How the battle for Bengal is being fought

How the battle for Bengal is being fought

Poornima Joshi, New Delhi: The BJP is engaged in a contest based on religious and caste lines against Mamata Banerjee. Even in the fiercely polarised elections in West Bengal where the narrative is being shaped with convincing variables to suit the sparring rivals – the All India Trinamool Congress and the BJP – a critical detail stands out.

A political alternative

It relates to the determined struggle of a largely impoverished electorate to find a credible, growth-oriented political alternative in the last one decade. They uprooted the Left front, which, for 34 years, had reaped the rich dividends of Operation Barga, land reforms that recorded sharecroppers (Bargadars) and gave them land-use rights, which escalated agricultural growth rate in the Bengal in the 1980s. By 2011, the spurt in agricultural growth had subsided and decades of de-industrialisation had led to largescale unemployment and steep drop in per capita income.

The Sachar Commission report highlighted the abysmal state of the minority population and discontent grew among other marginalised groups – SC/STs, OBCs – over their material condition as also the lumpenisation of the Left cadre.

In this simmering discontent stepped in Mamata Banerjee, who singlehandedly usurped the Congress’s vote share and presented a strong alternative to the CPM’s leadership in 2011. But unlike the Left, which lasted for 34 years on the transformative effects of Operation Barga, Banerjee has never had a radical solution to Bengal’s structural problems, although she has adopted some of the distributive justice and populist welfare policies. But her fledgling attempts to address some key issues, such as the acute deficit of job opportunities, have somehow had the effect of revealing the glaring gap between demand and supply. In response to the State Government advertisement for application for recruitment of 6,000 Group D personnel in 2017, a staggering 24,68 lakh candidates applied.

So, although an election is never about a singular factor, the prospects of a struggling incumbent versus a resurgent rival are better gauged in the backdrop of the Per Capita Net State Domestic Product in Bengal that stands at ₹71,757 at constant prices in 2019-20 against an All India Per Capita Net National Income of ₹94,954 (RBI’s handbook of statistics). This is 10 years after ‘didi’ swept to power with the pledge to transform Bengal for ‘Ma Maati Manush’.

Ideological identity

The euphoria around the Banerjee brand had already begun to subside by 2016 when even the alliance between the Congress and the Left managed to poll as much as 37.94 per cent of the vote share in the Assembly polls.

While the vacuum in the Opposition was clear, Banerjee was simultaneously not being able to sublimate the popular discontent without an ideological identity or indoctrinated cadre. The receding of the Left was directly proportional to the burgeoning of the BJP, which gained vote share in every election, peaking in 2019 with 18 seats and 40.25 per cent vote share. According to an estimate by economist and activist Prasenjit Bose, over one crore voters have shifted from the Left front to the BJP between 2016 and 2019, with the war cry of Agey Ram Porey Bam (first Ram then Left).

“There was a political vacuum in Bengal, which the BJP has filled. People have been looking for an alternative, and had the Left learnt from its mistakes and reinvented, they would have returned to their fold. But after 2016, it was clear that the Left and the Congress combined could not fight TMC and its local lumpenised cadre. The BJP was the only force that looked like it could fight back and also presented a strong alternative with a government at the Centre,” said Prasenjit Bose. The BJP has moved in with characteristic precision, fanning out aggressively from its compressed presence in Rarh and North Bengal into Gangetic and South Bengal region, where it is literally chipping off the TMC’s leadership.

The exodus

A total of 26 TMC MLAs and two MPs have switched over to the BJP since 2019, including heavyweights Suvendu Adhikari, former minister, who is now contesting against his boss, the CM herself, in Nandigram; Rajib Banerjee; and a host of local councillors and pada dadas (local hoodlums).

What they lack in organisational strength in South and Gangetic Bengal, they are making up with the strength of their social media presence, massive election machinery with imports from the Centre and elsewhere. The frequent visits of BJP president JP Nadda, Home Minister Amit Shah, the stationing of key RSS functionaries who have consistently worked on the communities who have felt marginalised both by the Left and then by the TMC – the SC/STs and OBCs. For the first time, identity issues of caste and religion with the BJP pressing on the CAA discourse as also playing on counter polarisation against Banerjee’s overt outreach to the Muslims.

It is now a polarised, straight fight between Banerjee and the BJP. Banerjee has the advantage of her populist welfare schemes, the support of the State’s minority, a not inconsiderable factor, given that the Muslim population is about 27 per cent in West Bengal and, lastly, the fact that the CM is the tallest leader in Bengal.

The BJP has no alternative leadership to offer in contrast. But the BJP is buoyed by a strong anti-incumbency against Banerjee, communal polarisation, strong election machinery and almost limitless resources. The Left-Congress combine seem a distant third force at the moment.

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