After an intense, polarising campaign, West Bengal’s multi-cornered election battle headed for a nail-biting finish

Will the BJP breach Trinamool’s strongholds or will welfare give Mamata the edge? What about the resurgent Left-Congress alliance?

Published : Jun 03, 2024 13:24 IST - 7 MINS READ

CPI(M) workers during an election roadshow of the Lok Sabha Congress candidate from Kolkata North constituency Pradip Bhattacharya in Kolkata on May 6, 2024.

CPI(M) workers during an election roadshow of the Lok Sabha Congress candidate from Kolkata North constituency Pradip Bhattacharya in Kolkata on May 6, 2024. | Photo Credit: PTI

As the seemingly interminable Lok Sabha election in seven long phases in West Bengal finally comes to a close, and the nation awaits a much-longed-for closure with the announcement of the results, one is reminded of a line by The Grateful Dead—“What a long, strange trip it’s been.” In many ways, this has been one of the most unique elections in recent times in West Bengal. With no perceptible wave in favour of any particular party or individual and an unprecedented silence pervading the vast section of the electorate that opted to keep its own counsel, it became impossible to properly ascertain which way the tide is turning.

On the one hand, there is the beleaguered ruling Trinamool Congress, battered and cornered by allegations of rampant corruption and misrule and on the other hand, the main Opposition, the BJP, with its relatively weak organisation at the grassroots level and high dependence on the failings of the ruling party and the anti-incumbency sentiment against it. In the middle of this binary, a third force has reared its head—the Left-Congress combine—which is expected to come out of the political wilderness it has been wandering in for the past 10 years.

Also Read | Can Trinamool’s welfare schemes counter Sandeshkhali scandal impact in West Bengal?

Neither before the election nor during it, has there been any uniformity in the predictions and analysis of political watchers and psephologists. The numbers ranged between two extremes of possibilities—some convinced of a BJP sweep, others of a rout; a good many also predicting a close contest that can go either way. “I have never witnessed such a silent electorate,” said veteran political analyst Biswajit Bhattacharya. “Nobody can say with any measure of certainty what the ultimate outcome may be. But one thing that is certain is that the vote will be either in support of Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee or against her and her government in West Bengal.”

In a first, religious polarisation is set to determine the verdict of the general election in West Bengal.

In a first, religious polarisation is set to determine the verdict of the general election in West Bengal. | Photo Credit: Jayanta Shaw

Bhattacharya’s comment also highlighted another unique aspect of this particular election, i.e. the absence of national issues in the political campaigns, making the election appear more like a State election rather than a Parliamentary one. Some of the most burning issues in the State, including the women’s movement in Sandeshkhali against alleged atrocities committed upon them by the local leaders of the ruling party, the School Service Recruitment scam, the PDS scam, and others, became the main issues in the ensuing electoral narrative. While the BJP and the Left-Congress used these issues as primay weapons against the ruling party, the Trinamool focused on its innumerable welfare schemes that have given it a rich electoral dividend over the years. In fact, Trinamool’s fate hinges on mainly two points—its enhanced Lakshmir Bhandar scheme (the monthly allowance for the poor women in the State), and its support base among the Muslim voters.

Can go either way

For both the Trinamool and the BJP, this election has been a desperate fight for survival. There has been a feeling among the supporters of both the parties that whoever is bested in this contest, will, at least for the time being, lose its political sway in the State. In a struggle that has been perceived as a battle for Bengal, whoever emerges victorious will be perceived as the next ruling party in the State. Well-known psephologist, Biswanath Chakraborty told Frontline, “I see Trinamool’s vote share coming down substantially from the 48 per cent it had got in the 2021 Assembly election.

In fact, if it had not been for the Muslim support that Trinamool enjoys in south Bengal and its Lakshmir Bhandar scheme, it would be facing a complete washout.” Though most of the exit polls have indicated that the BJP has an edge over the Trinamool in Bengal, the margins, however, are likely to be so small that the results can swing either way, and the exact reverse of what exit polls show can also take place. According to a senior BJP source, if the saffron party fails to win at least the same number of seats it had won in 2019 (18), its credibility as a viable alternative to the Trinamool will take a beating. “Even after so many things going against the Trinamool, if we cannot win more seats than them, it will be a major setback for us,” the BJP source told Frontline.

