Bengal Assembly Elections 2021
In the previous assembly elections TMC retained their majority with 211 seats. INC and Left Front, fighting in an alliance, won 44 and 33 seats respectively, whereas BJP managed just 3. But the BJP managed to increase its vote share to a massive 40.64% in 2019 LS elections accounting for almost half of the total seats. This increase in vote share of BJP was possible because of a massive 13% shift of votes from the Left. and nearly 7% votes from the Congress.
BJP’s target is to hold on to its nearly 30% increase in vote share from 2016 to 2019 and improve to 44% and beyond to get past TMC.
In contrast to Lok Sabha elections regional dynamics would play a more prominent role. Let’s explore the pertinent factors.
The Party Society
”In West Bengal, the key term is ‘party’. It is indeed the elementary institution of rural life in the state – not family, not kinship, not caste, not religion, not market, but party. It is the institution that mediates every single sphere of social activity, with few exceptions, if any,” – Partha Chatterjee.
The ‘party’ dictates and influences not just the political sphere but the personal sphere. Gradually TMC usurped the party society model, sometimes using crude and strong arm tactics. BJP is desperately trying to co-opt the TMC’s party society and to achieve this is relying on intense religious polarisation. The process described by Political scientists Sudha Pai and Sajjan Kumar in the 2018 book “Everyday Communalism: Riots in Contemporary Uttar Pradesh” . BJP’s success in Uttar Pradesh was based on its ability to communalise day to day petty disputes. BJP is doubling down on this strategy to create a new political paradigm in West Bengal, where everyday communal polarisation is the basis of all political questions.
Historically the political divisions of Bengal have been defined by class. That is the urban elites(Bhadraloks) and working class, landlords and landless, marginal labourers, small farmers etc. But over the last decade this has gradually given way to identity politics and BJP is at the centre of it. Caste is a factor that can’t be ignored in India and historically the political parties of Bengal have been dominated by elites. The Rajbanshis (influential in almost half of the assemblies),the Bauris, the Bagdis there are many such groups who were ignored for a long time. Whereas the likes of Mahishyas (most dominant caste by numbers) are trying to climb the caste ladder. BJP is combining their aspirations with Hindutva, blaming minority appeasement (negated by data) of TMC for their backwardness.
TMC is countering Hindutva with Bengali Pride, subnationalism. Desecration of bust of former social reformer Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar, exclusion of Bengalis in Assam’s NRC and BJP’s over dependence on central leaders has further fueled the insider outsider debate and dented BJP’s cause. Also for TMC to set up a special task force to seek reservations for Mahishyas, Tamuls, Tilis and Sahas (not all Sahas are Scheduled Caste) will be politically significant. Mamata has created several hill boards for the development of hill communities. Various languages spoken by the tribals have been recognised and schools have been established to impart education in their mother tongues
Mamata Bannerjee’s image of a mass leader who truly cares for the people remains unscathed. Anti incumbency exists but mostly around local leaders and units. To counter this, TMC has given tickets to 114 new faces, two-thirds of the district presidents have been changed. Whereas, BJP is depending on defectors mainly from TMC but also from Left and Congress which has created lots of anger in the cadre. Since the candidate list has been announced BJP has seen major state leaders leave. Poor ticket distribution has made confirmed wins for BJP, like in North Bengal(strong hold), doubtful, giving an edge to TMC in the perception battle.
Banerjee will be evaluated by the voters in comparison to the chief ministerial candidates of the BJP and the Left-Congress combine. It goes without saying regional equations will weigh more in an assembly election. The opposition doesn’t have a leader to match the charisma of Banerjee. Her decision to contest from Nandigram boosts her image of a strong unyielding leader.
In Bengal, the personality cult of Modi has to contend with Mamata’s brand of populism. Since 2014 there has been a marked change in design of welfare schemes. More centralisation with Prime Minister Modi taking relentless credit has led to centralisation of credit attribution which has put many incumbent CMs on the backfoot even from his own party. To counter this the Bengal government is running its own gamut of welfare schemes. Mamata scores in governance with schemes like Kanya Shree which seeks to improve the well being and status of girls, Sabuj Sathi under which bicycles are given to students of state-run, state-sponsored, aided schools and madrasas studying between classes 9 and 12 in a bid to reduce the issue of dropping out of school, receiving global recognition. Continuous improvement in PDS which was a big factor during 2016 elections as well. The party has also launched the “Duare Sarkar” (government at doorstep) outreach programme, which will ensure people receive the benefits of 11 state-run welfare schemes. Long serpentine queues for health cards under Swasthya Sathi and millions of phone calls to Didi ke Bolo helpline tells us how popular these schemes have been. Economic indicators have shown marked improvement. Currently the state boasts the highest percentage of MSMEs in the country. All of this has helped in widening the popularity base of Mamata.
