No holds barred in Bengal as parties gear up for Assembly election
As the State heads for possibly its most violent Assembly election, the Trinamool Congress and the BJP, the main adversaries, spit fire at each other; the Left-Congress combine and a Muslim platform threaten to make the outcome unpredictable; defections take centre stage as electoral strategy.
West Bengal is poised for a drama-filled Assembly election, of a kind never before witnessed in the State. For the first time after Independence, a right-wing Hindutva party, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), claims to have a chance of coming to power in the State. National issues are taking centre stage as much as State and even local issues, and large-scale defection is being used as a political tool. The outcome of what is turning out to be a quadrangular contest, with the main fight being between the ruling Trinamool Congress and the BJP, may change the course of the State’s history.
Between the Trinamool and the BJP, it is a do-or-die struggle. But the challenge posed by two other political forces contributes an added element of unpredictability—the Left-Congress combine and the newly formed platform of Muslim parties, including the All India Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen (AIMIM) and the influential Bengali cleric Abbas Siddiqui’s newly formed party, the Indian Secular Front. These forces may not come across as having any real chance of coming to power. Yet their presence is certain to influence the outcome in a large number of constituencies. They may also be crucial factors to consider in post-election developments.
In the last Assembly election, the Trinamool won 211 seats out of 294 in a largely bipolar contest against a joint resistance from the Communist Party of India (Marxist)-led Left Front and the Congress. West Bengal’s socio-political scenario has since undergone a sea change. The aura of invincibility that once cloaked Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee’s Trinamool Congress has developed chinks and weaknesses; the BJP, once a nonentity in the State, has replaced the CPI(M) and the Congress as the main opposition; and a Muslim political front has in recent months added a fresh twist to an already complex situation. The 2019 Lok Sabha election was an eye-opener and served as a precursor to the emerging trend. By winning 18 of the 42 parliamentary seats, the BJP not only announced itself as the main contender for the Bengal crown, but also exposed a strong anti-incumbency factor working against the ruling party. Local issues and the alleged corruption and high-handedness of Trinamool leaders at the grassroots were the crucial factors at work in the Lok Sabha election, rather than national issues or even religious polarisation. The BJP’s vote share shot up to 40.3 per cent from an earlier high of 17 per cent (in 2014) against the Trinamool’s 43.3 per cent, and there was cause for the ruling party to worry.
The Trinamool’s 2019 electoral setback accelerated the rate of defection to the saffron camp, a trend that had started with Mukul Roy. Mukul Roy, once Mamata Banerjee’s closest aide and widely considered the second-most powerful leader in the Trinamool, joined the BJP in 2017. The steady erosion began to take on alarming proportions after the 2019 election, culminating in the departure of Suvendu Adhikari, a mass leader considered second only to Mamata Banerjee and until recently a Cabinet Minister. He joined the BJP in December 2020. Defection, in fact, has been one of the biggest points of discussion in recent months. However, much as this may appear to weaken the Trinamool, it is still too early to gauge whether the BJP can overcome its inherent organisational weaknesses in the State by facilitating such defections.
Another interesting spectacle in the run-up to the election has been the unprecedented confrontation between the Centre and the State. The political battle between the Trinamool and the BJP is turning out to be one of the most vicious, no-holds-barred fights ever witnessed in the State. Nothing appears to be out of bounds for the two adversaries to use as political handles against each other—from national issues like the farmers’ protest in Delhi, the Citizenship (Amendment) Act and the National Register of Citizens (NRC) to proprietorial claims to revered icons such as Rabindranath Tagore and Amartya Sen. Central and State government schemes for the benefit and relief of the people have become the topic of shrill competition. The BJP has been loudly proclaiming that the people of Bengal are being denied the benefits of Central schemes because of the petty politics of Mamata Banerjee. The State government claims that its own schemes are more beneficial for the people and that the money for the Central Kisan Samman Nidhi should be disbursed through the State government. Even the matter of disbursing COVID-19 vaccines has become a major political issue between the State and the Central governments. The relations hit a new low when the Union Home Ministry issued a notification for Central deputation to three police officers, overriding the State government’s protest. The three Indian Police Service officers were in charge of the security of BJP president J.P. Nadda when his convoy was attacked during a tour of the State on December 10.
