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CPPR Webinar on ‘West Bengal Elections: Understanding Nuances and Implications’

Date and Time: 22 April, 2021, 5:30 pm

Chief Guest: Dr G Gopakumar and Sandip Ghose

Moderator: Dr. D. Dhanuraj 

Host: Goutham K.A.

Proceedings Report:

About: West Bengal Elections 2021

The Key Speaker:  Dr G Gopakumar (Psephologist, Former VC, Central University of Kerala), Sandip Ghose (Political Commentator, Op-ed Columnist)

Moderator: Dr. D. Dhanuraj (Chairman, CPPR)

Host: Goutham K.A. (Associate, Project, CPPR)

Discussion Summary:

  1. The discussion focussed on the fiercely fought West Bengal elections and evaluating the stakes for BJP, TMC and Sanyukta Morcha.
  2. Dr. Dhanuraj opened the discussion asking the relevance of West Bengal elections and asking the two keynote speakers about the significance of election. Dr. Gopakumar set up the premise in his introductory remarks, stating how, since independence, West Bengal elections have had really high stakes. PM Modi’s recent visit to Bangladesh and visit to temples may have attracted hindu voters especially Matua voters from Nadia and 24 Parganas. Sanjukta Morcha (Left + Indian National Congress + Indian Secular front) is an alliance of contradictions and has a lot to prove to voters.
  3. Mr. Sandip Ghose observed that Bengal has a history of electoral violence so the eight phase elections will help Election Commission of India to monitor better. 2011 and 16 assembly elections were conducted in 6 phases. For the last 50 years, Bengal has mostly been ruled by a party which is in opposition at the centre, resulting in a tiff between centre and the state. The BJP may use this plank to get to the ruling chair. He further stated that communsit rule in West Bengal was different from Kerala as CPI(M) in Bengal was considered to be a regional party, led by Jyoti Basu and post that Mamata Banerjee replicated the tradition which resulted in the enmass shift of Left cadre to TMC, TMC came up with “Bangla nijer meyekei chay” (Bengal’s daughter vs outsider) which did not resonate well with voters. BJP’s momentous rise securing 40% votes in the 2019 LS elections can also be linked to changing demography and aspirations of people.  
  4. While addressing the question of importance of 6th, 7th and 8th phase for Mamata Banerjee Mr. Ghose explained that the constituencies going to polls in the last 3 phases are TMC bastions.  
  5. Further, he added that Bengal has distinct geographical identities. North Bengal comprising the hills, areas close to Bangladesh, the Cooch Behar region has distinct ethnicity and is inhabited mainly by Rajbanshi tribes. South West Bengal is bordered by Bihar, Odisha and has a lot of labour coming in from these areas who can be called naturalised bengalis. South Bengal is inhabited by Ethnic Bengali population. Bengali Muslims voted either for Left or INC in the past, and later TMC. But due to continuous influx of refugees from Bangladesh legitimately or illegitimately, Muslim population in the state exceeded 60% resulting in communal insecurities and divide in these regions. 
  6. Dr. Gopakumar stated that Sanjukta Morcha is no challenge to the political might of TMC and BJP. TMC not only replaced the Left but also filled up the space occupied by INC. The vote of Left parties have declined since 2011 assembly elections and in the 2019 LS election, Left drew blank. Left fighting along with newly formed ISF and INC has confused Left cadre as in Kerala INC and Left are at loggerheads. 
  7. Further on the relevance of CAA and NRC, Dr. Gopakumar stated that it is a polarising issue and may even result in the rise of BJP. CAA gives the option of rehabilitation of Bengali Hindus. Parties like AIMIM, ISF may also gain ground resulting in consolidation of votes and division of TMC votes. According to Mr. Ghose, CAA-NRC will not have a major impact on ground. Before 2011, TMC was in favour of CAA-NRC.
  8. While explaining the scope of Samayukta Morcha, Mr. Ghose answered that in spite of internal feud in CPI(M), it still went ahead with alliance with ISF. Only visible leader of INC on ground  is Adhir Ranjan Chowdhury whereas Rahul Gandhi could not campaign due to commitments in Kerala. Only ISF will be benefiting from this alliance. As people earlier thought that muslims will consolidate towards TMC as it has chances to form the government. But the political violence of TMC resulted in sympathy in favour of ISF. Left initially had support in rural areas due to agricultural reforms but industries were decimated so they were unable to meet the aspirations of people and TMC is also unable to provide development which resulted in people migrating from Bengal and being involved in menial jobs in other states. 
  9. When asked about BJP’s growth in Bengal based on consolidation of SC,ST, Matuas and Rajbanshi voters compared to generally party relying on urban voters in other states, Mr. Ghose pointed out that Subaltern Hinduism in Bengal has turned towards the BJP. Bengal has witnessed minority appeasement resulting in hindu consolidation towards BJP.
  10. Responding to the question of Mamata Banerjee playing a larger role in national politics, Dr. Gopakumar pointed out that if Left and INC had allied with TMC then it would have helped TMC electorally. There may be a possibility that if elections result in hung assembly then Samayukta Morcha may support TMC from outside. If TMC wins elections then it will give Mamata a better chance at national level.
  11. Replying to same question, Mr. Ghose stated that pre-poll alliance between Left and TMC as left still has something to fight for in Bengal and with INC it is ego clash as who will be the face of national opposition. Whether Mamata wins or loses still she can play a larger national role to fill the vacuum at national level to counter BJP.
  12. When asked about BJP just becoming like other parties accepting actors and defectors which was also opposed by even cadres of BJP, Mr. Ghose stated that accepting actors is a reaction to actors, artistes and film industries supporting TMC so people do not consider BJP not accepted by cultural symbols. Accepting the defectors has been a path of party throughout the nation, it is mainly to weaken opposition. 
  13. Both Dr. Gopakumar and Mr. Ghose lauded Mamata Banerjee’s decision to contest from Nandigram, remarking it to be brave and making the fight interesting. 
  14. While analysing the difference between 2019 and 2021 situation, Mr. Ghose remarked that in 2019 Lok Sabha the vote for BJP was more of revenge voting against TMC which used a lot of political violence during Panchayat elections but in 2021 assembly elections Bengal is witnessing anti-incumbency, polarisation and a mass cadre shifting from one party to another resulting into rise of BJP.
  15. In concluding remarks, Dr. Gopakumar stated that new issues like CAA, NRC, lack of industrialisation, unemployment is challenging the current regime. If NDA wins it will BJP breach Eastern frontier. 
  16. Mr. Ghose concluded, If BJP does not win Bengal, it may witness downslide as anti-incumbency will be a factor in 2024. It will be interesting to watch the social engineering efforts of the BJP in Odisha, Kerala, Tamil Nadu and to increase its presence in Southern India.

This report was prepared by Anuj Sharma, Election Study Intern, CPPR

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