The Women Vote
Indian elections have seen a big shift in the last decade with more and more women voters participating in Assembly and Lok Sabha elections compared to the past. Also more women voters are taking their own voting decisions Just like we saw in Bihar assembly elections women vote will be a key factor in deciding whether Mamata gets a third term or not. The 3.5 crore women electorate is a formidable voting bloc constituting 49% of the total electorate. During the 2019 Lok Sabha elections TMC fielded 17 women candidates and got 48% share of women votes on those seats compared to 43% average vote share in the state. The support of women has been critical to TMC’s success in the last two assembly elections. In the current assembly elections TMC has fielded 50 women candidates. Most of Mamata’s rallies have large numbers of women, TMC also well aware of this and branding of such rallies are targeted at women. But TMC’s outreach isn’t just limited to speeches and rallies , the government during the last 10 years have specifically targeted women through its welfare policies. The most successful being the Kanyashree scheme which won the United Nations Public Service Award at The Hague in 2017. Schemes like Rupashree and Swasthya Sathi have further brought the women to the forefront. While speaking at public meetings, many TMC leaders attack BJP as an anti-woman party and highlight crimes against women in BJP-ruled states like Uttar Pradesh. BJP, lacking a formidable women leader, is relying on its organisation to connect to women voters. During the last Lok Sabha elections BJP was able to attract significant number women voters but this being an assembly election where regional dynamics and aspirations play a more pivotal role, it’s expected that Mamata should be able to bring back the women voters who went for BJP two years ago.
From the Left era, whenever any political party comes into power, they exercise muscle power over opposition parties The BJP is hoping that for the first time in Bengal history the cadre strength becomes irrelevant to voter choice . BJP has played defection politics to strengthen its base(co-opting the party society) and hoped that TMC would collapse. With its dependence on defectors it’s clear BJP is a pretty weak organisation in Bengal and these elections have come too early for them to rectify it. Unlike in states like Bihar where BJP built their base over decades. Also TMC is far from a collapse with Mamata still firmly in charge.
BJP is struggling to capture the anti-incumbency due to poor ground game and lack of cadre power. Muscle power should matter more than money power.
Left Congress Alliance
The left congress alliance got only 13% of the votes and two seats in the 2019 Lok Sabha elections. By joining hands with ISF (Indian Secular Front) they are trying to gain some lost ground the left is trying to win back the support of Muslim community which gradually left it for TMC post 2007. CPI(M) is actually working hard, also with BJP fielding so many TMC defectors ,erstwhile ‘committed’ voters may return from BJP’s fold. In the current scenario with extreme mobilisation and counter mobilisation at play very limited improvement from 2018 LS is expected and the elections should remain bipolar.
India has witnessed a drop in Muslim MPs from 14% in 1990 to 9% in 2014 with BJP not having a single MP in both 2014 and 2019. It didn’t field any Muslim candidates in states like Uttar Pradesh with substantial Muslim population either. About 20% of blocks in Bengal have more than 50% Muslim population making it difficult to ignore Muslim votes like in other states. BJP itself has fielded 9 Muslim candidates and it’s banking on Abbas Siddiqui’s ISF to cut into TMC’s votes. But, as it happened in Delhi assembly, the minority went en-masse with the party they believed were in the best position to defeat BJP i.e. AAP, as they perceived it was necessary for their survival. In Bengal they’re expected to support TMC.
In addition to the above the economic distress driven by demonetisation, GST plus lockdowns without much relief and planning have brought small businesses to the brink. Further the continuous hike in fuel prices & essential commodities like LPG should dent BJP.
Expected vote shares –
|2014 LS Elections
|2016 Assembly Elections (%)
|2019 LS Elections (%)
|2021 Assembly Projections (%)
Written By– Kushagra Pandey, Alok Yadav