Voters from Cooch Behar display their identity cards (Image- PTI)
The heat in the poll-bound West Bengal is unprecedented at the moment and can be compared to what we saw during the assembly election of 2011, when Mamata Banerjee-led Trinamool Congress came to power ending a 34-year Left Front rule.
While West Bengal has always been a state where 'class not caste' and 'development not appeasement' have been the poll plank, the shift in the narrative of the two dominant parties in the fray is hard to miss. Sure, the politicians are promising job creation, attacking each other for graft, and talking of upgrading welfare as usual, but there is no denying the fact that identity politics has taken the centre stage this time.
Let us look at some of the key poll issues of West Bengal election 2021:
Identity politics: Both the Trinamool and the BJP are leaving no stone unturned to win the votes of the Koch Rajbonshi. From promises of naming paramilitary and police forces to honour the community hero to eulogising the heroics of the Rajbonshis, both parties have gone the extra mile to please the people of Cooch Behar.
Next comes the politically influential Matuas, a Scheduled Caste group who sought refuge in India to escape the religious persecution in Bangladesh. They had been loyal to the Left for decades, before shifting allegiance to the BJP that has promised to expedite the process to grant them Indian citizenship. The BJP has now gone ahead and promised every refugee family Rs 10,000 per year for five years through DBT if they are voted to power in West Bengal.
Women empowerment: BJP’s election manifesto for Bengal promised reservation for women in government jobs and the party in general has accused Didi’s government of failing to guarantee women’s safety.
Corruption: No party in fray in the Bengal elections has shied away from training guns on the others, attacking them with corruption charges. The saffron party has accused Mamata of nepotism too, claiming she has invested her energy these past years in securing her nephew Abhishek Banerjee’s political career only. Graft charges have been levelled as well, with the in-laws of Abhishek being grilled by central investigating agencies in connection with the coal scam. Additionally, the multi crore Saradha scheme scam has also mired the ruling TMC in controversies. However, the corruption blame game has not helped either party much thus far as the former AITC deputy chief Mukul Roy is currently BJP’s national vice president. In fact, TMC turncoats Suvendu Adhikari and Sovan Chatterjee are also scam accused. This should explain why the BJP has spoken more against the alleged “cut money culture of the Trinamool Congress government” more than the Saradha scam.
Healthcare: After the saffron gang pointed out the “crumbling health care system” of Bengal, Didi was quick to introduce the new Swasthya Sathi scheme 2021 issuing health insurance cards to families in the name of the senior most female member. However, the villages and small towns of Bengal are really in desperate need of a healthcare upgrade, which the BJP has reminded the voters from time to time during their campaign trail.
Communal politics: Mamata’s politics could be branded as populism, as the incumbent CM has constantly strived to launch “scheme for all” policies, helping her strengthen her benefactor image. However, she started getting called out for alleged appeasement of the Muslim community after a subsidy was announced for Imams and Muezzins.
Over 25 percent of Bengal’s population comprises of Muslims, who might have posed a threat to BJP’s wishes to reign Bengal (with its overzealous Hindutva narrative), had it not been for the Indian Secular Front (ISF) led by Abbas Siddiqui. The entry of this minorities party into Bengal politics means an obvious erosion of Mamata’s votes, meaning a better chance for the saffron party to win.
The strong polarisation in the 2021 West Bengal assembly elections have been identified by the Left, TMC, and also the BJP, with each blaming the other for the hitherto unknown communally charged environment.
TMC leader and MP Sougata Roy had said: “This time, assembly elections will be different from the ones we have witnessed since independence. The BJP has long been trying to create divisions among the communities. But we will fight against it and work to unite people.”
BJP state president Dilip Ghosh countered this by saying: “Appeasement politics and injustice towards the state's majority community by the TMC government has indeed led to communal polarisation in Bengal.”
CPI(M) politburo member Mohammed Salim, said on the other hand: “Had communal narrative been at play in the past (during CPI-M rule), people would have seen the saffron camp and other fundamentalist forces gaining ground back then. But that was not the case…”
Development: West Bengal evidently lacks long term economic plans for job creation or to boost the formal sectors. When Mamata rose to power after driving the Tatas out of Bengal, it sealed her image as someone opposed to industrialisation forever. There has been slow, MSME-driven growth in the state over the years, but it has no major external investment to boast of. Highlighting these concerns, BJP leaders have constantly spoken about “ashol poribortan” in Bengal with promises of a “Shonar Bangla” where industries will flourish once again.
The insider-outsider debate: Every time Prime Minister Narendra Modi tried stoking “Bengali pride”, Mamata hit out with a “daughter of Bengal” narrative. She has spared no chance to remind the voters of Bengal that the saffron camp works at the behest of the “Gujaratis”, claiming they will never understand the essence of Bengal as she does.
The BJP, on the other hand, has harped on the issue of illegal immigration, which truly has plagued the state for years now.