The trends are clear. At the time of publishing this, the BJP was leading in 19 seats, and the ruling Trinamool Congress (TMC) in 22 out of the 42 Lok Sabha seats in West Bengal. This is as much a staggering gain for the BJP, which has upped its tally from a mere 2 seats in 2014, as it is a breathtaking drubbing for Mamata Banerjee’s TMC.
The BJP has swept north Bengal and the western parts of the state, which is predominantly the tribal belt, and also border areas like Bongaon, where infiltration from neighbouring Bangladesh is an emotive issue.
The saffronisation of Bengal, which was a bastion of Left ideology for more than 30 years before Mamata Banerjee roared into power in 2011, is well and truly underway. Leading in just one seat, the Congress is less than irrelevant, and the Left, which has not been able to make its presence felt in a single seat, seems to have disappeared into thin air.
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Mamata Govt’s Failures Allowed BJP To Makes Its Presence Felt In Bengal
So is it Modi mania — the seemingly irresistible, larger-than-life appeal of Narendra Modi — that has garnered the votes for the BJP in Bengal, just as it has in much of the rest of the country?
No doubt, Modi has played his part in the party’s phenomenal performance in the state. But in Bengal, other factors have likely contributed much more to the BJP dramatically improving its seat share and beating down the TMC’s tally from 34 Lok Sabha seats to 22-odd (as per current trends). It seems that the BJP has more than doubled its vote share in West Bengal — from 17 percent in 2014 to 40.2 percent this time.
How did this happen? Yes, the RSS and the BJP have worked hard in Bengal for the last five years.
But their efforts may not have paid off in such a spectacular fashion had it not been for the failures of Mamata Banerjee’s administration, especially in her second term post- 2016. The TMC’s systematic violence against the Opposition, especially the Left, is coming back to bite the party now.
Much of the Left Front’s Vote Has Gone to BJP
Exactly a year ago, the TMC won the panchayat polls with an unprecedented 34 percent of the seats going uncontested — clearly because non-TMC candidates had been subjected to violent intimidation and forced to opt out. The fate of the non-TMC voter could hardly have been any different. In fact, last year’s panchayat polls were one of the bloodiest in Bengal — more than 50 people were killed in clashes between the TMC and others.
In Bengal’s rural areas it has always been terrifying to belong to a party other than the ruling one.
The Left committed violence on its opponents. The TMC has been doing the same, perhaps with greater viciousness in the last few years. This has resulted in the remnants of the Left shifting to the BJP, which was increasingly being seen as a party with heft, a party that could offer some sort of protection against the TMC’s brutal hordes.
The Left’s vote share figures bear this out. In 2014, its vote share was about 23 percent. Going by current trends, it’s down to 3 percent now.
Clearly, there has been a huge transfer of the Left vote, and most of it seems to have gone to the BJP.
How could West Bengal’s communist voters shift their allegiance to the Right? Well, when your lives are under threat, when your homes are being torched, when you have trumped-up cases of smuggling, ideology does go out the window.
It is ironical that in many ways, Mamata’s decimation of the Left as a political force has led to the BJP’s rise in the state.
Days before the elections, CPI(M) leader and former chief minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee appealed to the Left voters not to support the BJP. Needless to say, his belated appeal had little impact on his party’s cornered and exhausted rank and file.
Has Mamata’s ‘Appeasement Politics’ Backfired This Time?
Significantly, in 2018, the BJP captured one-fourth of the panchayat seats (the ones that were contested), its vote share in the local elections zooming from 1 percent to 18 percent in five years.
Mamata could not have failed to see which way the wind was blowing.
The chief minister’s so-called ‘appeasement’ of the minority community, which accounts for 27 percent of the population of the state, is often cited as a reason for the BJP making inroads into Bengal. And indeed, Mamata has pandered to the Muslim clerics and given them special allowances. Her party men in rural areas have been known to criticize the Supreme Court judgment outlawing triple talaq.
Those who work on the ground say that Mamata has lost the support of many Muslim women as a result of her backing of Islamic orthodoxy.
However, it is debatable whether the TMC government has gone much beyond the pro-minority optics of allowing Muharram processions ahead of Durga Puja immersions. The fact that the BJP is winning Malda, a seat which has a high proportion of Muslims and has traditionally gone to a secular party, is significant. There is a feeling on the ground that Mamata did nothing for the region’s jute farmers, who are predominantly Muslim.
Disenchantment Of Mamata Supporters: Violence & Lawlessness Under TMC Rule
But, of course, the Modi-Shah narrative has focused relentlessly on Mamata’s perceived appeasement of Muslims. The party’s strong Hindu nationalist pitch has fed into and fanned the anger over Bangladeshi ‘infiltrators’, especially in border areas. (The BJP is leading in seats like Bongaon which are on the border.)
Let us not forget that Bengal has a communal past, with a history of savage riots during Partition and its aftermath. Today, those communal feelings are being successfully exhumed by the misguided policies of the chief minister, and the strategic cunning of the BJP. And thanks to this communal polarisation, the party that is laughing all the way to the vote bank is the BJP.
There is another aspect to the Bengal voters’ disenchantment with Mamata. Her second term has witnessed large-scale institutional breakdown in the form of corruption and lawlessness.
Even the delivery mechanisms of such popular social welfare schemes such as Kanyashree (for the girl child) or Khadyashree (5 kg of rice per family per month at Rs 2 per kg) have allegedly become targets of money-making. The losers are the common people of Bengal.
BJP Matched TMC in ‘Violence & Lumpenism’
It is no coincidence that the state witnessed between 70 to 81 percent voter turnout in some phases this time.
When people come out in overwhelming numbers to vote, it is usually because they want to throw someone out.
The BJP realised that the state offered the party a unique opportunity. After Uttar Pradesh, Modi held the most number of rallies here. And BJP cadres have flexed their muscles, matching the TMC in violence and lumpenism. The shameful vandalisation of the bust of Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar in Kolkata last week is a case in point.
Indian voters often make a difference between who they vote for in the state and who they vote for at the Centre. However, Mamata Banerjee knows she cannot take comfort in that. The BJP is powering ahead in Bengal and will only consolidate its base further. Come the 2021 assembly elections, Didi will likely fight with her back to the wall.
(Shuma Raha is a journalist and author based in Delhi. She tweets at @ShumaRaha. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)