An era in Indian politics is over

West Bengal is going through a tectonic political shift

The TMC will remain the dominant force in West Bengal for a long time/REUTERS


A few weeks ago, Chandrima Bhattacharya of the Trinamool Congress (TMC) won a by-election to the state legislative assembly in West Bengal. This was not particularly remarkable insofar as the election took place in Kanthi Dakshin in East Midnapur district, where TMC has been the dominant party for more than a decade. It is the influential Adhikari family who leads the TMC in Midnapur.

Adhikari dominance
The head of the family, the 75-year-old Sisir Adhikari, was first elected to the state legislative assembly back in 1982. He is currently a member of the Lok Sabha and was for some time the Minister of Rural Development in the second United Progressive Alliance government under Manmohan Singh. His son, Subhendu, has also been a member of the Lok Sabha and is now the Minister of Transport in West Bengal. Another son, Dibyendu, is an MP.

Since 2001 one of these three Adhikaris — Sisir, Subhendu, or Dibyendu — has represented Kanthi Dakshin in the state assembly, and so it was hardly surprising that the TMC also came out on top this time.

The margin of victory was large — Chandrima received almost twice as many votes as the runner up.

The biggest upset was rather that it was the BJP’s Sourindra Mohan Jana who came second. At the state assembly elections in 2011 and 2016, Jana’s party had received only approximately 3% and 8% of the votes in Kanthi Dakshin; now, the BJP garnered more than 30%, relegating the Left Front’s candidate Uttam Pradhan from the CPI to third place.

Pradhan received only 10% of the votes; with a little more than 1% of the votes, Naba Kumar Nanda of the Congress Party barely managed to outperform the NOTA (None of the Above) option — but not by much.

Jonesville is not America and Kanthi Dakshin is not West Bengal, but much suggests that this by-election constitutes a tectonic political shift in Bengal — the second in less than a decade.
The first shift occurred when the TMC dislodged the Left Front from power after more than three decades of uninterrupted communist rule. The current shift sees the left parties relegated to a remote third position in the state, while the BJP looks set to emerge as the main opposition.

Historically, the BJP has always had a negligible presence in West Bengal, and even during the heyday of Vajpayee’s National Democratic Alliance government around the turn of the millennium, the party struggled to cross the double digit mark at elections.

However, during the last couple of years, the BJP has worked hard to extend its grassroots presence. And, it was widely expected that the Modi-wave that has swept across almost all of India would also have an impact in West Bengal. But few had expected that the BJP would capture nearly a third of the votes in Kanthi Dakshin.

The implications of this tectonic shift are likely to be as follows. First, the TMC will remain the dominant political force for the foreseeable future. Mamata Banerjee is still a popular chief minister; the left is no longer capable of mounting an efficient challenge; the BJP is not yet adequately established organisationally; and whatever remains of the Congress Party is confined to a few isolated pockets.

Tricky tactics
Secondly, the Left Front’s days as a powerful political force are over. As Arild Ruud and Dwaipayan Bhattacharyya have shown us in their rich ethnographic studies of the CPI(M) in West Bengal, it was the combination of progressive political ideology, broad popular movements, and a cohort of young, educated, left-leaning activist that enabled the CPI(M) to establish itself as a political force in the villages from the 1960s.

For many decades, the party was extremely adept at combining left-wing rhetoric and politics “from above” with a strategic and more pragmatic mediation of social relations and resources “from below” in such a way that the CPI(M) appeared to many voters as either the best or the only political alternative.

However, this apparently formidable construct, which had seemed invincible for more than three decades from 1977 onward, had gradually become more fragile than it appeared.

Large sections of the CPI(M) have switched to the TMC with few transaction costs; and what was formerly party conflicts between the CPI(M) and the TMC are now played out as factional conflicts

As one can read in Bhattacharyya’s recent book Government as Practice, this construct began to crumble already in the 1990s, and when it first began to collapse around 2008, it crumbled in little time.

Large sections of the CPI(M) have in many places switched to the TMC with few, if any, transaction costs; and what was formerly party political conflicts between the CPI(M) and the TMC are now played out as factional conflicts within the TMC. In addition, the by-election in Kanthi Dakshin showed that the BJP is gaining at the expense of the Left, and not of the TMC.
The left appears to be left with only its radical political rhetoric “from above,” whereas the grassroots that should translate this rhetoric into pragmatic practice “from below” is crumbling.

BJP’s conquest of West Bengal
Third, the BJP is on its way to becoming the second pole in a new bipolar political system. Modi is popular among many voters, and the BJP has both the resources to and an interests in conquering Bengal. While the BJP has previously tried to establish a foothold in Bengal by adapting its hardcore Hindutva rhetoric to local conditions — for example, by downplaying the political use of the somewhat dubious figure Ram, and instead highlighting well-known Bengal icons like Vivekanda and Tagore — the BJP’s current strategy is much less oriented towards local adaptations.

Now, Ram Navami (Ram’s birthday) is celebrated with swords and machetes drawn, in combination with anti-Muslim rhetoric and fierce accusations of “minority appeasement” against Mamata Banerjee. This is a well-known recipe on the part of the BJP and it may find some resonance among some voters insofar as the roughly 25% of the population that are Muslims do tend to support the TMC.

If the BJP succeeds in polarising the state along religious lines, we are likely to see an increase in so-called communal clashes in the future. And yet, as the recent election in Uttar Pradesh showed, it is the BJP’s unmatched organisational ability to micro-manage elections at the local level that wins elections.

In West Bengal the BJP is not yet organisationally capable of replicating its “Uttar Pradesh model.” But, there is little doubt that the collapse of the left has offered the BJP a space from which to work towards that end.

Kenneth Bo Nielsen is a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Bergen.

Courtesy: The Dhaka Tribune




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