US AND THEM
The political battle between the Trinamool and the BJP has taken on an ethnic dimension with the tussle being projected as a fight to preserve Bengali culture against a usurping “outsider”. With the shadow of the CAA looming in the backdrop, the issue of “identity” has never before featured so prominently in Bengal elections. The BJP is projecting the fight as one to end oppression and corruption in the State and establish what it calls “Sonar Bangla” (Golden Bengal). The Trinamool is labelling it as a fight to preserve Bengali culture, heritage and tradition against “outsiders”. In Trinamool parlance, the term “bahiragata” (outsiders) is practically synonymous with the BJP. In her political speeches, Mamata Banerjee is often heard saying “We will not allow Bengal to be run by outsiders” or “We will not allow Bengal to become another Gujarat”. On January 19, she said at a rally in Purulia (where the BJP won all Lok Sabha seats in 2019) that the BJP was “more dangerous than the Maoists”.
With top central leaders of the saffron party, including Union Home Minister Amit Shah and Nadda, now making frequent visits to the State, the “bahiragata” tactic is cutting both ways. The Trinamool has been criticised for practising divisive politics, and not just by the BJP. Other Opposition parties, including the CPI(M), have also made the same allegation. The BJP, of course, has been silent on its own divisive agenda of implementing the CAA and the NRC in the State, for obvious political reasons.
One unique aspect of the run-up to the election is the way in which the Trinamool Congress is using national issues and failures of the Modi government at the Centre and of governments in BJP-ruled States to counter the BJP’s attacks over local issues and the Mamata Banerjee government’s failures. The BJP is still too new in Bengal politics to carry enough baggage so as to give its opponents a handle to attack it with. The Trinamool, as well as the Left and the Congress, are therefore constrained to target the larger issues of the BJP government at the Centre and in BJP-ruled states. As a result, issues such as the Hathras rape case in Uttar Pradesh, Central laws such as the three farm Acts and the CAA, the NRC, the escalating costs of petrol and diesel, and joblessness are among the various issues that are getting prominence in the Trinamool’s election rallies.
The BJP, on the other hand, has been consistently highlighting the corruption in the Trinamool. One of the main targets of its attack has been Mamata Banerjee’s nephew, Abhishek Banerjee, considered the heir apparent to the Trinamool leadership. BJP leaders refer to him disparagingly as “Bhaipo” (nephew) The slogans reflect the thrust of the campaigns of the main contenders. “Tolabaj sarkar aar neyi dorkar” (We do not need this extortionist government) is the main slogan of the BJP, while “Bahiragata dur haato” (Go away outsiders) is the Trinamool’s loud refrain.
It would be unwise for both the contenders, engaged as they are in intense political exchanges, to not take into account the presence of the Left-Congress combine. The Left and the Congress have been quietly trying to reassert their position in Bengal politics. Their position is unique. They are up against both the Trinamool and the BJP, while also appearing to be in competition with Mamata Banerjee to establish themselves as bigger opponents of the BJP at the Centre. Surajit C. Mukhopadhyay, political analyst and Professor of Sociology in Amity University, Chhattisgarh, said: “The Congress-Left tie-up cannot be ignored. There is a resurgence of the Left in many areas where they for so long could not set foot. This may mean that the Left will not be confined to the 7 per cent [of the vote share] it has been restricted to.” The main hope of the Left-Congress combine is to secure the support of voters who are anti-Trinamool and anti-BJP at the same time.
