Bengal at a crossroads as BJP takes on Trinamool Congress

‘While a rise in BJP’s vote share from 2014 seems inevitable, Left-Congress combine’s showing may be key to TMC’s future’

A few hundred yards from Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee’s residence in south Kolkata, a man in his 60s was quickly finishing his lunch as he had a flight to catch. The politician, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, refused to discuss the politics of the Trinamool Congress (TMC), despite being an MP and rather chose to talk about a former chief minister and Communist Party of India-Marxist (CPI-M) veteran, Jyoti Basu.

“Perhaps he is the man whom Ms. Banerjee is missing now,” quipped the parliamentarian.

“Basu never tried to decimate the opposition,” he said, explaining his argument. “For two decades, after losing power, Congress got about 40% votes, whereas today’s opposition (CPI-M) is down from 40% to 20% in five years, largely because of the TMC’s project to decimate the rivals,” he asserted.

And one likely reason for the Left Front’s keenness to allow space for the Congress may have lain in Bengal’s past. With the Hindu Mahasabha and the Jana Sangh (the predecessor to the BJP) together winning 13 seats in the State’s first Assembly poll, in 1951-52 — more than four times the BJP’s present tally — the Hindu right had established a presence in Bengal in the early 1950s. But the rise of the left parties and the death of Syama Prasad Mookerjee, the Jana Sangh’s founder, in 1953 ended up constricting the Hindu right subsequently.

The Left Front’s historical awareness about the Hindu right ensured that the CPI-M, even as it electorally fought the Congress, refrained from obliterating the grand old party so as to deny the Hindu right the opposition space. Now, almost 70 years later, with the left parties in gradual retreat, the Hindu right had returned home to roost, the politician observed. “You have to link the dots,” he added, cryptically.

Joining the dots

A brief but aggressive speech by TMC Minister Suvendu Adhikari, days before the State’s Panchayat elections in 2018, perhaps offers a clue to the links. In his speech, Mr. Adhikari, the second most influential politician in the TMC, said, “our objective is to form opposition-less Panchayat Board”.

TMC leaders have consistently focused on “opposition-less politics” since they came to power in 2011, and the result is apparent. Several Left Front cadres and leaders have joined the BJP, en masse, hurting the TMC.

One example is Yunus Ali, an affluent BJP activist of Tentuliya block in North 24 Paraganas district. For decades, Mr. Ali managed booths for the Left Front, as a Forward Bloc (FB) activist. Eventually, the FB’s party offices in Tentuliya were set on fire and Mr. Ali asserted that his elder brother was sent to jail on allegedly false charges “as he was a member of CPI-M’s local committee.” Having joined the BJP in 2014, Mr. Ali is now an election manager of and is the vice-president of the local unit of the BJP’s Minority Cell. TMC officials acknowledge that such desertions from the Left Front have helped the BJP consolidate.

Realising the dangers from the party’s earlier approach and the change in Bengal’s polity, Ms. Banerjee has switched tactics to offset the BJP’s impact.

Change in tack

One move, political observers said, has been to quietly boost the CPI-M, so that its cadres and leaders stop switching to the BJP.

“Precisely why TMC did not obstruct CPI-M’s last big rally in Brigade Parade ground, perhaps for the first time,” said Tathagata Majumdar, a lawyer and former activist of the Students’ Federation of India. “I find that CPI-M party offices, closed since 2011, are slowly opening. This would not have been possible without TMC’s tacit support,” added Mr. Majumdar.

Secondly, Ms. Banerjee has tried to consolidate the minority vote in the three Muslim-majority districts of central Bengal, hitherto inaccessible to the TMC, by poaching opposition lawmakers.

The TMC’s gains in the three central districts of Murshidabad, Malda and Uttar Dinajpur are expected to offset its losses in west and north Bengal.

Simultaneously, to ensure that the consolidation of the Muslim vote, about 30% in Bengal, does not displease the Hindus, Ms. Banerjee has adopted multiple strategies. She distributed cash benefits to neighbourhood clubs, invested time and energy in celebrating Hindu festivals and stepped up the State government’s direct cash transfer schemes.

Rural schemes

“There is no doubt that such schemes worked well in rural areas, especially Kanyashree, a scholarship scheme for girls,” said Sabir Ahamed, a research fellow of Pratichi Insititute. “Roads and other infrastructure projects are being completed on time. These are her key areas of strength,” Mr. Ahamed added. The TMC’s biggest asset, though, is Ms. Banerjee herself. She is still the the most popular leader by a long shot among all the parties in the State.

Observers say while it is inevitable that the BJP’s vote share will climb from the 17% it polled in 2014, a lot would depend on how other parties fare.

“If the Left-Congress combine can keep its joint share around 25%, it will keep BJP below 25%, which is good news for TMC,” said Gautam Roy, a political commentator. “But if Left-Congress drops further, BJP may cross the 30% mark severely damaging TMC,” Mr. Roy said.

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