The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), not the Left Front or the Congress, will pose the biggest challenge for the ruling AITC party in West Bengal. Mamata’s party still holds an edge for now but this could change by the end of the election campaign
West Bengal, absent in the past budget speeches of Nirmala Sitharaman, made its debut this time. Sitharaman announced funds for an economic corridor in West Bengal and a special package for tea garden workers. The message was aimed at the voters of the poll-bound state where the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is trying hard to win the mandate.
At this point, it is very difficult to predict what the outcome of the 2021 assembly elections in Bengal would be. But it’s clear that it is going to be a bipolar contest between the All-India Trinamool Congress (AITC) and the BJP. The Left-Congress alliance is unlikely to make a mark.
There are enough signs to indicate that the primary challenge to Trinamool comes from the BJP. First, the 2019 elections showed that the BJP has already taken up the no 2 slot in the state. With a 40% vote-share, the BJP was only a little shy of Trinamool’s vote-share in the last Lok Sabha elections, and had left the Congress and Left Front far behind.
Secondly, the decade-long rule of the Trinamool makes it more vulnerable to anti-incumbency than five years ago. Third, the defections of prominent leaders from the Trinamool to the BJP creates the perception that the BJP is gaining an edge in the state.
Yet, despite the wind in its sails, the BJP would struggle to unseat the Mamata Banerjee-led government, a closer look at the electoral data suggests. In 2019, the BJP led in 41% of the assembly segments in the state, roughly similar to the vote-share it garnered. But the Trinamool’s catch was higher, with the party leading in 57% of the assembly segments.
Trinamool led in 164 assembly segments in the 2019 elections, lesser than the 211 assembly seats it won in 2016, but higher than the 121 segments where BJP could muster a lead. Considering that the 2019 elections was almost a referendum on the leadership of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, whose popularity had peaked after the Balakot strikes, the 2019 performance might be hard to repeat for the BJP. Unlike in 2019, local issues and local leadership will matter more. And in Banerjee, the Trinamool has a bigger trump card than any other rival party. The defectors to the BJP lack the state-wide appeal that the chief minister still enjoys in Bengal.
Trinamool's best performance was in the 2011 assembly elections, when it won 48% of the popular vote and dismantled the three-decade-long rule of the Left Front. It’s vote-share fell to 39% in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections but rose again to 45% in the 2016 assembly polls. Even during the 2019 Modi wave, the Trinamool managed to largely retain its support base, with a vote share of 43%. At a time when other regional parties such as the Samajwadi Party, Bahujan Samaj Party, and Rashtriya Janata Dal were swept aside by the Modi wave, the Trinamool managed to hold its own against the national tide.
What could also give some comfort to the Trinamool is the BJP’s relatively weaker performance across assembly elections. The BJP has struggled much more in state assembly elections than in nation-wide Lok Sabha elections even when those elections have been held very close to each other.
Despite the above-mentioned factors that favour Trinamool, there is one clear sign of trouble for the party: it’s shrinking social base. The party still gets a sizeable share of Muslim and non-Brahmin non-Kayastha upper caste votes but other caste groups seem to have moved towards the BJP over time.
The declining social base of the party and the continuing spate of defections to the BJP should worry the Trinamool. At least 17 Trinamool members of the legislative assembly (MLAs) and one former member of parliament (MP) have joined BJP in recent weeks. There have also been defections from the Congress and the Left to the BJP. Some of the Trinamool turncoats such as former ministers Suvendhu Adhkari and Rajib Banerjee enjoy clout beyond their own constituency, and could sway voters in their home districts. The others are relatively less known.
None of the defectors from the Trinamool can match Banerjee’s appeal across the state. But the defections generate an impression that the wind is blowing in the BJP’s direction. And in politics, perceptions can play a powerful role in shaping electoral outcomes. The Trinamool must keep that in mind as the Bengal battle heats up in the coming weeks.
Sanjay Kumar is a professor at the Delhi-based think-tank, CSDS, and a political analyst.
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