Until recently, the BJP’s entry into West Bengal electoral politics seemed like a long shot. Yet, despite a challenging electoral terrain in 2019, the BJP garnered 40% of the vote share and 18 out of a possible 42 seats in West Bengal — uncharted territory for the party.
There is now an open power struggle between the Trinamool Congress and the BJP in West Bengal. After the election, a number of grisly murders have been reported between party cadres across the state, and the Governor of West Bengal is threatening to declare President’s Rule in the state. The BJP has done the unthinkable — it has become a formidable force in West Bengal.
How do we understand the rapid rise of the BJP in West Bengal?
* First, there is an erosion of support among parties that have traditionally been strong in West Bengal, the Congress and the Left Front. These parties dropped from a combined vote share of 39% in 2014 to a combined 13% in 2019. While the BJP had scored a significant 16.8% vote share in 2014, the erosion in support for traditionally strong parties, especially Left parties, provided a reservoir of voters for the BJP to increase its vote share to the levels of 2019.
* Second, there has been growing frustration with levels of local violence allegedly perpetrated by TMC cadres. Things came to a head in the panchayat elections, where almost 34% of seats were left uncontested due to intimidation of TMC’s opposition candidates. This created a restive electorate that was determined to vote in the national election even in the face of local intimidation.
* Finally, and most importantly, the BJP was able to generate significant Hindu-Muslim polarisation. The BJP mounted a formidable social media campaign to paint Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee as biased toward the Muslim community (the most prominent among these was a video of her angry response to BJP workers chanting “Jai Shri Ram” at her).
Congress as spoiler for TMC
The Congress has historically had a small number of strongholds in the districts of Malda and Murshidabad alongside a large Muslim support base. A weakening Congress and Hindu-Muslim polarisation triggered significant defection from the Congress to the TMC in many places, but the significant overlap in support bases created many opportunities for the Congress to play spoiler for the TMC.
If one simply adds the vote shares of TMC and Congress, this hypothetical combine would have won 30 out of 42 seats in West Bengal. Moreover, the BJP would have lost 6 seats it won in 2019 (one-third of its total haul) to this TMC-Congress alliance: Balurghat, Barrackpore, Bardhaman-Durgapur, Jhargram, Maldaha Uttar, and Raiganj. The Congress-TMC alliance has shown the ability to be effective in the past, e.g. in ousting the Left from West Bengal, and the concentrated geographical base with strong Muslim support of the Congress makes it a natural partner for the TMC. However, talks broke down as the Bengal unit of the Congress party was strongly opposed to the alliance.
A new identity game
The Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribes populations have not figured significantly in the political discourse of West Bengal — somewhat surprising given that, according to the 2011 Census, West Bengal sports the third-highest SC population in India at 23% and a significant population of STs at 5.5%. This naturally created an opportunity for the BJP to mobilise these groups under the umbrella of Hindu nationalism.
The impact of the BJP’s strategy can be assessed from data. Using data from the Trivedi Centre for Political Data at Ashoka University, census demographics from 2011 have been matched to parliamentary constituencies for rural areas only, providing reliable numbers for all but a handful of constituencies.
In the constituencies where the SC population is less than 17% of the total population (the bottom quintile of constituency-wise SC population), the BJP had an average vote share of 32%, but where the SC population is more than 32% of the total population (the top quintile of constituency-wise SC population) the BJP had an average vote share of 42%. Similarly, in constituencies where the ST population is less than 0.5% (the bottom quintile), the average BJP vote share was 37%, while when the ST population is above 11% (the top quintile), the average BJP vote share was 50%.
The shift to BJP
The 2014 national election is not a good benchmark to assess this election as the TMC had yet to fully consolidate its electoral base. In the subsequent 2016 state election, even with the Left and Congress in pre-electoral alliance, it was clear the TMC had become the dominant party and consolidated its electoral support. In the 2016 state election, the TMC won 211 out of 294 seats, with a 45% vote share.
In 2016, the BJP’s vote share dropped to 10%, but after the election it was clear that BJP would emerge as the principal challenger to the TMC in the state. In 2019, the TMC saw a slight dip in vote share as compared to 2016 with 43% of the vote, while the BJP received 40% vote share, a massive gain of 30 percentage points.
The two graphs show trends in the change in vote share (in percentage points) for the BJP and the TMC as a function of the percentage of SCs and STs in a constituency. Two key observations emerge from these figures. First, in areas with little to no SC and ST presence, the BJP gained around 25 percentage points, while TMC effectively lost no vote share, suggesting significant consolidation of TMC’s opposition around the BJP. Second, as the share of SCs and STs grew in a constituency, the percentage point gain to the BJP grew as well, while TMC actually lost part of its vote share. This suggests that the BJP consolidated SC and ST votes in particular, even taking away some previous TMC supporters.
Several questions remain about the electoral future of West Bengal. While the BJP has become the chief opposition to the TMC, will it break through in the 2021 state elections? Is this a momentary rise in the BJP’s electoral fortunes, or will it consistently remain a competitive party in West Bengal? Whatever be the answers to these questions, we can safely say we have entered a new era in West Bengal’s electoral politics.
(Neelanjan Sircar is Assistant Professor of Political Science at Ashoka University and Senior Visiting Fellow at the Centre for Policy Research)