Kolkata: Is West Bengal poised to see what it has been seeing for the past 44 years – a clear majority registered by a well-knit coalition or a single party? Or, will the election results on May 2 mark a departure from the past 44 years? This period includes 34 years of rule by the Left Front led by the Communist Party of India – Marxist (CPI-M) and 10 years by the Trinamool Congress.
There will be clarity on May 2 when the results are out. Suffice it to say that at this juncture back-of-the envelope calculations in knowledgeable quarters do have within their purview the chances of a hung Assembly.
Perhaps, the safest way to sum it up is to say that opinion is divided. But that cannot hide the fact that uncertainties or “a worst case scenario” are also being factored in after a very long spell of political stability that West Bengal has seen. This inference has been drawn from the talks NewsClick has had with persons who are in the thick of it. A contrarian view was available from a member of the intelligentsia.
Only the last phase of the eight-phase poll process remains. It will conclude on April 29, when voters will give their verdict for 35 constituencies. On May 2, the results will be known for 292 seats against the House strength of 294. This is because election for two seats, both in Murshidabad, had to be countermanded by the Election Commission following the death of two candidates -- one of the Congress and the other of the Revolutionary Socialist Party, which is part of the Sanjukta Morcha.
The position in respect of one constituency – Khardah in the North 24 Parganas district, where polling has already taken place, will also be known on May 2. But, the situation is different as the TMC candidate passed away on Sunday. If he wins, a fresh poll will have to take place. There will be no need for this if another candidate wins.
The two main contenders for Nabanna, the state secretariat, are the incumbent, the TMC which is into its second term, and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which eying its first ministry.
The Sanjukta Morcha, includes the fledgling Indian Secular Front (ISF) of Furfura Sharif cleric Abbas Siddiqui, but its main partners – the Left Front and the Congress -- are aiming to emerge as a factor in the state’s political space and thereby recoup a part of the space they had lost, particularly in the past five years.
Both TMC and BJP have been aggressively suggesting ever since the election exercise gathered momentum, that they will carry the day. Senior BJP leader and Union Home Minister Amit Shah has been repeatedly claiming that his party will bag over 200 seats.
Displaying oneupmanship, chief minister and TMC supremo Mamata Banerjee is, of late, talking of her party forming the ministry for the third time by winning a two-thirds majority.
The BJP has, as usual, practised politics of religious polarisation as well as identity politics. In its narrative, its good show at the 2019 Lok Sabha elections figured prominently. It then bagged 18 out of 42 Lok Sabha seats. With four TMC Lok Sabha members defecting to it, its tally now stands at 22, which translates into over 140 Assembly seats. It has created a base in the backward Jangal Mahal region where Scheduled Castes, Scheduled Tribes and other backward classes are a big factor.
In North Bengal, too, BJP did very well with support from the Gorkhas and Rajbanshis. In South Bengal, it has a fairly strong support base among the Matuas who matter in 30 plus seats in North 24 Parganas and Nadia districts.
But, BJP has negligible presence in South 24 Parganas district which accounts for 31 seats, and in Muslim dominated Murshidabad and Malda districts, which together have 34 seats. There are several other pockets in South Bengal where BJP is yet to establish its footprint. That explains the party’s reliance on defections, mainly from TMC. Its candidate list also includes several persons who were earlier with the Congress and even CPI(M).
In recent days, faced as it is with strident Opposition charges of ignoring the severity of the second wave of COVID-19 and being too much preoccupied with campaigning in West Bengal, Shah, Prime minister Narendra Modi and party president Jagat Prakash Nadda are not being much vocal about their aim of romping home with over 200 seats. Perhaps, they are now better seized of the ground realities and limitations of the polarisation and identity politics.
Challenges for TMC
The TMC and Mamata Banerjee have been battling anti-incumbency and serious charges of corruption against party activists, which include extortions from people in villages receiving payments under welfare schemes.
The denial of political space to the Opposition is another serious charge against the Mamata regime. A glaring example of this highhandedness is the panchayat elections in 2018 when the TMC ‘engineered” victory in about 20,000 seats or about 34% of the total number without a single vote being cast. This was done by not allowing Opposition candidates to file nominations.
Banerjee has been banking too much on her clutch of ‘...shree and ...saathi’ schemes. Her yearly, much hyped investment conclaves have had only a very limited success. Creation of job opportunities in industries has remained one of her lowest priorities.
