West Bengal: Limited losses for the Left

Print edition : November 27, 1999

IN the Lok Sabha elections of 1998 the Left Front in West Bengal received a jolt when the newly formed Trinamul Congress displaced the Congress(I) as its main rival and picked up seven seats. Many observers read it as the beginning of the end of the Left Front's uninterrupted dominance of West Bengal politics since 1977. The electoral battle this year was widely perceived as a major trial of strength for both the parties, which would provide enough hints about the outcome of the State Assembly elections , which are due in 2001.

A quick glance at the results suggests that the Left Front has not lost, as much as it would have lost had the 1998 trends continued. To be sure, it lost four seats this time. It is for the first time since 1984 that the Left Front has conceded as many a s 13 seats to its opponents. Far from being able to snatch from the BJP the only seat it won in 1998, the Left Front conceded another seat. Yet, what looked like a surge of the Trinamul-BJP combine seems to have slowed down. In terms of vote share, the L eft Front's losses were negligible this time, though at 47 per cent it stood much lower than the Left Front's vote share in the 1989 and 1991 elections. The Trinamul-BJP combine increased its vote share only by a little over two percentage points.

Perhaps the key aspect of the verdict is the ability of the Congress(I) to survive, despite having been reduced to the third place in the 1998 elections. In India's first-past-the-post electoral system, such results normally cause a political party to ta ke a nosedive in subsequent elections. But the Congress(I) lost only two percentage points in its vote share. In fact, it was even able to consolidate its votes and win two seats in addition to Malda, which it retained. Clearly, although the overall vote share of the Left Front in the latest round was far below its peak, the Trinamul-BJP combine could not consolidate any anti-Left votes in its favour.

The Congress(I) did retain not only its share of about a quarter of the votes in north Bengal, but a substantial share of the votes in Greater Calcutta, much to the chagrin of the Trinamul-BJP alliance. Although Mamata Banerjee and her allies maintained their dominance of the urban cluster in Greater Calcutta, they lost a seat here to the Left Front. The best news for the Trinamul Congress-BJP alliance is that it has begun to make inroads into the rural hinterland of south Bengal, hitherto an impregnabl e fortress of the Left Front. The alliance added three percentage points of votes and three seats to its tally in this region.

The flow of votes as revealed by the CSDS survey shows that the Trinamul-BJP combine retained the votes that it had polled last year. It also gained 24 per cent of the Congress(I) votes of last time. The Left Front retained its own votes to a slightly sm aller extent compared to the BJP but made up for the loss by snatching some Congress(I) votes. On balance, the Congress(I) lost more to the Trinamul Congress than to the Left Front. Had the exodus to the Trinamul Congress been on a larger scale, the Left Front could have been in real trouble, and the contest would have taken on a clearer bipolar character.

The electoral support base of the Left Front has a pro-lower-class profile, but not quite as sharply as in Kerala. Although it does best among the lowest section of society, it does very well among the highest too. The Congress(I) in West Bengal does bet ter among the well-off than the poor, which is contrary to its usual profile elsewhere in the country. The Trinamul Congress-BJP does best among the middle categories, thanks to the respective profiles of the two parties cancelling each other out to a la rge extent. The Trinamul Congress has a slight lower-class profile (it polled 35 per cent among this section) whereas the BJP performs best among the better-off sections of the population (it received 26 per cent of the votes from the 'middle').

Although caste-based polarisation is not as sharp in West Bengal as it is elsewhere in the country, caste still makes a difference. Compared to 1998, the Congress(I) lost support among the upper castes and Muslims and yet suffered virtually no loss of su pport among the Other Backward Classes (OBCs) and the Scheduled Castes (SCs). The Left Front lost out noticeably only among the Vaishyas, whose support for it fell by 10 percentage points. In both these cases the beneficiary was the Trinamul Congress-BJP alliance. The Trinamul Congress ) was successful in mobilising support across caste and community lines. Compared to 1998, its vote share among Kayasthas (an upper caste), Namasudras (a Schedule Caste), and Muslims rose by 12, 9 and 15 percentage points respectively.

The Left Front is most popular among middle-aged voters, the formative moment in whose political consciousness was when the Left Front made its triumphant entry into State power 20 years ago.

Although the Left Front is still the party of choice for rural voters, of whom 50 per cent voted for it, it has been displaced by the Trinamul Congress-BJP combine as the most popular party in the urban areas. In 1998, the Left Front enjoyed a 15-percent age-point lead in vote share over the Trinamul Congress-BJP in the case of urban voters. In 1999 it suffered a 12-percentage-point deficit.

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