West Bengal

Saffron portents

Print edition : May 16, 2014

BJP candidate from Balurghat Biswapriya Roy Chaudhury campaigning in a village on April 11. Photo: PTI

Congress candidate from Murshidabad Adhir Ranjan Chowdhury with his supporters before filing his nomination papers at Berhampore on April 21. Photo: PTI

IN West Bengal, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the Congress present a picture of contrast in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections. The former is upbeat about consolidating its presence in the State, while the latter is desperate to remain relevant.

For the first time in the State’s recent political history, the BJP has emerged a major player in the Lok Sabha elections. Riding high on an apparent Narendra Modi wave, it hopes to increase its vote share to over 12 per cent (from its average of around 6 per cent) and to even win several seats in the State. In the process, the perceived rise in the BJP’s popularity has introduced a new angle in West Bengal’s political scene. The quadrangular nature of the electoral battle this time, in which the BJP, the Congress, the All India Trinamool Congress and the Communist Party of India (Marxist)-led Left Front will be fighting it out for the 42 Lok Sabha seats in the State, has created an element of uncertainty about the situation.

The BJP’s performance in the past three general elections has not been impressive. In the 2004 Lok Sabha elections, it secured 8.06 per cent of the votes, which dropped to 6.14 per cent in the 2009 elections. In the 2011 Assembly elections, in which the Trinamool and the Congress combine defeated the Left Front, the BJP could manage to pull only 4.14 per cent of the votes. “The situation has changed since 2011. At that time it was a vote to throw the CPI(M) out. Now, Trinamool’s shine has worn off and there is a pro-BJP wave as has never been witnessed before in West Bengal,” said senior BJP leader Tathagata Roy. He feels that the Trinamool’s “no-holds-barred appeasement” of Muslims has caused a large number of fence-sitters among Hindus to switch political loyalties.

Even if the BJP manages to secure an overall vote share of 15 per cent—a possibility not ruled out by its opponents—it may not be sufficient to win seats. However, the State leadership of the party points out that the rise in its vote share will not be uniform and a low percentage in some constituencies will be offset by very high percentage in others. “In those areas where our percentage will be high, we have a strong chance of winning,” said a BJP leader.

The party expects to do well in Darjeeling, Jalpaiguri, Birbhum, Nadia, Bardhaman, and North 24 Parganas districts. It also hopes to put up a good fight in Kolkata North where State BJP president Rahul Sinha is contesting. “The Modi factor is working not only in all the urban constituencies but also in rural areas of Bengal. We will perform very well in 10-12 seats,” the party’s spokesperson in the State Ritesh Tewari told Frontline. According to him, the pro-BJP wave this time is similar to the one in 1991 when the party secured 11 per cent of the votes but could not win a single seat. “At that time, it was an emotional vote for the BJP, but we could not capitalise on it as we had no organisational base. This time we have some infrastructure to make it work,” he said.

In 1999, the party won two seats, but that was more to the credit of its ally, the Trinamool Congress; and in 2009 it won just the Darjeeling seat thanks to the support of the Gorkha Janamukti Morcha (GJM), the most powerful political force in the Darjeeling hills. This time, apart from three constituencies in north Bengal where the GJM has assured the party of its support, the BJP hopes to prove its ability to fare well on its own. Even in constituencies where it will not be able to win, the number of votes it gets will be a factor deciding on the outcome. “The BJP will be eating into the share of all political parties, but we fear it will be the Trinamool that will face the brunt of the BJP’s rise,” a Trinamool worker from North 24 Parganas admitted.

But however optimistic the BJP leadership may be about their party’s election prospects, success may not come as easily as they would like it to. For one, even if its organisational base has improved since 1991, it has still far to go before it can be truly effective. Secondly, its main political drive has centred around the figure of Narendra Modi, whose appeal in West Bengal may not be as powerful as in certain other States.

