The big story of the 2019 Lok Sabha elections in West Bengal was the bulk shift of votes from the Congress and Left parties to the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).
The communists were wiped out, the Congress was reduced to its two stock ‘secular’ seats, and the BJP leapt up to become neck-and-neck with the Trinamool Congress (TMC), in terms of both vote share and seats.
In 2021, the question on everyone’s lips is whether this momentum will persist enough for the BJP to cross the halfway mark of 148 assembly seats, and secure the popular mandate.
Indeed, the BJP has set itself an ambitious target of 200 seats (in a house of 294). Will that happen?
A quantitative way of finding out is through opinion polls: a C-Voter Times Now poll from last week predicts that the TMC might just about retain its majority with 42 per cent of the vote share and 146-162 seats, while the BJP surges close behind with 38 per cent vote share and 99-115 seats.
The Left Front and the Congress, who are contesting these elections in alliance with a radical Muslim outfit called the Indian Secular Front (ISF; talk about an oxymoron), may get 29-37 seats with 15 per cent of the vote share.
What the polls indicate is that the forthcoming assembly elections may approximate the 2019 general elections, in the sense that the main contest in most seats will be between the TMC and the BJP, with the Congress and the Left getting squeezed to near-‘shunyata’.
However, there is a great deal of subjectivity and flux inherent in these projections, since an exodus from the TMC to the BJP is still on, the BJP’s campaign is yet to reach fever pitch, and because every vote for the Left-ISF-Congress coalition means a vote less for the TMC.
That means a string of extremely tight contests between the TMC and the BJP in dozens of seats, with steadily-narrowing victory margins, and a rising dependency on voter turnout.
Therefore, rather than getting bogged down in fluid numbers, which will keep shifting right up to the last polling day, a clearer picture may emerge if we try and analyse the demographic shifts taking place in West Bengal presently.
This is important, because many of the vote swings taking place are fairly transformational in nature, with major pan-Indian ramifications, which will manifest themselves with increasing vividness in the years ahead.
For that, let us first look at how the BJP captured the opposition space in West Bengal through a truly spectacular surge between the 2016 assembly elections, and the 2019 Lok Sabha elections. The results of individual assembly segments in 2019 are used for an apples-to-apples comparison.
Obviously, the BJP’s phenomenal growth was at the cost of the Left (who were wiped out) and the Congress (who still somehow managed their two ‘secular’ Lok Sabha seats in Muslim-dominated areas).
They did dent the TMC, but not by enough, because a lead in 164 assembly segments is still a simple majority in a house of 294. The inference at the time was that the OBC vote had swung to the BJP, following a broad national trend.
But where the 2021 story turns on a dime, is when we look at how the various parties fared in Dalit and tribal seats. Eighty-one of the 294 seats in the state are reserved for SC and ST candidates.
This is important, because the TMC’s traditional vote bank has been, until now, the Muslims and the Dalits. Together, these two communities account for about half the votes in West Bengal.
In 2016, the TMC won 59 of 81 reserved seats (73 per cent). But in 2019, this figure crashed to 34. In other words, half of all the assembly seats the TMC lost in 2019 (47 down) were in the SC/ST category.
In their stead, the BJP soared from a solitary SC/ST seat in 2016 to 46 in 2019. That is over a third of the 121 leads they registered in the assembly segments.
Now, here comes the vital bit: of these 45 gains for the BJP, 32 were from the TMC, six from the Left (who only had 12 to begin with), and seven from the Congress (of the nine they had in the SC/ST column).
What this means is that the Dalit vote shifted substantially from the TMC to the BJP by 2019; and if recent opinion polls are any indicator, then their gravitation towards the BJP is still very much on. In addition, it appears that the bulk of the Dalit vote, previously with the Left and the Congress, has also shifted to the BJP.
In fact, only seven seats shifted from the Left and the Congress to the TMC (of the 21 they jointly held in 2016), while 13, almost double, went from these two parties to the BJP (the balance one remains a Congress hold).
No doubt, the TMC has held its own in the SC/ST category, retaining 27 seats, but as we shall see in a companion piece, those are bolstered by the Muslim vote. So there is no saying that the TMC would successfully retain these seats in 2021, if the departure of the Dalit vote to the BJP continues unchecked.
Add to this those big names who quit the TMC to join the BJP, like Dinesh Trivedi, the Adhikari family, and others. What’s interesting is that Trivedi, for example, narrowly lost in Barrackpore in 2019, in North 24 Parganas district.
Dalits constitute about 20 per cent of the population in this area. Without Trivedi’s pull factor, and the Dalit vote, the TMC will be hard pressed to make the summit in such closely contested areas.
That leaves us with an interesting set of inferences and conclusions, as the campaign in West Bengal finally gets noisily underway:
One, the TMC’s traditional vote base is getting eroded significantly and irreversibly. If that is not reflected in recent opinion polls, that is because the vote swing from the TMC to the BJP is being covered up by a vote swing from the Left and the Congress to the TMC.
Two, the Dalit vote is shifting firmly to the BJP, in bulk from the TMC, plus most of what was earlier with the Left and Congress. An age-old Dalit-Muslim vote bank axis has finally been broken.
Three, the tribal vote has already shifted by and large to the BJP, mainly from the TMC. This is an ear-splittingly loud raspberry to the likes of Jharkhand Chief Minister Hemant Soren, who had the temerity to recently declare that adivasis were not Hindus.
Four, the communists didn’t come second in even a single assembly segment in 2019. They have become the fringe they were destined to be, and remain in the fray in dozen-odd seats this time, only at the sufferance of the Congress.
And five, and most importantly, a distinctly-visible supra-caste consolidation in favour of the BJP is very definitely on, identity politics is headed for the waste basket, the Muslim vote is becoming increasingly irrelevant in deciding electoral outcomes, and the Congress and the communists are facing permanent political oblivion in West Bengal.
All data from Election Commission of India website
A forthcoming companion piece will offer further insights into the West Bengal electoral scenario, using GIS mapping of election and census data.
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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