The Bihar election has thrown up a massive surprise from what the poll pandits were predicting. While Exit polls gave the advantage to the Mahagathbandhan and some even predicted a landslide victory for Tejashvi led alliance, the trends so far have pointed towards a victory for NDA, that had been so far written off. And there are some lessons for West Bengal CM Mamata Banerjee as well.
At the point of writing this article, the NDA was leading in over 124 seats, comfortably getting the edge in the elections. While the day is long and the trends can just as easily be reversed, one constituency holds significance responsible. The battle in Kishanganj is heating up and currently, the Congress candidate is merely about 3000 votes ahead of BJP.
Congress’ candidate has got 23,672 votes currently while Sweety Singh of the BJP has so far garnered 20,600. The margin for Congress at this moment is just about 3,000 votes. The reason for that low margin is the AIMIM, which is winning a vote-share significantly larger than the difference between the BJP and Congress.
The significance of Kishanganj
Kishanganj is an area with a vast Muslim majority of over 70%. In a constituency with a Muslim bloc forming over 70% of the electorate, a Hindu candidate from BJP giving a tough fight to a Muslim candidate fielded by Congress is a massive story in itself. However, there is more to this seat than meets the eye.
Kishanganj, Bihar is an area that borders West Bengal. Areas like Islampur are merely a few hours away from Kishanganj. One has to recall that Islampur was the area where there was massive discord after meat was found in a temple and the protestors were mercilessly lathi-charged. Further,it was around that area where the minor sister of a BJP leader was raped and murdered and BJP had accused TMC leader Feroze Ali for it.
For BJP to be in the fight in an area like Kishanganj is a story that needs to be researched and analysed on its own. However, the direct impact of Kishanganj could be felt in West Bengal, that goes to vote in 2021.
The West Bengal story
There has been an interesting fight brewing in West Bengal. TMC and BJP have been sparring over a leader called Suvendu Adhikari. The war of words started after Adhikari’s supporters put up rally posters that did not mention his political affiliation or current designation. The posters were seen in districts such as Purba Medinipur, Nadia, Murshidabad, Paschim Bardhaman and Malda.
The Trinamool Congress has said that there is no question of Adhikari leaving TMC. “There is no question of Suvendu not being with our party. He is very much with the TMC. He is a bright leader, who is an asset for any political party. Some people are trying to mislead the people about his future prospects”, said TMC MP Kalyan Bhattacharya.
However, BJP were given different hints. BJP’s Dilip Ghosh said, “TMC is like a cabbage. One by one its leaves are coming off. Once all leaves come off then there will be no cabbage”.
Interestingly, Congress reminded Mamata Banerjee of the crucial role Adhikari and his family had played in her rise to power and the Nandigram movement. As Mamata Banerjee announced her Nandigram Diwas, Adhikari, who hails from the powerful Adhikari family took potshots at her calling out how she was using the movement for political purposes, something he would never do. He also questioned the leader, tacitly, for returning to Nandigram only before elections. Simultaneously, his supporters have been protesting his isolation from the party.
Everything points towards Adhikari switching parties, perhaps, before the Assembly elections in 2021.
It is important to keep in mind that Apart from East Midnapore district, Adhikari holds sway in about 35 assembly constituencies in West Midnapore, Bankura, Purulia, Jhargram and parts of Birbhum.
The Muslim population in all of these areas is rather substantial. Midnapore is an area where several BJP workers have been found mysteriously hanging, with BJP pointing towards TMC as the culprit. It has about a 15% Muslim population in East and West Midnapore combined. In Birbhhum, for example, the Muslim population is almost 40%. In Purulia, the Muslim population is almost 30%. In other areas where his posters had come up, sans TMC, the Muslim population is rather high as well. In Malda, the Muslim population is over 51%. In Murshidabad, it’s over 66%. In Nadia, its almost 30%.
With such high Muslim populations, the appeal of Shuvendu Adhikari is still massively high due to his lineage and role in the people’s movement of Nandigram. In addition to him being one of the most popular mass leaders of TMC in the Midnapore Jangal Mahal region, it is to be noted that Subhendu is a member of the powerful Adhikari family of the East Midnapore district and as mentioned above, has sway over as many as 35 seats.