Even the Darjeeling seat, which the party hopes to retain, will not be a cakewalk for it as it was in 2009. With the GJM showing signs of weakening and the ruling Trinamool Congress gaining ground, and the GJM’s vote share getting divided in a five-cornered fight (the Left, the Congress, the Trinamool, the GJM/BJP, and influential independent candidate Mahendra P Lama), it will be a tough battle for the BJP to retain the seat.

Polarisation of Muslim votes

The BJP’s perceived rise in the State is also likely to bring about a polarisation of Muslim votes, which may go against the party. The Muslim vote, which accounts for about 26 per cent of the electorate, has largely gone to the Trinamool Congress since 2009. However, this vote may be divided in quite a few constituencies of north Bengal, where the Congress is strong. Siddiqullah Chowdhury, an influential Muslim leader of the All India United Democratic Front, told Frontline that “99.99 per cent of the Muslims in West Bengal will not vote for the BJP. Their vote will be divided between the other parties.” Mohammad Quamruzzamman, general secretary of the All Bengal Minority Youth Federation, feels that neither the Congress nor the BJP can be the choice of the minority community. “While the BJP is a fundamentalist Hindutva party, the Congress cannot offer us any security either,” he said.

Congress’ struggle for survival

For the Congress this election will be the beginning of a long, hard struggle for survival and the resurrection of its dwindling political relevance in the State. While it may be true that the Trinamool could not have defeated the Left Front in 2011 without the Congress’ support, the Congress has paid dearly for its part in the victory. In the last three years, particularly after the break-up of the alliance in September 2012, the Trinamool has been ravenously swallowing up the Congress’ political space. There has been a large-scale migration of Congress workers and leaders to the Trinamool, and a steady and continuous erosion of its support base.

As a last-ditch measure to reverse the trend, the central leadership appointed Adhir Ranjan Chowdhury to head the Pradesh Congress. The strongman from Murshidabad district is one of the few Congress leaders who have not lost political ground to the Trinamool. It was an appointment, many feel, made too late.

Chowdhury himself has admitted that the Congress was trying to regain its lost relevance in the State and that its first objective was to retain the six seats it had won in 2009. Even that will be a tough task for the Congress; even its strongholds in north Bengal seem vulnerable, particularly with the votes getting split four ways in many constituencies. “We are sure about two seats—Berhampore and South Malda—the other four we are very hopeful to win,” said a senior Congressman.

It is difficult to estimate the Congress’ vote percentage now as it has been contesting the elections in alliance with the Trinamool since 2009. In the 2009 Lok Sabha elections, it was allowed to contest in only 14 of the 42 seats, and in the 2011 Assembly elections, 66 of the 294 seats. In the 2004 elections its vote percentage was around 16; it may have dipped substantially in the last few years. In last year’s panchayat elections, its vote percentage stood at around 10, but the Congress claimed that it could contest in only around 20 per cent of the gram panchayat seats because of the alleged intimidation by the ruling party.

Adding to its problems are the allegations of corruption against the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) at the Centre. “It is true these corruption charges will have a negative impact in West Bengal as well; but what we are pointing out to the people is the UPA’s accomplishments in the last 10 years. We are the only party that has been striving for inclusive growth. Our party has already taken steps against those who have been corrupt. So, do not blame the whole party,” said Amitabha Chakraborti, general secretary, West Bengal Pradesh Congress.

But more than the Centre’s corruption, what has affected the State Congress were the alliances it was earlier in. “First we lost our credibility as opponents of the Left Front when the first UPA was supported by the Left; and then we lost our political identity and space when we allied with Trinamool. Unfortunately, both these alliances were forced on the Pradesh Congress,” a State-level Congress leader told Frontline.

One thing that is common for both the BJP and the Congress in West Bengal is that the Lok Sabha elections will serve as a testing ground for the Assembly elections in 2016. “This election is really our semi-final fight, that will prepare us for the elections in 2016,” said a senior Congress source. Similarly, the BJP too seems to be in preparation for 2016. “With the Left showing no signs of recovery, the Congress reduced to just a district-based party, and the people losing their faith in the present Trinamool government, the BJP will be the only political force to turn to in West Bengal in 2016,” said Tewari.

Suhrid Sankar Chattopadhyay

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