How Bengal bucked the saffron surge9 min read . Updated: 05 May 2021, 10:12 AM IST
This election shows how politics based on welfare and gender can undercut Hindu-Muslim polarization.
This election shows how politics based on welfare and gender can undercut Hindu-Muslim polarization.
The longest, most communally-polarized election in West Bengal is over. Despite the bluster and predictions about a saffron wave in favour of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), the ruling Trinamool Congress (TMC) has swept the polls. In the final tally, the TMC won 213 of the 294 seats in West Bengal, with the BJP winning just 77 seats.
After the 2019 national elections, the BJP did look as if it was primed to take over in West Bengal. In 2019, the BJP had surged to win 18 of the state’s 42 parliamentary constituencies—garnering more than 40% vote share. When broken down further, the BJP was ahead in 121 assembly segments, as compared to 164 for the TMC in 2019. With BJP’s massive war chest in terms of finances and institutional control, it was natural to assume that the BJP would make it through in 2021.
But a deeper analysis of the assembly poll results shows that the BJP has suffered significant losses in political support between 2019 and 2021. It lost vote share in 211 assembly constituencies and lost more than 5% points in vote share in 101 constituencies (see Chart 1). At 38% of the vote share, the BJP also fell way short of any reasonable winning vote share in West Bengal (which most analysts peg at a minimum of 43%).
One section of analysts has already started to argue that the TMC’s superior performance—at over 48% of the votes polled—is due to greater Muslim consolidation against the BJP. While this is likely true, the level of decline in support shows that the BJP likely lost vote share to the TMC outright in many places, and the Muslim vote was a minor factor.
Fundamentally, this election showed the power of political appeal based on welfare and gender, and how it may undercut Hindu-Muslim polarization. The BJP understood that it needed to create substantial Hindu-Muslim polarization in order to win the election. The party needed to secure at least 60-65% of the Hindu vote (who make up about 70% of West Bengal’s electorate).
Using data from howindialives.com, I broke the data into three categories: those constituencies with less than 10% Muslim population; between 10% and 30% Muslim population; and those with more than 30% Muslim population. In each of these buckets, it’s fairly easy to calculate the TMC’s strike rate (the percentage of seats it won in the category among those that it contested). The results are striking (see Chart 2). The TMC won handily in each category. Even in the constituencies in which the percentage of Muslims is less than 10%, the TMC raised its strike rate from 29% in 2019 to 63% in 2021.
There are a few simple reasons for this broad-based appeal, which is perhaps instructive for other opposition parties that are looking to learn from the TMC. In my travels through West Bengal prior to the polls, I observed how welfare benefits and support among women and poorer economic classes acted as a bulwark against Hindu-Muslim polarization. I also saw a deep contrast between the politics in West Bengal and Assam, where near complete Hindu-Muslim polarization had succeeded. Ultimately, the just concluded elections offer an important insight into how the BJP approaches the electoral arena, and the strategies that may or may not work as a counterweight.
The silent voter
In pre-election season, while passing through Champdani constituency in Hooghly district, we stopped for tea at a village shop. There were two friends drinking tea at the shop from nearby villages, a Hindu and a Muslim. Given all the discussion about Hindu-Muslim polarization at that point, they insisted very little Hindu-Muslim tension existed in the area, while also providing a clear mental map of where in Bengal such problems are seen.
As the Hindu man left for work, we settled down for a longer conversation with the Muslim man. He felt comfortable that the TMC was coming to power, and he made clear as to why. “If the BJP comes to power, there will be trouble between the Hindus and the Muslims, and no one wants that. In my village, support used to be split between the Congress and the TMC. Now, you won’t find a single Congress supporter." This was all the more meaningful, as it was the constituency in which heavyweight Congress leader Abdul Mannan was contesting from. In normal times, support for the Congress would have been feasible, but given the rhetoric of communal polarization and fears over safety, the TMC simply made more sense.
The female shopkeeper was a bit hesitant to open up and waited until the customers had left. She spoke about corruption after cyclone Amphan; about the challenges of the poor in West Bengal. While her village had only Hindus, she also had a clear mental map of Hindu and Muslim areas. She was among those often referred to as a “silent voter". This is someone who will not answer an election survey and will not immediately offer political preferences. She walked with a severe limp and her children had moved away from the village. She had opened the tea shop so she could talk to more people. As such, she had a keen sense of the social and political climate in the area.