Why Kishanganj might be a psychological setback for Mamata Banerjee
Kishanganj is a seat that has been held by a Muslim MLA since decades. The last MLA to be a non-Muslim was in 1969. The usual mentality that has ruled the opposition parties is that a Hindu candidate in Muslim dominated areas does not perform well since Muslims tend to vote as a block especially for their co-religionists.
The setback is far greater when that Hindu candidate is one from the Bhartiya Janta Party. Over the years, the Media has created a rather anti-Muslim image of the party where it is assumed that BJP will find no favours with the Muslim community. Issues like Ram Mandir, the abolition of Tripal Talaq etc have been used as rallying points against BJP by the opposition members who have regularly called BJP anti-Muslim and “communal”.
In Kishanganj, BJP candidate has managed to come pretty close, if not win. That swing in itself is a psychological factor, coupled with uncertainly over Adhikari, that is bound to give Mamata Banerjee sleepless nights. With their rhetoric over BJP being anti-Muslim reaching its peak, Kishanganj, which is an area bordering West Bengal has managed to give almost 30% votes to the BJP candidate with the Congress candidate getting about 38% of the votes.
In areas like Midnapore, where Adhikari holds considerable sway, his switch could turn Muslim strongholds saffron and if his own sway was not enough, the Kishanganj dynamics further illustrates the fact that Hindu consolidation helps the BJP massively. This, coupled with the fact that AIMIIM is eating considerably into TMC’s Muslim votes, might sound warning bells for TMC, especially, so close to 2021 elections.
In fact, the same dynamics that has played out in Kishanganj may be Mamata Banerjee’s worse nightmare. In the Bihar constituency, while Congress’ Muslim candidate bagged about 38% of the votes, AIMIM bagged about 20% thereby eating into the vote share of Congress and stopping it from surging ahead with a massive margin. In Bengal too, the Owaisi factor is rather strong.
In July 2019, it was reported that the AIMIM had announced their decision to contest the Assembly Elections in the state scheduled to be held in 2021. “It is true that we are fewer in number, but do not dare touch us. We are atom bombs. Didi, we welcome your friendship and enmity as well. You have to decide whether you consider us friends or foes,” AIMIM national spokesperson and Bengal observer, Asim Waqar, had stated sometime back.
The AIMIM conundrum for Mamata Banerjee
The AIMIM had also organized a meeting at Dharmatala in Kolkata where the former MLA from Maharashtra Waris Pathan was also present. Consequently, in November, the Chief Minister of Bengal had warned the citizenry about the radicalism of the Owaisis. She did not name them but it was quite obvious who her comments were directed at. “I am watching that there are some extremists among minorities,” she told her party workers in Coochbehar, “They have their base in Hyderabad. Don’t listen to them.”
A week ago, on the 8th of December, AIMIM leader Zameerul Hasan accused the Mamata Government of targeting his party. “Across the state, police officers are abusing our leaders, threatening them not to take up political programmes. This has happened after the Chief Minister indicated to the police to ensure that we don’t hold meetings and processions,” he told IANS. Hasan also announced that the party will organize a mega rally in Kolkata where Asaduddin Owaisi will be the main speaker.
Thus, things are not looking very good for Mamata Banerjee. She has spent too much of her political capital on her Muslim vote bank to be able to win without complete Muslim consolidation in her favour. In the course of the said appeasement, she has alienated significant sections of the Hindu community which have then consolidated in favour of the BJP. This is what we saw happen in the 2019 Lok Sabha Elections where the saffron party massively increased its seat tally.
Mamata Banerjee faces a situation where Asaduddin Owaisi is threatening to capture her Muslim vote bank while the Hindus have consolidated behind the BJP due to her continuous Muslim appeasement.
Update: As per final figures, Congress candidate Ijaharul Hussain won with 61,078 votes.
Sweety Singh of BJP was close behind on 59,697 votes. The victory margin was as low as 1,381 votes.