Battleground Bengal: Here’s All You Need To Know About The Crucial Assembly Elections Starting Next Month

Battleground Bengal: Here’s All You Need To Know About The Crucial Assembly Elections Starting Next MonthWest Bengal Elections
Snapshot
  • The primary fight for power is between the BJP and the Trinamool, with the Congress-Left alliance being a tertiary factor.

The ensuing Assembly elections in Bengal that will start on 27 March will perhaps be the most crucial and contested in Bengal’s history.

Never before have the stakes been so high for the incumbent party and its challenger. For the Trinamool, retaining power for the third time is absolutely necessary for its political survival, while for the BJP, winning Bengal is critical to its pan-Indian growth story.

Here’s a ready reckoner on the decisive polls:

THE POLLS: Elections to the 294 Assembly seats will be held in an unprecedented eight phases spread over 34 dates from 27 March to 29 April. The 7,32,94,980 voters can exercise their franchise in 1,01,196 polling stations.

The Election Commission has deployed 124 companies of Central Armed Police Forces (CAPFs), two police observers, one expenditure observer and one general observer to oversee the polls.

Poll Schedule:

March 27: 30 seats in Purulia, Bankura, Jhargram, Paschim Medinipur and Purba Medinipur districts

April 1: 30 seats in Bankura, Paschim Medinipur, Purba Medinipur and Dakshin 24 Parganas districts

April 6: 31 seats in Howrah, Hooghly and Dakshin 24 Parganas districts

April 10: 44 seats in Howrah, Hooghly, Dakshin 24 Parganas, Alipurduar and Coochbehar districts

April 17: 45 seats in Uttar 24 Parganas, Nadia, Purba Bardhaman, Darjeeling, Kalimpong and Jalpaiguri districts

April 22: 43 seats in Uttar Dinajpur, Uttar 24 Parganas, Nadia and Purba Bardhaman districts

April 26: 36 seats in Malda, Murshidabad, Paschim Bardhaman and Dakshin Dinajpur districts, also Kolkata South

April 29: 35 seats in Malda, Murshidabad and Birbhum districts and Kolkata North

THE PRINCIPAL CONTESTANTS:

The primary fight for power is between the BJP and the Trinamool, but the Congress-Left alliance, which also includes the Indian Secular Front (ISF) floated by Muslim cleric Abbas Siddiqui, could pick up a few seats in Malda, Murshidabad, Uttar and Dakshin 24 Parganas.

WHY THE FORTHCOMING POLLS ARE CRUCIAL:

For Trinamool:

For the Trinamool, retaining power in Bengal is critical to its political survival. If it loses, the party will simply crumble to bits. That’s because the Trinamool is a one-person party that lacks ideological moorings.

Most Trinamool leaders and functionaries are, thus, opportunists who have been drawn to the party not for any ideological reasons, but by their lust for power and pelf.

Being in power is essential for the party to survive. If Trinamool loses, it will face the imminent and debilitating prospect of large-scale desertions.

Being confined to the boundaries of Bengal, the Trinamool lacks adequate resources to sustain itself as a strong opposition party. Mamata Banerjee’s lung power and rhetoric won’t be enough to hold the party together.

Banerjee did assiduously build up the party that she formed in 1998 after leaving the Congress. And as she gained momentum in Bengal, she attracted a lot of anti-Left voices.

The Left Front’s misrule and its ruination of Bengal through disastrous policies, as well its authoritarian ways, had alienated many in Bengal who gravitated towards the party as it emerged as the principal opposition party.

Mamata Banerjee also received a lot of help from the BJP in building her party. Had she not been part of the NDA and received an indulgent Atal Behari Vajpayee’s blessings and munificence, she would never have been able to make her party the principal opposition force in Bengal under Left rule.

But the 10 years in power has taken the sheen off the Trinamool and it is viewed as a party full of corrupt people. Mamata Banerjee’s personal image remains largely unblemished, but she is no longer viewed as a messiah who can take Bengal out of the darkness that had enveloped it during the 34 years of Left misrule.

In popular perception, Mamata Banerjee is no visionary who can bring about the fundamental changes that Bengal needs. But her populist measures, including the many social welfare measures that she has launched — especially the ones targeting women and children — have helped her retain the support of the masses.

Thus, without power, Trinamool is likely to unravel with large-scale desertions. And since the people of Bengal have already witnessed her many acts of blunderous omissions and commissions, her party is most unlikely to occupy the principal opposition space if the BJP wins.

Even if Trinamool emerges as the second-largest party in Bengal once the results are declared on 2 May, it will be only a matter of time before even its MLAs leave the party.

That is why winning the elections is so crucial for Trinamool’s very survival.

For BJP:

Winning Bengal will provide a huge boost to the BJP. Though Bengal cradled the birth of the Bharatiya Jan Sangh (the earlier avatar of the BJP) that was founded by Syama Prasad Mukherjee, the state has remained out of the saffron party’s grasp.

Even though the BJP has ruled or is ruling — in coalition or by itself — all other states in west, north and east India, it has never been able to capture Bengal.