End of BJP-Trinamool binary?

Even if political observers differ on the number of seats the main parties may secure, they are almost unanimous in their observation that this election will likely see the beginning of the revival of the Left and the Congress in the State, which will add a fresh dimension to the Trinamool-BJP binary established in Bengal politics since 2019. “The most important fallout is that this election has ended the binary narrative in Bengal politics. In the days to come we will see triangular and more complex political battles,” said Biswajit Bhattacharya. According to Biswanath Chakraborty, the rise of the Left-Congress vote share will affect both Trinamool and the BJP in different constituencies. “In south Bengal, the rise in the Left-Congress share will affect the BJP’s prospects in seats like Dum Dum, Jadavpur, and Sreerampur; while in north Bengal, the improvement in Left-Congress’s performance will affect Trinamool in seats like Raiganj, Malda Uttar and Malda Dakshin, and also Krishnanagar in the south Bengal,” Chakraborty told Frontline.

Voters lining up to cast their votes at Barrackpore constituency.

Voters lining up to cast their votes at Barrackpore constituency. | Photo Credit: Jayanta Shaw

Political observers also agree that elections in West Bengal have never witnessed such intense polarisation on religious lines as this election witnessed. The lines were made even sharper by the topmost leaders of Trinamool and the BJP—Mamata Banerjee and Prime Minister Narendra Modi respectively—raising the pitch on the subject of religion in their speeches. While Modi in a thinly-veiled attack on the minorities in the State, repeatedly aimed his diatribe against “infiltrators”, Mamata suddenly vented her anger on socioreligious Hindu organisations like the Ramakrishna Mission, the Bharat Sevasharm Sangha and the ISKCON, prompting monks to take to the streets in protest. “This time polarisation on religious lines has been the maximum in Bengal politics so far. The BJP’s vote share among the Hindu voters stood at around 54 per cent, we can expect this to increase to as much as 60 per cent this time. There is also a clear rise of subaltern Hindu voters, particularly among the SC, ST, and OBC in favour of the BJP,” said Biswanath Chakraborty. The fact that the Centre implemented the CAA just ahead of the election, will also be a major factor in polarising the votes on religious lines.

Key constituencies

In the dynamic situation under which the election took place, It will be interesting to see whether the Trinamool and the saffron party can make a dent in each other’s strongholds in south and north Bengal respectively and how the Left-Congress can affect the equations. While the results in certain constituencies are a foregone conclusion—Mamata’s nephew Abhishek Banerjee’s Diamond Harbour, Trinamool strongholds, Kolkata South, Jadavpur, and Howrah, BJP’s Alipurduar and Bongaon etc.—one can expect an interesting contest in most of the other seats.

Also Read | In a first, corruption becomes a key election issue in West Bengal 

Some of the key constituencies to look out for would be Baharampur, which the State Congress president Adhir Ranjan Chowdhury has been winning since 1999; Murshidabad, where the CPI(M)’s State secretary Md Salim is contesting; Krishnanagar, where Mahua Moitra faces a tough challenge in the prevalent political equations; Kolkata Uttar, where former Trinamool heavyweight, Tapas Roy, who recently joined the saffron party, will be up against Sudip Bandopadhyay, the Leader of the Trinamool Congress party in the Lok Sabha; Basirhat, where Sandeshkhali is located; Malda South, where Congress is trying to hold on to one its last surviving bastions; BJP strongholds of Bankura and Jhargram, where it is facing internal problems; Purulia, where powerful Kurmi leader Ajit Mahato’s decision to stand as an Independent has set all calculations awry and Tamluk, where former High Court judge, who had passed important sentences in the SSC scam case is contesting with a BJP ticket.

With hours to go before the results are declared, the West Bengal Chief Minister has scornfully cast aside the exit poll verdicts, calling them a product of the “Modi media” or “Modia” as she has coined the new term. There is a lot at stake for both the Trinamool and the BJP. While the former hopes that its welfare schemes, particularly the enhanced Lakshmir Bhandar will neutralise the impact of the allegations of corruption and misrule against it, the latter is looking at a strong Hindu polarisation of votes and an anti-incumbency sentiment against the ruling party that seems to have reached a new height.

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