One of the least-surveyed developments of the past decade is the true extent and depth of a supra-caste consolidation slowly taking place across India.
It shows itself fleetingly during elections, once in a while, but then gets masked by the euphoria of that victory. And yet, the truth is that it is because of these changing social dynamics that the old caste parties are being voted out of province after province, one at a time, in a grand awakening of millennial proportions.
A good example is West Bengal, where the forthcoming Assembly elections will once again show how that amalgamative juggernaut works.
As elaborated in an earlier piece, Dalits and tribals are now visibly shifting their support in the millions, from the Trinamool Congress (TMC) to the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), to turn the electoral affair there into a two-way contest.
No doubt, that squeezes the Congress and the Left tightly to the fringe, even if they have pinned their secular hopes on a hasty tie-up with a radical Islamist outfit called the Indian Secular Front (ISF).
But the big question is: will this churning be enough for the BJP to win the popular mandate in West Bengal?
We don’t know just yet, because the pieces are still in motion, and the campaign is just beginning to pick up pace, but one way of qualitatively gauging that outcome is to map changes, so we may fully appreciate the extent and depth of these shifts spatially.
To that end, a series of maps have been generated, which tell the West Bengal story in graphics, and offer novel insights into which way the political wind is blowing.
This is the distribution of the Hindu population in West Bengal, by district, in fractions, as per the 2011 census:
This is the state’s Muslim demographics by district. The concentrations are greatest, and preponderant, along the Bangladesh border:
This is the state’s Scheduled Tribe distribution by district. As we can see, it is heavily concentrated in a few districts; mainly in Darjeeling (22 per cent), Jalpaiguri (19 per cent), Puruliya (18 per cent) Dakshin Dinajpur (16 per cent), and Paschim Medinipur (15 per cent).
This is the state’s Scheduled Caste distribution. It is an important map, because up to 2016, the Muslim and the Dalit communities constituted the bulk of the TMC’s vote bank.
In fact, the true dominance of these two communities is brought out in the next map, which shows the combined demographic distribution of Muslims and Dalits by district (all values in fractions):
Add to this the tribal vote, which too used to support the TMC in part, and we get a better measure of just how successful the TMC’s social engineering had been. Together, these three communities constitute about half to eighty per cent of the votes in most districts of the state:
Naturally then, a TMC sweep in the 2016 Assembly elections was inevitable:
(Colour Legend. TMC-green; Congress-blue; Left-red; BJP-orange; Gorkhas-yellow)
But it is the way of the world that nothing ersatz lasts for long. Which is why there was a dramatic shift of votes towards the BJP in 2019 — a trend which has persisted into 2021, and looks set to grow stronger.
A map of the 2019 results by Assembly segment tells it all. Note how the communists didn’t lead in a single segment:
(Colour Legend. TMC-green; Congress-blue; BJP-orange)
The true nature of the vote swing becomes apparent, when we map the shift to the BJP by party, and in reserved seats. Note how many SC and ST seats shifted from the TMC, and from the Congress and the Left to a lesser extent, to the BJP.
(Colour Legend. TMC to BJP-orange; Congress to BJP-blue; Left to BJP-red)
What does this augur for the 2021 Assembly elections? One pointer comes from mapping the BJP gains over Muslim demographics.
As expected intuitively, the 2019 gains are in those areas where the Muslim population is lower.
But is that the only factor? No, because as the next map shows, the actual brake on the BJP’s surge is applied in those areas where the TMC’s Muslim-Dalit axis remains unbroken. Note: Jalpaiguri and Cooch Behar districts in the north have to be treated separately, because they bucked the trend for different socio-political reasons (and also, they constitute only a small fraction of the 294 seats in the state assembly).
Apart from Nadia district in the southeast, the balance of the riparian strip from Maldah, south through the delta to the coast, remains a TMC stronghold. It is also where the bulk of the Assembly seats are:
This point is brought out more vividly, when we plot TMC holds (yellow dots) in Assembly segments, in the 2019 Lok Sabha elections, against a combined district demographics map of Muslims plus Dalits in West Bengal:
Thus, we may conclude that the TMC hold endures in those southern districts where the combined Muslim and Dalit vote share is close to, or above half the electorate. This is what the BJP will be focusing on in the campaign ahead, and this is what the TMC will seek to retain.
Consequently, the outcome of the forthcoming Assembly elections will be dependent on two factors: how much further the Dalit vote shifts to the BJP, and how much of the Muslim vote shifts to the Left-ISF-Congress alliance.
Both, in their own way, would work to break the TMC’s remaining Muslim-Dalit vote bank axis, albeit for divergent electoral prospects, and weaken the TMC’s chances.
Yet, whatever the numerical outcome on counting day, this much is clear: a magnificent churning has finally arrived in West Bengal, and is here to stay.
(All data from Election Commission of India and 2011 Census websites)
Venu Gopal Narayanan is an independent upstream petroleum consultant who focuses on energy, geopolitics, current affairs and electoral arithmetic. He tweets at @ideorogue.
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