In the Panchayat polls in West Bengal which were held in May last year, we had seen how the old Maoist bastions and tribal areas had turned towards the BJP. While the TMC has scored a resounding 85% of the overall seats, the BJP has made significant inroads in certain areas.
Not only in Purulia and Jhargram, but BJP had also surged in other areas like Bankura, Dakshin Dinajpur, Uttar Dinajpur, Birbhum, Paschim Medinipur, Malda, Alipurduar and Jalpaiguri districts. However, the panchayat polls were marred by widespread reports of violence, murder and even capturing of ballot boxes. Soon after, three of TMC’s ministers ‘resigned‘.
BJP has made significant inroads in West Bengal and is quite likely to give a tough fight to the Trinamool Congress party in the upcoming 2019 general elections, says Pradip Bhandari, CEO and founder, Jan Ki Baat.
“BJP will do much better than what it had done in 2014. In 2007-08 when the TMC started to rise in WB and the Left started to decline, the TMC had got a majority of its seats on the eastern side of West Bengal, from the areas surrounding the Bangladesh border. The TMC started to rise from those areas and that’s how it engulfed the entire state,” Bhandari explains.
“In 2014 the TMC had won the majority of Lok Sabha seats. In 2016 it had won the state assembly elections. However, between 2014 to 2018, the Left and Congress state units have seen a significant and disproportionate decline, the BJP got a vacuum to fill and it capitalised on the same,” he adds. In 2014 Lok Sabha elections, out of the 42 seats, the TMC won 34 seats while Congress got only 4. The BJP and CPI(Marxist) got 2 seats each. In 2016 West Bengal state assembly elections, the TMC got 211 out of a total 295 seats while the BJP got 6 seats, an increase of 3 seats as compared to the previous term.
Bhandari says that the BJP is focusing on the western and northern part of Bengal, of areas like Purulia, Jhargram, Alipuduar and Cooch Behar. These pockets are expected to prove favourable for the BJP.
“These are the seats from which the TMC won for the first time in 2014 which was earlier considered a bastion of the Left. The anti-TMC voters have drifted away from the Left and Congress towards the BJP. Hence, BJP has a good chance of getting seats in these pockets,” he says.
Elaborating on why the BJP has emerged as the main opposition party, Bhandari adds, “There are three reasons. First is that there is a fight between hope and fear in Bengal. The Hindus in West Bengal fear that the atrocities carried out by TMC in the last few years are way more than the ones carried out by the Left when it was in power. There is also something like ‘goondagardi tax’ which is implicitly charged on the local population by the TMC cadre.
“Secondly, there are three significant communities which are coming together for the BJP. The fight is between the TMC votes and who is consolidating the anti-TMC votes. The tribals, the Matuas and the non-Bengali Marwari community will play a major role. The non-Bengali Marwari community in the urban areas seem to be supporting the BJP. About 90% of them are with the BJP. The tribals in areas like Jhargram and Adipurduar, about 70-80% have shown signs of leaning towards the BJP. Similarly, the Matua community, which forms a significant population in the eastern part of Bengal are disillusioned by the TMC.”
“Thirdly, it is widely believed that the strength of the TMC is the Muslim population and if numbers are to be believed, about 99% of the population will vote for the TMC. Because of the Muslim appeasement, the Hindus in a lot of places have started feeling a sense of alienation. The polarisation is happening in seats where there is 30-35% Muslim population. The BJP is here consolidating the Hindu population.”
But is the Modi factor still relevant in West Bengal? It is the icing on the cake he says. “Panchayat elections have shown signs of decline for the TMC. People were not allowed to vote and there is a sense of ‘revenge’ if I may say so. People who went to vote were beaten up, not allowed to vote. Hence, while on the outside they may appear like TMC supporters, in reality, they may just vote for the BJP,” explains Bhandari.
While BJP may not be the leading party in West Bengal and the TMC still has a significant upper hand, Bhandari believes that the BJP will definitely be a player in about 25-26 seats. Even if the BJP ends up with 7 seats, it will be on the growth trajectory which TMC was when it had started off. This will mean that the BJP will also be a serious challenger in the state assembly elections.
The elections in West Bengal have a tendency to get violent. In July 2018, a BJP worker’s body was found floating with limbs tied. This was preceded by at least two similar incidents. Almost exactly a month prior to this incident, Trilochan Mahato and Dulal Kumar, both BJP karyakarta’s, were found in two villages of Purulia on May 31 and June 2. While Mahato’s body was hanging from a tree, that of Kumar was hanging from a high tension electric pole.
West Bengal, under Mamta Banerjee rule, harbouring extreme coercion and strong-arm tactics. TMC goons openly terrorize the public without fearing any sought of repercussions. In fact, the West Bengal Panchayat polls were marked by incidents of extreme violence, in which some people were killed and several others were injured. In Murshidabad town, ballot papers were thrown in a pond after a clash between TMC and opposition parties. In some booths in Murshidabad, ballot boxes were looted at gunpoint by unidentified people. BJP supporters were also assaulted and attacked by TMC goons.
“It is now or never for the BJP in Bengal. Things are in their favour, like the disenchanted Hindu population, Muslim appeasement of the TMC, denial of basic services in north and west and the Narendra Modi factor. However, all the analysis will fail if voters are not even allowed to step out and vote. Elections in Bengal tend to get a little violent and hence perception is also important. If BJP comes across as a ‘weak’ party, it may not work for them. It is important for the BJP to not only be strong but to also be perceived as a strong party,” Bhandari explains.