West Bengal Polls 2021: 5 Things the Bihar Elections Told Us

With Bengal being the next battle state, here are some pointers parties can take from the Bihar results.

Updated
Politics
5 min read

“Those who think they can kill BJP workers and win elections must see the writing on the wall,” said Prime Minister Narendra Modi recently while addressing his party workers in New Delhi post the party’s win in the Bihar elections.

Modi, without a doubt, aiming his guns at the Mamata Banerjee government in West Bengal, was indicating the battle for the state has begun.

Riding on a high, the Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP) is looking to take the state after making significant inroads in the 2019 Lok Sabha polls. The Trinamool, on the other hand, is fighting its toughest opposition since 2011.

What do the Bihar polls say about the impending West Bengal elections? Here are a few key takeaways:

1. Resilience of Incumbents

One of the key takeaways from the Bihar polls is that incumbent Chief Minister Nitish Kumar’s Janata Dal (United) came in at third position, behind its junior alliance partner going into the elections – the BJP.

It is clear that while Nitish Kumar, the CM face of the alliance, was fighting major anti-incumbency, factors like the Union government’s handling of the lockdown and the migrant crisis, joblessness, and economic stagnation did not affect the BJP’s votes.

Bihar’s reaction to the BJP is reminiscent of how Bengal reacted to the Trinamool Congress in 2016, voting it back to power with a thumping majority despite a major flyover crash and the Narada tapes being leaked right before the elections. The alleged involvement of top Trinamool leaders in the multi-crore Sarada scam did not affect the Trinamool’s fate either. However, this time the Trinamool is facing a stronger, more organised opposition.

It is clear that both the BJP and the Trinamool have made and want to make this a Modi versus Mamata contest, hoping to capitalise on the personality power both bring. However, Bihar has made it clear that while Modi’s name works with the electorate, they will vote for state-centric issues as opposed to national-centric ones in Assembly polls.

To be fair, the Trinamool seems to be aware of this and has increased focus on both promoting Mamata’s policies as well as highlighting Modi’s flaws that are specific to Bengal. Since Banerjee does not have an alliance partner to back her up, this balance of maintaining focus on localised issues, while attacking Modi at the Centre is what the Trinamool will be harnessing.

2. What Worked for the BJP?

Like in Bihar, where the BJP did not have a CM face, in Bengal, too, the BJP clearly has no one to match Mamata’s personality cult. It is clear, therefore, that they will have to ride on Modi-Shah and the anti-incumbency factor. Home Minister Amit Shah, in recent times, has been personally fronting the party’s campaign in Bengal, unlike in Bihar, which was handled almost entirely by party president JP Nadda. The trouble for the BJP comes in the form of the Left-Congress, which will split the anti-incumbency votes.

The BJP’s strong focus on “Sushashan” and at the same time attack on Lalu’s “Jungle Raj” seem to have worked. With the 10 years of the Mamata government’s shortcomings to pick on, it will do them well to bring back the focus on the rot in the Trinamool. This, especially since the incumbent party, like the RJD, will look to keep the election governance centric in the face of the BJP’s increasing religious polarisation.

3. The Left Could Claim More Political Space

The Bihar elections showed that when the Left does stick to issues of the grassroots, it reaps electoral dividends. Winning 18 of the 29 seats allotted to it, the Left has become a talking point this election. Younger faces and backing grassroots movements seem to have worked. This shows that in Bengal, too, where the Left still has a very large organisational and cadre base, Lal Salaam chants can make a significant come back.

The Bengal Left needs to look into strengthening this organisation. It also needs to tap into its youth base for newer, credible faces. With the BJP focusing on communal polarisation and the Trinamool trying to maintain a balance with secularism and soft Hindutva, there is a large space for policy-based campaigns that the Left can capitalise on.

In the 2019 elections, a large section of the Left voters in the state were said to have voted the BJP as an alternative to Mamata Banerjee. The Left needs to reclaim that space, not just for the elections, but also to script its revival in the state.

Also, the Left’s bonhomie with the Congress in Bihar may now extend to Bengal as well.

4. The Muslim, Lower Caste Vote

Muslim, Dalit and OBC voters played a key role in the Bihar elections. The percentage of Muslims in Bengal, at 27 percent (2011 census), is much higher than 16.9 percent in Bihar.

The Trinamool can draw solace from the fact that in much of Bihar, Muslims stuck with the Mahagathbandhan which, like Mamata, is seen as a centrist entity that has been “kind to Muslims”. But the rise of the AIMIM should worry Trinamool, especially with Asaduddin Owaisi’s announcement that the party may make a foray into Bengal.

The AIMIM has done well in Bihar’s Seemanchal region that borders Bengal and is home to many Muslims of Bengali origin. This could make it a threat to the Trinamool in the adjoining districts of Bengal.

With the BJP now in the fray, the Trinamool is being forced to make overt gestures for the Hindu community like a recent announcement of homes and allowances for brahmin priests. In such a scenario, the Left, if it gets its act together, or a party like the AIMIM, if it were to contest some seats, could take the crucial Muslim vote away from Mamata.

For the Trinamool, the religion card is now a double-edged sword. While they have to stop the BJP from completely taking away the Hindu vote, they must also make sure that the Muslim voters don’t see a better alternative.

The Quint has reported earlier how both the Trinamool and the BJP in Bengal are eyeing the Matua vote bank. The BJP had already realised the importance of the SC/ST vote in 2019, explained by their high gains in the tribal belts of Jangalmahal. Winning over Matuas is a work-in-progress. With a population of about 3 crore, who wins the trust of this electorate, could decide the fate of the elections.

5. Women Voters Hold Key

In the past, women voters have tended towards the Trinamool and the party has also made a concerted effort to win them over. Schemes like the Kanyashree and Rupashree, flagship schemes of the Mamata government, have helped the Trinamool win over women voters in 2016 and 2019.

In 2019, 41 percent of the Trinamool’s candidates were women.

While the BJP has made certain inroads with all other electoral groups, the women vote still remains strongly with the Trinamool. If the BJP wants to replicate its Bihar success in Bengal, it must take a lesson from how women voters swung the election and increase focus on the same in the state.

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