In this situation, the entry of Owaisi’s AIMIM and Abbas Siddiqui’s Indian Secular Front complicates matters for both the Trinamool and the Left-Congress combine. The thrust of the attack of each of the three political forces—the Trinamool, the BJP and the Left-Congress—provides a glimpse into the constantly changing political equations and shifting dynamics in the State. The Trinamool and the Left-Congress combine have been targeting each other, the BJP and the AIMIM. The BJP, on the other hand, has been concentrating its attack only on the Trinamool. In fact, Mamata Banerjee has found it convenient to club her opponents together and attack them at the same time. While both the Trinamool and the Left-Congress combine have shown signs of nervousness with the entry of Owaisi and Siddiqui and have accused the Hyderabad-based AIMIM of working for the benefit of the BJP, the saffron party has welcomed the new political development in the hope that it will divide its opponents’ Muslim votes.
Meanwhile, the Muslim Front is yet to announce its electoral plans. In a sign that the ruling party is also under pressure, Trinamool leader and Lok Sabha member Sougata Roy appealed to the Left-Congress combine to join forces with the Trinamool to keep the BJP at bay. “If the Left Front and the Congress are genuinely anti-BJP, they should be behind Mamata Banerjee in her fight against the communal and divisive politics of the saffron party,” he said. Pradesh Congress president Adhir Ranjan Chowdhury responded by saying Mamata Banerjee should return to the Congress if she was really intent on defeating the BJP.
With the situation still quite fluid, political analysts do not rule out “post-poll adjustments” becoming a factor in ultimately forming the government. Surajit C. Mukhopadhyay said: “Electoral adjustments now will not make any difference, but post-election adjustments may make a government. In the post-election scenario, the role of the Governor will be of enormous importance.”
GOVERNOR VS STATE GOVERNMENT
Governor Jagdeep Dhankhar’s role in the raging Centre-State feud has been significant. He has been one of the most vocal critics of the Trinamool Congress government ever since he assumed office on July 30, 2019, and the relationship between the two have been rocky at best. In the course of the past one and a half years, it reached an all-time low when the ruling party wrote to the President of India requesting Dhankhar’s removal. Differences between the two have ranged from trivial matters like not being invited to State events to serious issues such as lack of democracy in the State, the politicisation of the administration and the police, and the alleged culture of violence in West Bengal politics. Through his constant messages on social media and statements to the press on various matters relating to governance, Dhankhar has been a thorn on the side of the State government. Refuting his statements has become an additional and unavoidable chore for the beleaguered ruling party.
The letter to the President was written by Trinamool Lok Sabha members Sudip Bandopadhyay, Kalyan Banerjee and Kakoli Ghosh Dastidar, and Rajya Sabha members Derek O’Brien and Sukhendu Sekhar Ray. It stated: “Hon’ble Shri Dhankhar is holding press conferences, briefing the media from Raj Bhavan, joining TV channels regularly as commentator and panellist. As if all this was not enough, he has gone to the extent of naming and defaming senior officers of the Civil and Police services of West Bengal, thereby denigrating their official positions in the eyes of the people.” Trinamool leaders have repeatedly alleged that the office the Governor has become a “BJP karyalay” (BJP party office).
With political violence on the rise in the State, the term “President’s Rule” has often been on the lips of the BJP in Bengal for a while. The Governor’s comments on the deteriorating law and order situation lent strength to the BJP’s allegation of violent attacks on its leaders and workers by Trinamool members. The BJP had to weigh the consequences of pressing for President’s Rule in the State. A BJP source told Frontline: “While on the one hand it would give Mamata Banerjee a sympathy factor working for her, it would, on the other hand neutralise the politicised police and administration in the State and give us a level playing ground. The Governor’s role was crucial.” According to party insiders, it is no longer likely that the BJP will seek to have the elections conducted under President’s Rule. However, if the alarming rise in political violence is any indication of things to come as the elections draw near, West Bengal may witness one of the bloodiest elections in recent times.
It is still too early to tell which way the wind will ultimately blow. Will the caution with which Bengal has always treated right-wing forces in elections finally prevail over an apparent Hindutva-fuelled anti-incumbency wave? Will the charismatic and combative Mamata Banerjee with her pro-people schemes and outreach programmes return to power for the third consecutive term? Will the Left-Congress combine spring a surprise with the support of anti-Trinamool and anti-BJP voters? Whichever way things go, one thing is certain—this will be the election to watch.