The 2019 Lok Sabha election is touted to be a close fight between two primary players – the ruling Trinamool Congress (TMC) and main opposition party BJP. Much has happened over the last year to set the stage for this election. While TMC dominated the rural polls, BJP shot to second place in the bypolls and cemented its position as the ruling party’s primary challenger.
Both parties increase their vote shares at the expense of the Left Front and Congress, which were decimated in every bypoll since the 2016 Assembly elections, when they had entered into an electoral understanding. All this happened amid multiple reports of regional violence, which included clashes between BJP and TMC workers as well infighting.
Riding on the Modi wave, the state BJP performed its best ever electorally, getting a 16.8 per cent vote share, surpassing its previous best of 11.66 per cent vote share in the 1991 Lok Sabha polls. The TMC too put up its best performance in a general election since its inception in 1998 by bagging 34 seats out of a total 42. It was a significant achievement for the party considering the fact that it came to power in West Bengal only three years ago. In 2011, the TMC, led by its chief Mamata Banerjee, had dethroned the Left Front government, ending its 34-year long Left rule in Bengal.
At the same time, CPM and Congress suffered their biggest defeats in 2014, when they won two and four seats respectively. In the last four years, both parties failed to change their fortunes. A botched electoral understanding drawn up in haste in the 2016 Assembly polls only helped TMC, with the latter bagging 211 out of 294 Assembly seats. The Left Front and Congress together won 76 seats and one of them came in second position in 195 of the 294 Assembly seats. The BJP could win only three seats and polled in the second position in only six of the 294 seats.
Since then, the TMC grew stronger and won every bypoll in Bengal. Going with the momentum it acquired in 2014, BJP made inroads in Bengal and expanded its organisational base. Once considered a fringe player, this party has over the years pushed both CPM and Congress to third and fourth positions. Political observers say religious politics will take centre stage in poll campaigning
“Last time, Muslim votes were not consolidated entirely by TMC as it had only come to power three years ago. But in 2018, they are fully consolidated with the ruling party. In 2014, religion was not an issue at all but today it has become the major issue in West Bengal. Both TMC and BJP have been making attempts to reach out to people by stroking religious sentiments. This will immensely benefit both parties in upcoming general elections,” said Biswanath Chakraborty, political science professor at Rabindra Bharati University.
“On the other hand, marshalling politics of the ruling party has become much more effective in 2018 after it registered landslide victories in panchayat polls. Once you rule local bodies entirely you use election machinery more effectively during elections. By remaining in power in the 2016 Assembly elections, TMC has grown stronger now and enjoys the support of a large number of Opposition workers who were not with them in 2014,” he added.
The BJP has put up a strong resistance at the grassroots. “The reason BJP is doing so well in West Bengal is that it is putting up a resistance. The Left and Congress have lost their power to even counter TMC, while the saffron party, despite facing several obstacles from the state government, has been able to reach out to people who are opposed to the ruling party politics,” said Chakraborty.
One of the biggest clash points between the TMC and BJP was the latter’s plan to organise ‘rath yatras’. As the state government flexed its muscles and denied permission, the BJP moved the Calcutta High Court for the same. In January 2018, it had moved court after the state government did not give permission for its motorbike rallies across the state. In 2016, it had moved court to get permission for its national president Amit Shah’s rally in Kolkata.
Political observers however also feel that the BJP’s recent defeats in Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh Assembly polls may affect the morale of BJP cadres in Bengal, notwithstanding the fact that it is still in power at the Centre.
“It was due to Modi magic that they got 17 per cent votes in 2014. But this wave is no longer there. It became a little evident in the Gujarat Assembly polls where the party managed to retain power somehow. But in the recent Assembly polls, it is quite clear that the magic has begun to fade. This will definitely hit the morale of party cadres across the state, especially in Bengal where it is not in power. This will also help the ruling TMC here, which will further try to stifle the Opposition’s voice,” said Maidul Islam, assistant professor of political science at the Centre for Studies in Social Sciences, Calcutta.
The ruling TMC however is looking forward to increase its number of seats than 2014. “Our target is very clear. We want to win all 42 seats here. We are not bothered about who comes second or third. In the national level, our aim is to defeat BJP,” said TMC secretary general Partha Chatterjee.
The BJP on the other hand is hopeful to receive over 20 seats from West Bengal. “Our party president Amit Shah has set us a target of winning at 22 seats from here. Although we will try to win every seat, our focus will be on getting more than 20 seats. Our party over the years has made electoral gains in Bengal and we want to keep the momentum going. One thing is clear that we will not leave an inch of space to TMC in the 2019 Lok Sabha polls,” said state BJP president Dilip Ghosh.
The BJP is hopeful that the presence of central paramilitary forces will ensure a peaceful general election. “The panchayat poll is held under the security cover of state police force. Being a complete stooge of the ruling party, the state police allowed TMC workers to unleash a reign of terror during panchayat polls. They indulged in rigging, booth capturing and false voting. With the help of police, they prevented our workers from filing nomination papers, which resulted in TMC winning so many seats uncontested. However, the Lok Sabha polls will be held under the security cover of central paramilitary force. CRPF personnel will man polling stations so there is no question of anyone indulging in electoral malpractices. If there is violence outside the booth, we will resist them,” said BJP president Dilip Ghosh.
Political equations in West Bengal are expected to change a lot in the coming months. The TMC has scheduled a ‘Brigade rally’ in January 19 to unite non-BJP and like-minded parties and form the proposed federal front to defeat BJP in general elections.
“If TMC forges an alliance with Congress and enters into an understanding with them, it will be difficult for BJP to cut its teeth here. A lot will depend on TMC’s Brigade rally, which will clear the picture regarding this federal front,” said Islam.