pundits went haywire when the Trinamool’s performance turned out to be not as bad as expected. In fact, most election projections were essentially centred round one universally undisputed assumption that the Trinamool would be routed in north Bengal. However, it secured 30 of the 76 seats there and dominated in the south. “Frankly, we did not expect the Trinamool to get more than 10 seats in north Bengal, and believed that it would be under a lot of pressure to make up the deficit in its strongholds in the south,” a senior Left leader told Frontline. The only two districts where the Jote registered resounding victories were the Congress bastions of Malda and Murshidabad, where the opposition alliance won 11 out of 12 and 18 out of 22 seats respectively. But here, too, the Trinamool made inroads. In Murshidabad, where it was not expected to win a single seat, the ruling party won four.

For all the criticism levelled at the Jote after it had failed, it must be said that the tie-up did serve to lift the flagging spirits of opposition workers. For a while, it did put up a show of convincing resistance against what appeared to be an unstoppable force. The leaders of the alliance, while acknowledging the failure, also point out that had there been no Jote, both the CPI(M) and the Congress would have been decimated (see interviews).

Trinamool bastions intact

Southern Bengal continued to remain Mamata Banerjee’s impregnable fortress. A unified opposition may have reduced individual victory margins, but it could not contain the Trinamool wave that practically swept away all rivals. In North 24 Paraganas, the Trinamool won 27 out of the 33 seats; in South 24 Paraganas, 29 out of 31; in Howrah, 15 out of 16; in Hooghly, 16 out of 18; in Pashchim Medinipur, 17 out of 19; in Purbo Medinipur, 13 out of 16; in Birbhum, nine out of 11; and in Kolkata, 11 out of 11. There was no sign of any revival of the Left in its erstwhile bastions of Bardhaman, where the Trinamool secured 19 out of 25 seats, and Purulia, where it won seven of the nine seats. Chakraborty said: “This election clearly shows that there is no difference between the mindset of the rural and urban voters, no difference between minority and majorty, between women voters and men voters.

Apart from a few places like Darjeeling, Malda and Murshidabad, from north Bengal to south Bengal it has been an overwhelmingly positive verdict for the Trinamool.” In fact, in many of the places where the Trinamool has lost—four seats in Dakshin Dinajpur, the Nanoor seat in Birbhum, and English Bazar in Malda—it has been mainly because of inner-party feuds. “I have identified 24 seats that the Trinamool has lost because of infighting,” said Chakraborty.

Setback for the Left

The worst hit in this election has been the Left. With just 32 seats, it has lost its status as the main opposition in the Assembly, and even in alliance with the Congress it has not been able to stem the decline of its vote share. From 40.4 per cent in the 2011 Assembly election, the Left’s vote share dropped alarmingly to 29.71 per cent in the 2014 Lok Sabha election. In this election, it slipped further to 25.6 per cent. There was a strong section within the Left, particularly the CPI(M), that was against any tie-up with the Congress in the first place. A senior source in the CPI(M) told Frontline: “I do not understand from when electoral victory became so important in a communist movement that we had to forsake our ideology. There will come a time when we will have to answer for this”.

Mamata Banerjee did not let go of the opportunity to rub salt into the wound. “This alliance has cost the most to the CPI(M). This has been the CPI(M)’s greatest blunder. For the Congress, the blunder is at the national level and for the CPI(M), at the State level. They will have to answer for this. The CPI(M) compromised its ideology. In 2004 I was alone. I was the sole MP from my party, but even then I did not compromise my ideology. If character and ideology are lost, then everything is lost. The CPI(M) has lost everything. Now I think they will understand,” she said at a press conference soon after it became clear that she had won.

Congress gains, so does BJP

For the Congress, on the other hand, the situation could certainly have been worse. It secured only 12.3 per cent of the votes but won as many as 44 seats because its areas of strength are located in just three districts and its votes are not spread out across the State. It actually bettered its 2011 tally of 42, won in alliance with the Trinamool. Its vote percentage has increased from 9.58 per cent in the Lok Sabha election to 12.3 per cent this time. The alliance has allowed it to retain its strongholds of Malda and Murshidabad. Moreover, having secured more seats than the Left, it has now displaced the CPI(M) as the main opposition party in the Assembly. But, according to Biswanath Chakraborty, the biggest challenge now for the Congress is to retain its MLAs. In 2011, the Congress won 42 seats, but then 10 of its MLAs defected to the Trinamool.

Contrary to expectations, the BJP did not fade into insignificance after its unprecedented success in the 2014 Lok Sabha election. The pro-Modi wave propelled its vote share in the State to around 17 per cent from the usual 6 per cent in that election. However, the party’s performance in the subsequent civic elections and the 2015 byelections indicated that it had lost its momentum. Most political observers felt that its vote share would dip below 6 per cent this time. However, the BJP secured 10.2 per cent of the votes and won three seats. The National Democratic Alliance (NDA) tally in the State, including the three hill seats won by the Gorkha Janamukti Morcha (GJM), stands at six.

Abhijit Roy Choudhuri, BJP leader and general secretary in Siliguri district, told Frontline: “This election has made it clear that the CPI(M) and the Congress cannot be considered alternatives to the Trinamool. The BJP, on the other hand, has made its foray into West Bengal securing over 10 per cent of the votes, and winning three seats, though we expected to win a few more. We will very soon emerge as the main opposition force.” Interestingly, the vote share that the BJP lost did not go to the Jote, as many thought it would, but to the Trinamool. Biswanath Chakraborty said: “We have seen that around 4 to 5 per cent of the votes that the BJP lost went directly to the Trinamool. As a result, the Trinamool benefited from both the disenchanted Congress votes that did not support the Left and the BJP votes. This accounts for its jump in its [the Trinamool’s] vote share from 39.5 per cent to 44.9 per cent.”

Victories and upsets

As in all elections, there were upsets and surprise wins in this one. For the Jote, the biggest upset was undoubtedly the defeat of Surjya Kanta Mishra, CPI(M) Polit Bureau member and Leader of the Opposition in the last Assembly. But the Left could find some consolation in the victories of veteran leaders like Asok Bhattacharya in Siliguri and Sujan Chakraborty in Jadavpur.

Among the major losers of the Trinamool were eight Ministers: Krishnendu Narayan Chowdhury (Food Processing), Chandrima Bhattacharya (Law, Health), Manish Gupta (Power), Upen Biswas (Backward Class), Shyamapada Mukherjee (Textile), Shankar Chakraborty (Public Works), Karim Chowdhury (Mass Education) and Sabitri Mitra (Minister without portfolio). Madan Mitra, former Sports Minister who contested the elections from prison, also lost.

Post-election violence

Almost immediately after the results were announced, violence broke out in different parts of the State as miscreants claiming allegiance to the Trinamool Congress went on the rampage, destroying party offices of the opposition and targeting Left and Congress workers.

The issue of corruption within the Trinamool Congress, which the opposition used as its primary instrument of attack, and which Mamata Banerjee herself came close to acknowledging in the middle of the elections, was summarily waved aside in the euphoria of victory.

“There is no corruption in the Trinamool,” Mamata Banerjee said after the results were declared, as though winning absolved of blame all those leaders who were apparently caught accepting cash on camera in the Narada sting. It is perhaps in anticipation of things to come that more than 830,000 (1.5 per cent of the votes polled) sad and wise voters chose to push the NOTA (None of the Above) button, having lost their faith in all political parties.

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