The significance of Bengal elections

Alok Ray | Updated on April 16, 2021

TMC chief Keeping her fingers crossed

As the two main rivals — TMC and BJP — deploy a variety strategies to capture power, it could be an inflexion point for the State

The ongoing Bengal Assembly election has assumed an extraordinary significance. Till 2021, it was almost unthinkable that a party which is traditionally perceived by the average Bengali to be a party of ‘Hindi-speaking vegetarians’ can assemble several lakh people chanting ‘Jai Shri Ram’ on Kolkata’s Brigade Parade ground. So, the BJP forming a government on its own or as part of a coalition in Bengal no longer seems impossible.

Trinamool Congress supremo Mamata Banerjee has been steadily rising as the most important regional leader opposing the BJP, while the TMC has emerged as the second biggest Opposition party in Parliament. So, defeating the TMC and Mamata in Bengal would be a big step for the BJP towards its goal of ‘one country, one party, and one leader’.

The Congress, the CPI(M) and the TMC, which have ruled Bengal since Independence, have all broadly subscribed to the Nehruvian idea of secularism. Hence, the conquest of Bengal by the BJP, with its version of Hindutva philosophy, would be a big ideological shift in Bengal and an important pan-Indian victory for the BJP ideology.

In the Bengal Assembly election 2021, the battle is mainly between the TMC and the BJP, with the Congress-Left-Indian Secular Front (a new political party floated by a firebrand Muslim cleric) as a minor third player.

In their election campaigns, both the BJP and the Third Front have been focussing on the local level corruption by TMC leaders in the form of the so-called ‘Syndicate Raj’ and ‘cut-money culture’ with the promise of a corruption-free administration. The BJP is further aiming its guns on the policy of ‘appeasement of minorities’ by Mamata as evidenced by, according to the BJP narrative, giving monthly allowances to Muslim imams and allowing illegal infiltration (of Muslims) from Bangladesh which is making the Hindus a minority in the border districts of Bengal, endangering their identity and culture.

The BJP further alleges the TMC has not allowed Bengal to get the benefits of Central schemes like Ayushman Bharat and PM-Kissan. As a corollary, the BJP is emphasising the benefits of ‘double engine’ (the same party ruling at the Centre and the State) which will facilitate greater resources for the development and welfare of the State.

The TMC, on its part, is highlighting the dangers of communal polarisation if the BJP comes to power. They are also appealing to the Bengali cultural and linguistic heritage by characterising all the Central Hindi-speaking BJP leaders (managing the Bengal election campaign) as ‘outsiders’ with no connection to Bengal and its cultural heritage. But these cultural issues mostly concern the Bengali educated middle-class.

To capture the much larger number of lower-middle-class and poor voters — especially in the SC/ST categories — both parties are promising an array of welfare schemes, specially targeted at them, at huge budgetary expense.

The TMC is afraid (while the BJP is happy) that even if the Third Front does not win many seats, it may divert a significant part of the Muslim votes which traditionally had gone to the TMC. However, the most important immediate factor influencing the electoral outcomes, however, has nothing to do with ideology. It is defection, before the elections, by a large number of influential leaders from the TMC to the BJP, the two most prominent being Mukul Roy (TMC’s key main organisation man) and Subhendu Adhikary (the force behind the Nandigram Land Movement that brought Mamata to power).

Carrot and stick approach

Many of these leaders were already under investigation by Central agencies such as the CBI, the ED and the I-T Department. The defections were engineered by the BJP by using both ‘carrots’ (promising better posts in terms of power and perks, withdrawing/slowing the ongoing cases against them) and ‘stick’ (pursuing existing cases more vigorously).

Another ‘push’ factor behind the defections has been the quick rise of Abhisek Banerjee, the young nephew of Mamata, as the virtual second-in-command of the TMC who, along with his chosen few, is increasingly controlling the levers of power and patronage. This has created resentment among the senior leaders who have their own ambitions.

Above all, the typical anti-incumbency factor is inducing some voters to give the BJP a chance, after they gave similar opportunities to the CPI(M) for more than four decades and then the TMC for another two terms.

In the process of intense electoral competition, the supposed differences between the two major parties are getting blurred. To get rid of her so-called pro-Muslim bias, Mamata is now openly declaring that she is a bigger Hindu than the BJP by demonstrating how she can recite lengthy mantras, worshipping Hindu Gods and Goddesses, better than BJP leaders. She has also announced allowances to Hindu purohits at par with imams.

The BJP, on the other hand, is refraining from pushing its hard Hindutva agenda in Bengal. Unlike in the Hindi heartland, it has scrupulously avoided any hint of bringing ‘love jihad’ laws, banning cow slaughter, pushing for Hindi in education, or suggesting what to eat, wear or whom to marry if elected to power in Bengal. This narrowing of differences — born out of necessity, if not of conviction — is the outcome of closely contested elections as well as the frequent crossing of floors by the leaders of both the parties.

The writer is a former Professor of Economics, IIM Calcutta, and Cornell University

Published on April 16, 2021

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