Doing so this time will be a huge morale booster for the party and will firmly establish its pan-Indian credentials.

Bagging Bengal will also strengthen the BJP’s formidable election machinery and set it firmly on the path to win the 2024 Lok Sabha elections.

Also, expanding its footprints in states where it has not been in power is essential for another decisive win in 2024. In most other states in north and west India, the BJP is reaching saturation point and, thus, has to break new ground.

Bengal provides this opportunity to the BJP. The state has 42 Lok Sabha seats and if it captures power in Bengal this year, it can easily deliver a majority of these seats to Modi.

Also, bagging Bengal is essential to destroy the incubation hubs of divisive and communist forces that flourish in Bengal. A win in Bengal will aid the BJP’s drive to strike a debilitating blow to the Congress-Left ecosystem.

Moreover, defeating Mamata Banerjee will also deal a body blow to the divisive, belligerent, cantankerous and bruising brand of politics that she has come to represent.

Inspired by Banerjee, many regional leaders have also started displaying centrifugal tendencies through their abrasive and combative stances against the Centre. Curbing such forces very firmly is essential for the country’s integrity.

POLL ISSUES:

Trinamool’s ‘Native Versus Outsider’ Pitch:

The Trinamool has been trying to craft a narrative over the last two years to brand the BJP as a party of ‘outsiders’.

Under her hired political strategist Prashant Kishore’s advice and guidance, Mamata Banerjee has been railing and ranting against the BJP’s leaders who have been frequenting Bengal to campaign for the party.

In her eagerness to paint the BJP as a party of outsiders and its ideology as alien to Bengal, Banerjee has also tried to create a false narrative that Bhagwan Ram is extrinsic to Bengal and Bengalis.

The latest campaign pitch projects her as a ‘daughter of Bengal’ as opposed to BJP leaders who are ‘outsiders’. She has been emphasizing in her public speeches that Bengal will be ruled by Bengalis and not Gujaratis (referring to Modi and Amit Shah).

However, this poll pitch has not cut much ice with Bengal’s electorate. This is evident from the full-throated cries of Jai Shree Ram that greet BJP leaders who are crisscrossing Bengal and the huge crowds that the BJP’s rallies and parivartan yatras are attracting.

‘Tanashahi, Tolabazi and Tushtikaran’:

The three ‘T’s slogan crafted by the BJP has been finding a lot of resonance among the masses in the state.

Bengal is infamous for political violence that has been institutionalised by the communists during their 34-year misrule.

Trinamool has made matters only worse and a climate of fear, thanks to throttling of dissent and even contrarian voices, prevails in Bengal. Mamata Banerjee is seen as an authoritarian person with strong dictatorial tendencies.

The Trinamool’s use of the state police to curb dissent has alienated a lot of people. The atrocities perpetrated by Trinamool goons has caused a lot of suffering. That’s why the BJP’s tanashahi charge finds a lot of resonance in Bengal.

The BJP has also successfully highlighted the tolabazi (extortion) culture of the Trinamool, whose leaders and activists run syndicates and have been extorting money from even commoners.

Trinamool’s extortionists target not only businessmen and contractors, but also poor vegetable sellers, rickshaw pullers and street vendors. This has caused immense suffering for the people of Bengal and has, consequently, generated a lot of resentment against the Trinamool.

The Trinamool gained notoriety for allegedly siphoning off relief meant for victims of (cyclone) Amphan last year and foodgrains meant for the poor during the lockdown.

Mamata Banerjee herself admitted to such condemnable acts by her party functionaries when she publicly appealed to them to return all the relief they had cornered!

The charges of corruption and nepotism against Trinamool functionaries have stuck and the party is finding it very hard to shake them off.

Mamata Banerjee’s tushtikaran (appeasement) of Muslims has also generated a lot of resentment.

She has been unapologetic about her appeasement and has even publicly labelled Muslims as cows who yield milk for her.

This has alienated large sections of Hindus. Her denial of permissions (in the past) to hold Durga Pujas and Saraswati Pujas has also made many Hindus very angry.

Development, Industrialisation and Jobs:

The BJP accuses Mamata Banerjee of continuing with the Left’s policies of not only failing to attract investments to Bengal, but also driving away industries.

The Trinamool has been reeling out statistics to claim that lakhs of jobs have been created and many investors are flocking to the state.

However, the ground reality is starkly different. That unemployment is acute and rising is evident from the increasingly large number of jobless youth who go outside the state in search of employment.

While a number of MoUs on setting up industries have been signed, few have actually translated into reality. The ghost of Singur — Mamata Banerjee driving away the Tata Motors plant — continues to haunt Bengal and will do so as long as Banerjee remains in power.

Bengal has also seen little development in terms of infrastructure and other facilities by the state government. In contrast, the BJP has been showcasing the large number of central projects that have been allotted to Bengal, many of which have been completed or are nearing completion.

The BJP’s promise of ‘double-engine growth’ (with the party in power at the Centre and in the state) has also caught the imagination of a significant number of people.