As she became comfortable, she began to tell us about all of the benefits she and others in the village had received from Mamata Banerjee’s government—in particular the ubiquitous Kanyashree and Rupashree schemes which, when combined, directly transfer ₹50,000 to families that educate female children through class 12 and prevent an underage marriage. She further said it was only the ruling TMC’s ration benefits that had sustained villagers during the brutal covid-induced lockdown. As she began talking about benefits from the ruling government, it was as if her confidence to speak about politics grew. “There is always corruption. It doesn’t matter who is in power. Only Didi (Mamata Banerjee) can take care of us. We want Didi." But what of Prime Minister Modi? “Let’s not even speak of him. He says all kinds of random things."
Unlike so much of India, what was striking about West Bengal was the extent to which Mamata Banerjee was seen as the primary caregiver, the only one capable of delivering benefits to the poor—in contrast to my travels across north India where such distinction is often conferred upon the Prime Minister. In Bengal, women were often far more negative in their opinion about certain BJP state leaders, particularly for their public misogynistic comments.
The polarized voter
But it wasn’t as if Hindu-Muslim polarization was not visible. In the next village we visited, a middle-aged man called us into his home because he didn’t want to speak in public. He spoke about the need for change in Bengal, even though he admitted that the local cadre of the BJP included those who used be attached to other parties and there might be little change in levels of corruption. As we continued the conversation, the real reason for his disenchantment with the TMC became clear.
Due to an obstruction, a channel was required to get water from a local source to the agricultural land. The local TMC leaders had built a culvert “for the Muslim area but not the Hindu area" in the village. When we asked if he had received any benefits from the TMC government, he retorted, “That is only for poor people."
As we travelled through the countryside, the prototype of the “polarized" Hindu BJP voter became clear. It was typically someone well off enough to be excluded from TMC’s welfare schemes and someone broadly outside the net of the government’s welfare benefits. Many of these grievances revolved around benefits that were being given to others, especially in the Muslim community. While polarization was quite visible on the ground, it was also undercut by the concerns of economic class.
The big picture
When juxtaposed with the election results in Assam, the result in West Bengal is stark. Assam in fact has a larger Muslim population than West Bengal, with more than a third of its electorate from the Muslim community. Yet, the BJP has created a stable winning coalition in Assam.
In the 2019 national election, the BJP alliance led in 78 assembly segments with an average winning margin of 23% across Assam. With such significant margins of victory for each party, even moderate shifts in the electorate were unlikely to impact seat share for the parties very much. Indeed, the BJP alliance won 75 seats in Assam in this election.
In my fieldwork, I observed that the average person in Assam would refer to the constituency as either “Hindu" or “Muslim", complete with a claim about the demographic composition.
It was complete Hindu-Muslim polarization, where the other cleavages of language and region had all but withered away. It was as if the demographic composition almost fully characterizes the party that will win the election, a phenomenon political scientist Karen Ferree calls a “census election"—i.e., the Census tells you who will win the seat. This polarization will be difficult to weaken in the future.
The future in West Bengal, however, is less clear. While the BJP is the main opposition party in West Bengal, it is a very weak one with a disorganized cadre. It will need to rely on the largesse from the Centre in order to make an impact, although the central leadership may have their focus on other things.
West Bengal politics has always been violent. The tate BJP president had once told the TMC cadre to mend their ways or be sent to a hospital or a crematorium. But with the TMC winning in a landslide, it is the BJP cadre that will be the principal recipient of a violent response.
There have already been recoded instances of post-poll violence. We will have to see how this plays out on the ground in the coming months before we can clearly assess the political futures of the parties.
If the Assam election provides a template for how the BJP can expand into a state with a large Muslim population, the West Bengal election perhaps provides a template for how a state can prevent large scale Hindu-Muslim polarization. It is a method that can be replicated beyond Bengal by other opposition leaders.
We can draw a few implications for national politics. First, Mamata Banerjee, with her demonstrated ability to defeat the full might of the BJP and its attempts at Hindu-Muslim polarization, immediately becomes the most popular opposition leader in India. Second, as the second surge of covid-19 wreaks havoc on India—and the perceived abdication of all responsibility by the Centre—opposition leaders will have an opportunity to demonstrate that they can provide for the people (much as Mamata did during the earlier lockdown).
Finally, and most importantly, this election shows that a politics of economic class and gender can serve as an effective counterweight to the BJP’s brand of Hindu nationalism—something that political appeal narrowly arrayed around caste interests has failed to do.
Neelanjan Sircar is an assistant professor at Ashoka University and senior visiting fellow, Centre for Policy Research.
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