Mamata Banerjee calls Governor over phone, outside a polling booth in Nandigram (Image: ANI)
At a tyre vendor’s shop in Kochi, Kerala, Amit Mullick and Ramesh Jogi have just got back from West Bengal after casting their votes and an extended break. The two are firmly placing their bets on the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) to win the election, upsetting the combative two-term Chief Minister, Mamata Banerjee.
“Why would we be back in Kerala despite COVID-19 if we could get jobs back home? We hope the BJP will create jobs for us”, says Mullick. The duo are among the estimated three million migrant workers from West Bengal in Kerala.
West Bengal goes to polls in the eighth and last phase on April 29, with the advantage shifting between the incumbent Trinamool Congress (TMC) and the challenger BJP over multiple phases. This closely-fought election was actually kicked off in 2019, when the BJP belied all predictions to win 18 Lok Sabha seats with 40.6 percent votes, giving the TMC a run for its money.
Reclaiming Lost Ground
From 4 percent votes in 2011 to 40 percent in 2019, the BJP had firmly arrived in West Bengal. If the BJP maintains this momentum, it would not take long for the national party to displace the TMC in the state. Yet, it is too close to call, despite the massive anti-incumbency on the ground against the TMC. The efforts of poll strategist Prashant Kishor to fix the TMC’s vexing issues have made some impact, but it isn’t clear whether it is enough to prevent the BJP’s ascent.
The fact that Kishor was given a free hand by Banerjee has contributed to addressing massive issues like ‘Tolabazi’ (the term used to denote extortion by lower-rung TMC leaders). Kishor was also the brains behind ‘Didi ke bolo’, a feedback programme launched in 2019 to gauge the anger against the government on the ground so as to launch counter measures.
The new flagship programme ‘Duare sarkar’ (government at your doorstep) kicked off on December 1, meant to deliver welfare schemes to people’s doorsteps, also had Kishor’s imprint.
Kishor has also been able to keep the media in good humour, thus setting narratives and keeping Banerjee firmly at the centre stage. The constant refrain of Kishor that the BJP would not cross three figures itself is part of this deft narrative-building exercise, something the BJP understands well.
At the other end, the BJP is also using every trick in the book to win as it understands that West Bengal is ripe for the picking, with almost everything working in its favour till the penultimate round. Apart from the massive anti-incumbency wave, the BJP has also been able to tap into the latent communal sentiments within the state, and successfully portraying the TMC as the party of Muslims.
The principal miscalculation by Kishor seems to be his inclination to depend on the minority voters to cross the hurdle as the BJP’s stock among all sections of the Hindus grow. Apart from Abbas Siddiqui’s Indian Secular Front (an ally of the United Front of the Left parties and the Congress) cutting into the TMC votes, minority votes are a factor in less than a quarter of the total seats in West Bengal. Perhaps Kishor reckons that the 40 percent voters (out of the 70 percent Hindu voters in West Bengal) that voted for the BJP in 2019 are difficult to be persuaded to vote differently this time around.
It also needs to be understood how the BJP has managed to widen its footprint in West Bengal from a very marginal presence in the state not too long ago. Despite the renaissance movement in Bengal through the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the first (in 1905) and the second Partition has left indelible wounds in the Bengali psyche which had remained dormant throughout the period of the Left Front regime.
The Left Front lost power after failing to redistribute wealth — primarily because there was no money left to disburse after scoffing at private capital and liberalisation through its decades in power. The TMC, which came to power promising a change, failed to right the wrongs and embraced the worst facets of the Left including its bahubalis (strongmen) and set out on an agenda of identity politics and annihilation of its predecessor.
This was the perfect opening for the BJP to seize the moment and subsume these multiple ‘identities’ to that of the wronged Hindu and make the ‘appeased’ Muslim the common enemy. Thus, a cross-section of Bhadraloks, Other Backward Classes, Dalits and even Adivasis all make up the BJP’s West Bengal potpourri as it looks to oust a pugnacious Banerjee.
What might yet save Banerjee the blushes is woman voters voting en bloc for her — but whether the anti-incumbency wave will trump even that will only be known come May 2.