Bengal has, since the days of Left misrule, positioned itself in an adversarial position with New Delhi. That has cost the state very dearly in terms of development and growth.

Welfare Schemes and Sops:

Mamata Banerjee has rolled out a large number of welfare schemes targeting the poor and women. But their implementation had remained poor and flawed, and also mired in corruption.

Many Trinamool functionaries have cornered the benefits of these schemes, thus triggering a wave of resentment against the party.

A desperate Mamata Banerjee has also tried to win over Bengal’s disgruntled and suffering masses with a range of sops and doles, but these have not delivered the desired dividends for her or her party.

The BJP has been able to campaign successfully about Mamata Banerjee blocking central welfare schemes that would have benefited the poor in Bengal.

The corruption that has marked the implementation of the state’s welfare measures is also being successfully highlighted by the BJP.

POLL GEOGRAPHY:

South Bengal:

South Bengal, comprising eight districts (Uttar and Dakshin 24 Parganas, Purba and Paschim Bardhaman, Purba and Paschim Medinipur, Hooghly, Howrah, ) as well as Kolkata hold the key to the electoral success of the BJP or the Trinamool.

Having a lion’s share of 165 seats, South Bengal is crucial for an electoral victory. The Trinamool considers South Bengal as its bastion.

In South Bengal, Kolkata, the urban areas of the two 24 Parganas and Howrah and Hooghly have the maximum number of seats due to their high population density.

In the 2019 Lok Sabha polls, though the Trinamool led in most of the eleven Assembly segments in Kolkata, the BJP took the lead in four constituencies, including Bhowanipore (Mamata Banerjee’s seat) .

The BJP also took the lead in Bidhannagar (Salt Lake).

The BJP also made significant inroads into Hooghly, Howrah, the two Bardhaman districts and Birbhum in the 2019 elections.

The BJP needs to win the support of the urban folks, especially in Kolkata. Though many among the bhadraloks may not subscribe to BJP’s Hindutva, they are fed up with Trinamool’s corruption, extortion and blatant appeasement of Muslims.

That explains the BJP’s leads in many parts of Kolkata as well as adjoining Bidhannagar.

The ISF and the AIMIM are likely to upset the Trinamool’s prospects in many constituencies of South Bengal, especially the two 24 Parganas and Howrah, where Muslims are a deciding factor.

North Bengal

North Bengal, with its 42 seats, is considered to be BJP’s stronghold and it won maximum seats from this region in 2019.

North Bengal is home to Gorkhas, tribals (mostly tea tribes), Rajbongshis, migrants from erstwhile East Bengal and East Pakistan, from Bihar and other parts of the country as well as other small ethnic communities.

Though Mamata Banerjee has been trying to win back the support of the diverse mix of communities of this region, Trinamool's past misdeeds are too fresh in people’s minds for her overtures to make any significant impact.

Mamata Banerjee’s heavy-handedness in dealing with the agitation for Gorkhaland in 2017 has alienated Gorkhas in the Darjeeling Hills and Dooars.

The killings, largescale arrests and custodial tortures of the Gorkhas has led to complete estrangement of the Gorkhas.

The Trinamool government has also been insensitive to other ethnic communities like the Rajbongshis. And the ‘Bengali versus outsider’ pitch of the Trinamool has left the large number of Biharis and Marwaris in the region very angry and disaffected.

Jangalmahal:

Jangalmahal (Purulia, Bankura, Jhargram and some parts of Paschim Medinipur) has 30 seats and was a Trinamool bastion till it moved decisively to the BJP in 2019.

Jangalmahal’s shift to the BJP confounded the Trinamool since, after coming to power, Mamata Banerjee had finished off the Maoists who had emerged as a major menace in the region.

Apart from ushering in peace, she also provided employment to a large number of tribal youths and those belonging to the scheduled castes in Jangalmahal. Banerjee also rolled out a slew of welfare and development measures for that region.

However, corruption among Trinamool functionaries and administrative apathy alienated the tribals and backward classes of the region.

Banerjee has been trying desperately to win back the support of the SCs and STs of Jangalmahal by promising more sops and welfare schemes.

The BJP is also trying to safeguard this new bastion by promising development, a responsive administration and an end to corruption.

Central Bengal:

Comprising the densely populated Malda, Murshidabad and Nadia districts with 51 Assembly seats between them, this region has remained with the Congress till Trinamool engineered largescale defections and emerged as a strong force here.

Muslims are a deciding factor in most of the constituencies, but with the AIMIM striking roots here, the Muslim vote is likely to get divided between the AIMIM, the Congress-Left alliance and the Trinamool. That may benefit the BJP in some constituencies.

Nadia, with 17 seats, has a large number of Hindus, many of them migrants (or descendants of migrants) from Bangladesh (or East Bengal and East Pakistan). Mamata Banerjee’s Muslim appeasement has alientated most of these people.

Matuas are also a deciding factor in many constituencies in Nadia (as well as adjoining Uttar 24 Parganas). The BJP is expected to register major gains in Nadia.

Jaideep Mazumdar is an associate editor at Swarajya.

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