With various exit polls spewing out their predictions yesterday (29 April), there is clear consensus that the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) will win Assam and Puducherry, the Left Democratic Front (LDF) Kerala and the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam or DMK-led front Tamil Nadu.
The only state that promises to be a cliffhanger is West Bengal, where the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is trying its best to oust Mamata Banerjee, and the latter’s Trinamool Congress (TMC) is trying every trick in the book and some outside it to hang on to power.
So, the crystal ball worth gazing at is West Bengal’s, but before that some short comments on the other likely verdicts are in order.
Kerala has broken the mould of consistent anti-incumbency, with the LDF retaining power for a second term. However, the real message here is not what the Left did right, but what its opponents did wrong.
The Congress-led United Democratic Front (UDF) simply did not get its act together, and the Left got one thing big right: the Communist Party of India-Marxist (CPI-M) has figured out that in the TV age, the leader matters and not just ideology. In Pinarayi Vijayan, it has gotten itself a leader with charisma that outshines the party, much like what Narendra Modi or Atal Bihari Vajpayee did for the BJP.
Tamil Nadu needs no particular explanations. The sweep predicted for the DMK-led front is a simple anti-incumbency vote after 10 years of All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK), especially with no charismatic Jaya at the helm.
In neighbouring Puducherry, where the Congress-led front is set for defeat, the NDA’s likely win sums up the average voter’s reaction to the incompetence of the Congress leadership and inability to protect its own government. The V Narayanasamy government fell under the weight of its own contradictions this February. The voter is simply saying let us give the others a chance since the Congress has messed up.
In Assam, the verdict is a clear victory for the Himanta Biswa Sarma line of ensuring a consolidation of non-Muslim votes (tea garden workers, Bodos, etc), which have been hitched to the larger ethnic Assamese Hindu and Bengali Hindu votes.
Sarma has forged a Hindu coalition between previously antagonistic groups – the Upper Assam Hindu and the Lower Assam Bengali Hindu immigrant. Sarma could well become the Chief Minister if the BJP front wins, and he will continue to forge a coalition to keep the Badruddin Ahmed-led AUDF which depends purely on the Muslim communal vote.
Sarma has essentially convinced the Assamese that if you don’t want a Muslim ruler in the state, Assamese and Bengali Hindus must find a way to work together politically, the former to retain power, and the latter to retain residency rights in Assam and India.
Now, for West Bengal. While three polls gave the TMC a clear win, two others (Jan Ki Baat and Republic CNX) gave the BJP a win. The poll with the best record of getting things right, Axis-India Today, gave a split verdict with the TMC forecast to get 130-156 (midpoint: 143), and the BJP 134-160 (midpoint: 147).
In the 294-member assembly (in which 292 seats went to polls, with two others to come later), the midpoint for majority is 146. The BJP thus is just marginally ahead.
The popular vote is 44 per cent for TMC and 43 per cent for BJP, but since the BJP vote is concentrated in fewer seats (most of the Muslim-dominated seats being out of bounds), its marginally lower vote share may yet give it a higher share of seats.
Also, with 64 seats facing barely 1-2 per cent margins, the seat counts could end up being wildly different from the predictions, which means both parties can get a stronger majority on their own.
So, what it will mean for West Bengal if the TMC wins, or the BJP wins?
TMC win: A TMC win is unlikely to mean anything more that what is already on offer, which means none of the issues that concern the voters – from tolabaji to the existence of thuggish enforcement groups and systematic political violence – will be addressed.
In fact, after a win, it is not improbable that the violent groups that were kept at bay during the elections may decide to extract vengeance from those who switched sides or deserted the TMC.
A Mamata Banerjee win will cement her image as the foremost anti-Modi leader in the country, which again means that her future role will be less about improving her own state, and focused more on building her image as the new mascot of the anti-BJP forces.
In short, a TMC win may not be good for West Bengal or bring about any kind of poribortan. It could be more of the same, and this time with a Chief Minister distracted by her future national role in 2024.
But will a BJP win make any difference?
The one big advantage the BJP has is that it has no baggage to shed in West Bengal and can, if it wants, start cleaning up the system.
Among the things it should prioritise are the following: police reform and weeding out of political elements, an economic revival scheme drawn up specifically for the state, given its geographical advantage as gateway to the Bangladesh and East Asia, and a plan to prevent further illegal immigration that is rapidly skewing demography.
Keeping Bengal out of the communal cauldron means stopping a further deterioration of demography against Hindus.
On the other hand, the new BJP government will have to brace for Banerjee’s aggressive street tactics and also the Left-Congress combine’s efforts to prepare for a future confrontation in 2026.
The Left’s current strategy is Pehle Ram, Phir Baam (first BJP, then Left). The Left needs the BJP to oust Banerjee, but once she is out, it believes that the BJP will be easier to target as a party aligned to the rich and vested interests.
On the plus side, if the Centre provides covert economic support and gets businesses to create jobs in West Bengal, it can thwart the Left and TMC, but it will have to deliver on law and order first. No business will seek to invest in West Bengal if it is all about tolabaji.
One has to worry that West Bengal is in for difficult times no matter who wins. One can however say that if the BJP hits the ground running with sensible plans to reform and revive West Bengal, it will have a better chance of success. The TMC’s chances of doing anything better than what it already has done are slim.
Jagannathan is Editorial Director, Swarajya. He tweets at @TheJaggi.
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