Updated: February 27, 2021 8:22:25 am
Even as the Election Commission announced dates for Assembly elections to four states and the Union Territory of Puducherry on Friday, it’s West Bengal, with its poll dates stretching for well over a month, that promises to be the most high-profile of them all.
The stakes are high in Bengal: this is an election that will be fought primarily between Mamata Banerjee’s Trinamool Congress that swept the last two elections, in 2011 and 2016, winning 211 seats in the latter; and the BJP which won 0 and 3 seats respectively in those two elections. But the state and its politics have undergone a churn since then — the BJP rose to win 18 of 42 Lok Sabha seats in 2019, with a vote share of 40.64 per cent.
While the BJP hopes that the investment it has made in Bengal — a shrill Hindutva push from its local leaders, coupled with frequent visits from the top brass, including Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Union Home Minister Amit Shah — will see an unprecedented sweep by the party, the TMC believes the streetfighter in Banerjee will rise to keep the BJP at bay. And then, there is a third possible outcome, that rare event in Bengal’s politics that hasn’t happened since Ajoy Mukherjee was Chief Minister in 1971, 50 years ago — a close election.
Irrespective of the outcome, what is certain is that this will be a polarising electoral campaign, the likes of which Bengal, a Communist bastion for long, has never witnessed. The run-up to the campaign has offered more than a sneak peak of what’s in store. With the BJP shrill with its Durga Puja, Saraswati Puja and Jai Shri Ram rhetoric, Banerjee has had to tone down her hard secular narrative since the 2019 Lok Sabha elections to avoid the BJP from cornering the TMC into taking a Hindu-Muslim position.
But the party is conscious that the state’s over 30 per cent minority electorate will come in handy to ward off the BJP’s challenge. Sources in the TMC point out that that the state has more minority votes than UP and Bihar, which will make it difficult for the latter to recreate its polarising campaign that reaped dividends in UP.
In fact, party sources say, any polarisation by the BJP will only consolidate votes for the TMC. “A combination of majority of minorities (Muslims) and minority of majority (Hindu) vote will be sufficient to seal West Bengal for us (TMC),” confided an influential poll management functionary in the TMC camp.
Additionally, TMC poll managers point to how the BJP’s confidence rests on Jangalmahal in the western parts of the state and Coochbehar in the north (where it had secured a strong foothold during the Lok Sabha elections), while almost 200 of the state’s 294 Assembly seats are from nine districts – South 24 Parganas, North 24 Parganas, Mushidabad, Hoogly, Malda, Howrah, East Medinipur, West Medinipur, Burdwan and Nadia. “The BJP’s strength is these areas is not same as their strength in other districts,” insisted the TMC poll manager. In the last election, the TMC had won over 150 Assembly seats from these districts alone.
Trinamool leaders also make it a point to remind that this is not a Lok Sabha election, and that the BJP’s performance in the state in 2019 is not a handy tool to predict its performance in this election. “Mamata Banerjee was not standing for Prime Minister (in 2019), and it was clear the BJP was winning across the country. If you look at national to state elections, the BJP vote share drops around 10 percent,” said a Trinamool leader.
“For all the hype AMPLIFIED by a section of supportive media, in reality BJP will struggle to CROSS DOUBLE DIGITS in #WestBengal,” poll strategist Prashant Kishor, who is lending his expertise to the TMC this election, had asserted in a tweet in December last year.
Additionally, the TMC camp feels that a bipolar contest with the BJP suits the party better than a triangular contest with the Left-Congress alliance. Reason: the TMC camp feels that in the event of a strong bipolar election, the anti-BJP vote will consolidate behind the party instead of getting divided between the TMC and Left-Congress.
But the BJP, buoyed by the number of key TMC members who have joined its ranks, from Mukul Roy to Suvendu Adhikari, is fighting to win.
The party has set up a multi-layered organisational structure for election management. While retaining the winning combination of the two state in-charges — RSS pracharak and national joint general secretary (organisation) Shiv Prakash and party general secretary Kailash Vijayvargiya — who steered the party organisation during the Lok Sabha election, party president J P Nadda spared two more hands, RSS pracharak Arvind Menon and Amit Malviya, to assist Shiv Prakash and Vijayvargiya.
Earlier this month, the party already launched ‘Parivartan Yatras’ in each of these zones – three flagged off by Nadda and two by Shah. These yatras are to pass through at least three Assembly segments every day, where local leaders, state leaders and one Central leader will sound the poll bugle. These yatras are likely to culminate in a rally to be addressed by Modi at Brigade Ground in Kolkata early next month.
There are many other nuts and bolts, starting with candidate selection, that will eventually influence the election.
The third front is vital too, and questions remain of whether the Congress-Left alliance — with the Indian Secular Front, a party founded by an influential Muslim cleric in Hooghly, as the latest to join the grouping — can dent the BJP or Trinamool’s chances.
With eight phases, and two months between polling and counting day, it’s all up in the air.
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