BJP Grabs Bengal’s Opposition Benches: What This Means for TMC
Will BJP retain its hold over marginalised Hindus & expand its vote bank, or will TMC win them over?
India is a country in perpetual election mode. Every election emerges as a brief but intense transitory phase, wherein old political assumptions are replaced by the new. In so doing, they constitute new sets of perceptions: about the state of the incumbent, the opposition, as well as Indian democracy.
This, in turn, gives us the analytical framework to speculate and attribute meanings based on a myriad set of political moves, images, gestures and events until a new set of significant electoral verdicts emerge.
The Bengal 2021 verdict is one such profound phenomenon. Therefore, it is pertinent to delve into the salience of the two phenomenon:
- one, the spectacular victory of the Trinamool Congress which won 213 assembly segments out of 292
- two, the rise of the BJP as the prime opposition party, which bagged 77 seats and 38 percent of the popular vote share
BJP’s Journey to Relevance
There are two aspects, the presence of one’s ideological discourse and their structural presence, whose positive interplay heralds the emergence of a party as a force to reckon with. On this parameter, the BJP phenomenon in Bengal is, both, a case of arriving too early and too late. In terms of the discourse, the party claims Bengal to be their ideological land. To that extent, it claims to have arrived too early.
However, in terms of the institutional presence, the relevance of the party was more of a coincidence than an outcome of any sustained movement or systematic organisational investment.
In fact, until the 2016 assembly election, the state leadership was struggling even to register their presence in the political psyche of the people. It was the systematic battering of the opposition, particularly of the rank and the file of the Left, wherein its leaders were perceived to be incapable of protecting their own cadres and supporters against the ire of the incumbent. Thus, this grand disillusionment of the Left voters from the Left party opened up the space for the BJP, which emerged as the default beneficiary in the 2019 Lok Sabha elections when it won 18 out of 42 seats.
However, this electoral success, without deep institutional entrenchment, proved to be both the saffron party’s strength as well as limitation:
- Strength, as the party emerged as the default challenger to the Trinamool in a span of mere two years
- Limitation, as the party, unlike Tripura, couldn’t develop an efficient organisational matrix across the state and down to the booth level
In the recently-concluded election, both the BJP’s rise in Bengal as well as its defeat at the hands of Mamata’s Trinamool was an outcome of these two factors.
BJP: Not Really ‘Defeated’ in Bengal
Notwithstanding their decisive electoral defeat, one must not underestimate the emergence of the BJP as only the main opposition force against the Trinamool. In fact, in the backdrop of its 2019 success, 2021 should have been the most conducive environment for the saffron party to oust the incumbent. The Trinamool was facing anti-incumbency on account of rampant corruption, a prevalent culture of political repression as well as the arrogance of its local leadership.
However, to the credit of the Trinamool, it succeeded in turning the tables by not only ensuring the consolidation of the minority votes, but also working on sections like the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes who were expected to overwhelmingly veer towards the BJP.
Further, the party employed its well-entrenched party machinery efficiently, while the BJP was banking merely on the sentiment of ‘ashol poriborton’ (real change) and Modi’s charisma.
On the part of the BJP, two factors, it seems, tipped the scales. One, there was neither sufficient time nor enough coordinated efforts to strengthen the party institution at the local level. There were reports of top state-level leaders going alone rather than working as a team.
Despite all the weaknesses there was no confusion over the hierarchy of command in the Trinamool Congress. Thus, the BJP jumped into the electoral fray with a somewhat ad hoc organisational structure. Second, the party also overestimated the power of the BJP’s symbol vis à vis the relevance of the candidates by assuming that like 2019, people would vote for the symbol.
However, despite these shortcomings, a scrutiny of the 2021 verdict reveals that, had it not been for its organisational weakness, the saffron party would have won many more seats by converting the anti-incumbency sentiment into a positive vote for itself, particularly in southern Bengal.
Subaltern Outreach to BJP
While as a whole, the BJP stands defeated in Bengal, they seem to have superseded the incumbent as far as the subaltern social base is concerned. As has been the case since the 2019 Lok Sabha election, the BJP began its success story by winning areas like north Bengal, Jungle Mahal and regions alongside the Bangladesh borders like parts of North 24 parganas and Nadia districts, wherein a significant number of Dalits and indigenous people reside. The others followed suit, albeit, with lesser intensity. Hence, since the last 3 years, the BJP’s comfort zone in Bengal has been with the marginalised Hindus.
Against this backdrop, it is pertinent to note that even in electoral defeat, nearly half of the 77 seats that the BJP won came from assembly constituencies reserved for the Dalits and the adivasis.
Geographically, they have won these seats in the sub-regions of North Bengal, Jungle Mahal and districts bordering Bangladesh as mentioned above. The only area where the Dalit and adivasi seats remained completely out of reach for the saffron party happens to be in the South 24 parganas where the Poundra Khatriya Dalits share everyday space with other minorities.
This pattern is despite the fact that while there are only 68 assembly seats reserved for the Scheduled Castes, the Trinamool had fielded 79 Dalit and 17 ST candidates, one more than the minimum requirement. This move by the Trinamool was meant to checkmate the polarisation of the subaltern Hindus, particularly the Dalits towards the BJP.
Now, it is to be seen whether the BJP is able to hold onto its core support base and expand it further, or whether the Trinamool will succeed in winning over the marginalised through welfare outreach.
(Sajjan Kumar is a political researcher associated with People’s Pulse. He tweets @sajjanjnu. 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.)
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