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Mainstream, VOL LII, No 44, October 25, 2014

General Elections 2014 and the Changing Political Equation in Bengal

Friday 24 October 2014

by Nirupam Hazra

The 2014 election results in the State of West Bengal clearly show the dominance of the ruling Trinamul Congress as it has won thirtyfour out of fortytwo seats. Its main Opposition, the Left Front, is reduced to only two seats while the Congress and BJP managed to get only four and two seats respectively. But a deeper analysis of the result points towards a changing power equation in the political landscape of Bengal.

The electoral battle in Bengal has been mostly a bipolar fight between the Left Front and the Mamata Banerjee-led Trinamul Congress (TMC) since its emergence in the late 1990s. The equation of political alliance underwent many changes—the TMC joining the BJP (Bharatiya Janata Party)-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA), Left Front offering support to the United Progressive Alliance-I (UPA-I), TMC and the Congress jointly fighting against the Left Front in the State—but the principal contest in the recent past has always been the Left versus TMC.

2011 was a watershed year in Bengal’s politics marked by poribartan (change). The longest serving democratically elected Communist Government, after a rule of thirtyfour years, was replaced by its rival, the Trinamul Congress. In the 2013 panchayet elections, the TMC maintained its dominance, though this time there was no alliance between the TMC and Congress. But the biggest test for the ruling TMC before the next Assembly elections were the general elections of 2014 as it had already spent half of its five-year tenure in office and contesting alone without being part of any pre-poll alliance. The fight was quadripartite this time involving the ruling TMC, Left Front, Congress and BJP.

BJP in Bengal

The BJP had a muted presence in West Bengal and was never considered to be a political force to reckon with. Even in the 1999 general elections, when the BJP-led NDA came to power at the Centre, it had managed to win only two seats out of thirteen it had contested, while its ally, the TMC, won eight seats. Since 1980 to 2009, the BJP was able to win a parliamentary seat from Bengal only on three occasions. Significantly, the founding father of the present BJP, Dr Shyama Prasad Mukherjee, who himself was a prominent Bengali personality, had failed to garner enough support for his party in Bengal. In 1952, when his party made its political debut as the Jana Sangh, it was able to win only two seats. In 1980, the BJP was born as the new political face of Hindu nationalism in India. Riding on the wave of Hindutva politics, it witnessed a steady rise in its popularity, especially in the northern part of the country; but in Bengal it failed to mark its presence.

General Elections 2014

Even the 2014 general election results, apparently, do not point towards any immediate reversal of the political fortune of the BJP in West Bengal. In spite of having a clear majority at the national level (with a vote-share of 31 per cent), the BJP won only two seats from Bengal. But what was significant is the BJP’s rapid increase of vote-share in the State. Though it won only two seats, its vote-share rose to 16.8 per cent which was around six per cent in 2009. In many seats, it grabbed the third position with a margin of less than 75,000 votes from the runners-up. Significantly, the BJP even registered a lead from Bhowanipur, the Assembly constituency of TMC chief Mamata Banerjee.

Part of the BJP’s electoral success in Bengal is attributed to the ‘Modi-wave’ as it has been the case in most other States. But it cannot fully explain the sudden rise of the BJP in a State which successfully resisted communalisation of its political landscape, irrespective of the changing political scenario at the national level. The BJP’s support-base in the State was mainly confined among the small population of Hindu nationalists and the people of Darjeeling. With the promise of a separate Gorkhaland, the BJP managed to win popular support of the people in the hills, but it was never considered as a viable political alternative in the State neither by the middle class nor by the minority.

Beyond Modi-wave

After the historic Assembly elections of 2011, which brought about the much-awaited poribartan in the State, the people of Bengal hoped for substantial and rapid development. Unemployment, lack of industry and deteriorating law and order situation were among the issues demanding urgent attention. But the new government failed to deliver on the promise of poribartan. Issues like Naxalism and agitation for a separate State in Darjeeling were handled with great aplomb; but it could not deliver much on employment and industry. What increased the frustration of the common people of Bengal were corruption and crime. In spite of having a clean political image and her own humble living, Mamata Banerjee failed to rein in party members from indulging in corruption. The Saradha scam was the biggest blow for the party as it took a heavy toll on the credibility and support-base of the TMC. Scores of small investors and poor villagers became victim of the Ponzi scheme, which flourished under the alleged patronage of the ruling party leaders.

On the other hand, a brazen appeasement policy and misplaced priority of the government made the situation worse. Government allowa-nces for a particular minority community with a clear intent to win political support made the claim of secularism hollow, discriminatory and opportunistic. The government-sponsored extrav-agant ceremony for the victorious private cricket team (Kolkata Knight Riders which had no player from Bengal) was a classic example of misplaced priority, which was even questioned by the High Court. And above all, the growing intolerance to any form of criticism and deliberate indifference to the misdeeds of the party loyalists created a kind of democratic anarchy and lawlessness in the State.

A significant population, which deserted the Left Front Government, was disillusioned by the promise of poribartan. On the other hand, the BJP made quick inroads with the promise of achchhe din and the well-publicised Gujarat-model of development. For an industry-starved Bengal, Modi’s industry-friendly image and plank of good governance struck a chord among the middle-class Bengalis, and along with this the BJP has been able to maintain a clean image so far in the State. Hence, the election results of 2014 point towards a gradual acceptance of the BJP in the State.

Road ahead

But the road ahead for the BJP in Bengal will not be easy as the ruling TMC would try its best to maintain its dominance, while Modi’s performance on controlling price-rise and other issues will be one of the deciding factors for the party. On the other hand, the BJP and its allies have to contain its communal tendencies to present itself as an acceptable alternative to the people of Bengal. The Left Front, though down, is yet not out as it would plan for a comeback exploiting the failures of the ruling parties both at the State and national levels. For the Congress the 2016 Assembly elections will be another chance to strengthen the organisation of the party in the State. Therefore, the 2016 Assembly elections, the first after poribartan, are going to be crucial elections for all the political parties of the State and, above all, the people of Bengal.

The author is an independent scholar based in Delhi. He can be contacted at e-mail: hazra.nirupam@ gmail.com