Who will win in West Bengal?

West Bengal has 42 Lok Sabha constituencies, and all these 42 constituencies are important for the BJP as it has fixed a target of 370 seats for a solo win.
Who will win in West Bengal?

Amitava Mukherjee

(The author is a senior journalist and commentator.)

 West Bengal has 42 Lok Sabha constituencies, and all these 42 constituencies are important for the BJP as it has fixed a target of 370 seats for a solo win. The BJP top brass understands this, and that is why Prime Minister Narendra Modi has called for BJP victories in all 42 constituencies. In recent times, no election in West Bengal has raised such heat and dust as this one has generated.

The only other instances that come to mind date back to 1967 and 1969, when the then United Front, a conglomeration of Left and Centrist parties, defeated the Congress led by Atulya Ghosh and Prafulla Chandra Sen. In 1967, the Left parties also raised allegations of corruption against some Congress leaders, particularly Atulya Ghosh and Prafulla Sen. The Communists had accused both of them of becoming so rich so as to purchase a large commercial building called Stephen House at the heart of Calcutta. But the Communists could never substantiate their claim. Then Atulya Ghosh was painted as a Pakistani agent too. This also turned out to be a false allegation.

In West Bengal, corruption was not a way of life in the 1960s, 1970s, or even the 1980s. So the elections that followed until 1990 did not witness corruption in high places as a major issue. But political violence was gradually gaining ground as electoral malpractice. Therefore, the 1972 assembly election of the state first witnessed some violence and some instances of booth capturing. In later times, some Congress leaders, including Mamata, hurled corruption charges against Jyoti Basu’s son, Chandan Basu. But nothing came of it, really. What really sapped Bengali society’s vitality was the introduction of the panchayat system, which quickly got mired in cesspools of corruption.

Sandeshkhali is a byproduct of the panchayat system, as Sheikh Shajahan and some of his cohorts held important portfolios in the panchayat hierarchy. Reeking corruption in the system brought down the 34-year-old Left Front rule. This time too, corruption is going to play an important role in deciding the fate of the contesting parties. But more important issues are to be decided on the anvil, and those may shape the future of West Bengal in the days to come.

The first is Trinamul Congress’s (TMC) psychological profile. Since its birth, the party has not been able to formulate any ideology. Till 2011, its only target was to fight the Left Front. Neither the leaders nor the party workers knew the raison’d’être behind such a programme. The party aimlessly moved from pillar to post. It sometimes made alliances with the Congress only to tie the knot with the BJP at another time. Off and on, Mamata Banerjee reels out the TMC’s desire to become an all-India party, only to go into a shell soon and again, adopting all the features of a regional party, which it actually is. If it is overtaken by the BJP in the coming parliamentary election, then it will have no other option but to find solace in regional space for a considerable period of time.

The second issue concerns the BJP. It has successfully established itself in eastern and north-eastern India, except in West Bengal. True, it won 18 parliamentary seats from West Bengal in the last Lok Sabha election and secured 77 seats in the state assembly election. But the root of the BJP is yet to go deep in the state. It is experimenting with different narratives, the two most important of them being the alleged corruption of the TMC government and the personal image of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, the first one being a negative narrative and the second one being positive. It is trying to introduce a new theoretical model culled from M.S. Golwalkar’s teaching, which obviously collides with the 19th-century Bengal Renaissance traditions championed by Raja Rammohan Roy, Ramakrishna Paramahamsa, Rabindra Nath Tagore, etc. This is the most important cultural tussle ingrained in the Bengali mind, consciously or unconsciously. If the BJP can break through this barrier, then electoral success will be easier for it.

In the 2019 Lok Sabha election, Trinamul Congress got 43.69 percent of the of the votes and 22 seats. The BJP got 40.64 percent of the of the votes and 18 seats. This was a tremendous success for the saffron party in the backdrop of the decades-long political irrelevance of the BJP and its erstwhile avatar, the Jan Sangh. Of course, this became possible due to the steady marginalisation of the Congress and Left nationally and at the state level. In 2019, Congress got only 5.67 percent of the of the votes and two Lok Sabha seats, while the CPM got 6.34 percent of the of the votes and no seat at all.

In the assembly election that followed two years later, the Trinamul Congress increased its vote share to 48.02 percent. This should cause worry for the BJP this year. According to political observers, this became possible due to two factors. The first were the various ‘dole projects’ that Mamata had launched for the marginalised sections of society. But more important was the alleged transfer of votes by Congress and Left supporters to the TMC. It is to be noted that compared to the 2019 Lok Sabha poll, the CPM’s vote percentage in the 2021 assembly election shrank by nearly two percent and that of the Congress by nearly 3 percent. Political analysts attribute this vote shift to the disillusionment of the Congress and CPM supporters with their party’s programmes and policies. As a result, the BJP could bag 77 assembly seats, although its vote share had shrunk by more than 2.5 percent compared to what it had achieved in the 2019 Lok Sabha poll.

West Bengal’s misfortune is that, since the independence of the country, it has gradually lost its connections with the mainstream of Indian politics. Even this was true about the state Congress under Bidhan Chandra Roy. Atulya Ghosh enjoyed national-level importance in intra-Congress affairs. But that could not be said about the state Congress as a whole. The state’s identification with Left politics further distanced itself from the entire Indian political canvas. This is a point the state BJP leaders should ponder over. They could have made West Bengal’s decreasing importance in India a major poll plank. Yet there is no sign that they have taken note of this aspect.

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