With the announcement of eight-phase elections beginning March 27 West Bengal is all set for the big battle of the ballot. As the battle- lines are being drawn the prospects of a third player in what was conceived as an essentially BJP-Trinamool Congress contest are also emerging. It will be interesting to watch if the third front would play any decisive role and become a game-changer.
With the dissatisfaction against the BIP government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi building up slowly and steadily the option of a joint front has very much been in discussion in Bihar. But in political quarters in Delhi, a weak Opposition has so far been hesitant to talk about it as it could weaken it further. However, the political scenario in West Bengal has changed all this.
Till the other day, the electoral battle in West Bengal has clearly been seen as a battle between Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee’s Trinamool Congress and the BJP. With personalities of leaders being more powerful than their parties it even looked like a personal battle of top BJP leaders with Mamata Banerjee. Other political parties and their leaders did not even find a mention in media or public discourse. However, the situation is fast changing now.
Initially, quite a few leaders at 20 Akbar Road were in favor of giving an unannounced walkover to help Mamata Didi as the party gave to Arvind Kejriwal’s Aam Adami Party (AAP) in Delhi early last year. Since the idea is to defeat BJP and the joint front is not possible why divide anti- BJP votes, they argued.
However, the top leadership of the party soon understood the pitfalls of this strategy. West Bengal was not Delhi and Mamata Banerjee was no Kejriwal. It was realized that there was strong resentment and determined opposition to Mamata Banerjee in many quarters which the BJP had been fully exploiting to emerge as a powerful force in West Bengal.
Therefore, any direct or indirect support to Mamata was to strengthen rather than weaken BJP. Hence the Congress thought of aligning with the Left Front, once it’s arch-rival in West Bengal, to form a third front. The decision has been rather difficult as the Congress-led front will be fighting the Left Front in Kerala.
It is no secret that the BJP’s rise from two seats in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections to 18 seats in 2019 elections was made possible only by traditional voters of the CPI (M) whose cadres were so upset with Mamata Banerjee that they could go to any extent to oppose her. This unexpected shift destroyed all political calculations.
However, the year 2021 is not 2019, and as they say much water has flown down the river Hooghly. Mamata Banerjee no doubt remains as unacceptable to the CPI (M) cadres and her erstwhile colleagues in the Congress as before but the Modi government has also lost much of its clout and Assembly elections, as we all now, are a different ball game.
The Third front, therefore, is a clear choice for all those anti-Mamata forces who do not want BJP to come to power in West Bengal. But the question is how powerful a force they are and who will they damage more Mamata Banerjee’s Trinamool Congress or Modi-Shah’s BIP.
The political preferences of voters shift from election to election and previous election results are no barometer to know how they will vote in the coming elections. However, we know that in the 2016 assembly elections Mamata Banerjee polled 44.91 percent votes and got 211 seats while BJP polled 10.16 percent votes and got 3 seats.
The remaining 45 percent votes and 80 seats went to other parties which are now part of the Third Front. In the 2019 Lok Sabha elections, the BJP vote share rose to a whopping 40 percent but the vote share of Trinamool Congress at 43.69% percent remained somewhat at the same level. It is obvious that the BJP’s sharp rise was because of the shift of anti-Mamata Banerjee votes from all other parties to BJP.
In their ambitious drive to unseat Mamata Banerjee and capture power in West Bengal, BJP has taken recourse to its time-tested strategy of polarization of majority community votes. But its aggressive Hindutva line campaign has further alienated the nearly 30 percent Muslim minority vote bank which had already been cut-up because of agitations against Modi government measures like NRC and CAA.
Whatever the sponsored and not sponsored opinion polls may say, as the situation stands at present Mamata Banerjee’s Trinamool Congress is clearly in the lead with around 45 percent assured support base among the electorate. The relentless attacks by senior BJP leaders and defections have no doubt made a dent in the Trinamool Congress base but not big enough to make it lose power.
The fact remains that despite all efforts BJP’s core support base in West Bengal remains only at 15 percent of the total electorate. Having alienated 30 percent of Muslim votes, BJP is to compete with Mamata Banerjee and the Congress-Left front alliance for support from only 70 percent of the electorate. If attempts at polarization do not bear results or prove counterproductive the alienation of minorities will cost BJP heavily.
The combined Congress and Left Front vote share at present is around 35 percent of the total. If a third front emerges as a viable option then smaller parties like RJD, which has a sizable presence among migrant Bihari workers, may give it another three to four percent to take it close to 40 percent which BJP got in the 2019 Lok Sabha elections.
The election campaign in the coming four weeks or so will indicate if the votes are being cast on these lines or not. Any last-minute development may change the voting behavior of the electorate. But if there is no sudden change then the bigger challenge for Mamata will come from the third front rather than the BJP.
However, the big question is whether the Congress and the left front will be able to transfer their votes to each other, especially when at the same time in another election-bound state, they are fighting against each other. However, what is not being talked about in the political quarters of Delhi is the fact that this time the CPI (M) is making a serious bid to return to power in West Bengal and it clearly needs Congress support for this. And Congress is too willing to oblige.
The final outcome of elections in West Bengal may, therefore, be very different from what is being perceived at the moment. For all, we know May 2 may throw a big surprise at us.
(CPM twitter: An aerial view of Feb 28, 2021, historic mega rally at Brigade Parade Ground in Kolkata. “This is the beginning of the end of TMC and BJP, getting ignited from the land of renaissance – Bengal. #Peoples Brigade”: CAPTION/)
NOTE: The author, a veteran journalist and a former Professor at IIMC, New Delhi, is editor of Media map, a monthly thought journal on current affairs. He was Head of, Department of Journalism, and course director. He retired from IIMC in the year 2008.
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