In these circumstances, like BJP, Banerjee too has been trying to woo distinct identity groups, such as, the Matuas and the Rajbanshis and practising her own brand of ‘religious polarisation’, which is to ensure en block voting in favour of her party by Muslims, who account for nearly 28% of the state’s 7.3 crore plus electorate. Of late, she has tried to engineer a split in the Matua community by alleging that BJP has been favouring only the Thakur family and never caring about the Gosais and Dalapatis.
It is worth mentioning here that the first time in her two terms, Banerjee has faced a challenge from Siddiqui. Though the ISF has put up just 28 candidates, yet in the short period of three months, he has been able to register a reasonably good following, particularly from among Muslim youths.
A second factor is the entry of the All India Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen of Asaduddin Owaisi on the state’s political scene. Though Owaisi has put up only seven candidates in Murshidabad, Malda, Uttar Dinajpur and Asansol North, where Muslim voters are between 27% and 69% of the electorate, his nominees may eat into pro-TMC votes, as they did in Bihar. Thus, Mamata Banerjee has been seen in recent days urging Muslim voters “with folded hands” not to waste their votes and to keep counting on TMC.
Left, Congress Hopeful
A series of programmes to connect with the people and mitigate their sufferings caused by supercyclone Amphan in May 2020 and extensive social networking exercise of the youth and student wings have made the Congress and Left, particularly CPI(M), hopeful that their supporters, who had shifted to TMC and BJP (to the latter during the 2019 Lok Sabha polls) because of the ruling establishments repressive policies, will come back to their fold. At least, the return process will start. Also, the Sanjukta Morcha will facilitate consolidation of secular forces and anti-incumbency votes in its favour.
Taking these factors and the changing ground realities, senior CPI(M) leader, Bikash Ranjan Bhattacharya, who is a Rajya Sabha member and a prominent lawyer, is of the view that a hung Assembly cannot be ruled out.
“I have doubts whether TMC and BJP can reach the half-way mark in this pessimistic, degenerating environment that is their contribution. Yes, I stick to this assessment”, Bhattacharya told NewsClick when asked if he sees any reason for a reassessment. As for the Sanjukta Morcha, a net gain will be if it can be a factor, he observed.
Senior Congress leader and Rajya Sabha member Pradip Bhattacharya was equally emphatic. “There is every possibility of a ‘hung’ verdict. Enlightened sections of the electorate are fed up with the continuous sub-standard campaigning by Mamata and the Shah-Modi duo. Mudslinging is the name of the game for them. Mamata is silent on setting up industries, creating job opportunities. I see a stalemate ahead,” the Congress leader told NewsClick.
Senior CPI(M) leader and a former Lok Sabha member Shamik Lahiri told NewsClick: “We have kept a hung House in our calculations. The changing ground realities since voting began over a month back has automatically brought out fears of a hung Assembly to the fore. With over-aggression by BJP and TMC’s resort to abusive, foul language, campaigning this time round has touched a new low. Neither may reach the magic figure”, Lahiri observed.
A pro-BJP businessman Vinay Agarwal initiates the conversation and volunteers his reading: “ I see a trishanku (neither here nor there) situation, with the drama so peculiar to our country – outside support, waiting for an opportune moment to put conditionalities and then dethrone – unfolding in stages”.
However, a contrarian view was provided by Prof Moidul Islam, who teaches political science at the Centre for Studies in Social Sciences, Kolkata.
“I don’t see a break in the 44 year-old tradition of a party or a coalition securing an absolute majority. Bengalees prefer political stability and they have been generous in giving the winning side well over 200 seats in the 294-member House. They seem to be reconciled that the state has to be content with MSMEs, IT outfits and hospitality and real estate outfits. These business segments provide jobs to both skilled and semi-skilled persons. They know gig manufacturing units are out of question. I do not apprehend a hung Assembly”, Islam told NewsClick.
Meanwhile, for the record, herewith the concluding para of an after-edit in The Telegraph edition of April 26, 2021 by Professor Emeritus, Jadavpur University Sukanta Chaudhury: “There is a story of a little girl watching Hamlet. Half-way through, she remarked: I don’t know how it will end, but it can’t end well”. That child’s comment has a sombre relevance to Bengal’s current predicament. I am overcome with fear: for myself, my state, and my country”.
The writer is an independent journalist based in Kolkata.