West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee with Prime Minister Narendra Modi, in New Delhi on May 25, 2017. (Photograph: PIB)

Elections 2019 ‘State Of Play’: Mamata-Modi Clash Crowding Out Left And Congress?

BloombergQuintOpinion

West Bengal is witnessing a fierce battle between Mamata Banerjee and the Narendra Modi – Amit Shah duo. The Bharatiya Janata Party is making a strong attempt to a put a dent in Mamata’s fortress and become the principal opposition ahead of the Left Front. Meanwhile, the Indian National Congress, which was hoping for an alliance with All India Trinamool Congress and then the Left Front, is looking to maintain its 2014 tally. West Bengal sends the third highest contingent to the Lok Sabha with 42 MPs and is likely to play a key role in government formation at the centre.

The last few weeks have seen a number of heated verbal volleys between Trinamool Congress and BJP. The TMC-led state government denied permissions to Modi, Shah, a few BJP chief ministers and Rahul Gandhi for landing helicopters in the state. Mamata Banerjee and Rahul Gandhi, who shared pleasantries earlier, have engaged in sharp exchanges during the campaign.

Mamata Broke Left Citadel, And Is Now The New Left

The Left ran the state for 34 continuous years from 1977 to 2011. In fact, the Left Front government in West Bengal was the longest-serving democratically elected communist government in the world. During this period, the left parties developed a loyal vote bank of poor and minority voters. Back then, Congress was the principal opponent.

In 1998, Mamata Banerjee broke away from the Congress, and soon emerged as the main opposition to the Left. In the 2011 assembly elections, she managed to wrest power from the Left, when Trinamool was in alliance with the Congress.

Subsequently, TMC swept the 2014 Lok Sabha elections in West Bengal, bagging 34 seats out of 42. The party then retained power in the 2016 state elections, with a bigger majority than 2011. Now, Mamata is eyeing to repeat the 2014 Lok Sabha performance to bolster her prospects of leading a potential Third Front government in the event of a hung parliament. The BJP has accused Mamata of playing minority politics and ignoring Hindus.

In many ways, Mamata is the new Left. She positions herself as the champion of the poor, downtrodden, and minorities.

Over the years, a section of the Left cadre moved to Trinamool. In addition, the state government supports over 20,000 neighbourhood clubs with funding, which serve as the TMC’s eyes and ears on the ground.

Also read: Elections 2019 ‘State Of Play’: Can BJP-Sena Retain The Erstwhile Congress Fortress?

Left’s Decline And Mamata’s Rise

Mamata has taken away three-fourths of Congress’ vote share in West Bengal. She has also eaten into the Left’s support. The TMC and BJP’s vote shares are on a rise, while Left and Congress are witnessing a downward spiral.

In the last two decades, the Left vote share dropped 20 percent, while Congress lost 30 percent. Trinamool gained 40 percent, and BJP 10 percent.
Elections 2019 ‘State Of Play’: Mamata-Modi Clash Crowding Out Left And Congress?
Elections 2019 ‘State Of Play’: Mamata-Modi Clash Crowding Out Left And Congress?

BJP Replacing Left As Primary Opposition

BJP surprised political pundits with the jump in its vote share in the 2014 Lok Sabha polls, aided by the Modi factor and the absence of fresh faces in the Left Front. That year, 20 percent of respondents in a CSDS survey preferred Modi as Prime Minister, compared to 17 percent who chose Mamata. BJP made major inroads among upper caste voters, which account for 10 percent of the population. 24 percent of upper caste voters in Bengal voted BJP in 2014 versus nine percent in 2009.

The Modi impact was most prominent among the young, especially first-time voters in 2014.
Elections 2019 ‘State Of Play’: Mamata-Modi Clash Crowding Out Left And Congress?

However, in the state elections that followed in 2016, BJP couldn’t maintain its 2014 vote share, as Congress and Left joined forces. According to all opinion polls for 2019, BJP is expected to gain vote share as well as improve its seat tally. This could compensate for potential losses in the Hindi heartland. The BJP is primarily eyeing 14 urban seats in North Bengal and Greater Kolkata.

Fertile Ground For BJP, But It Struggles With Class Politics

West Bengal has the second-highest Muslim population in India after Uttar Pradesh. At 27 percent, it is almost double the national average. The BJP is trying expand its base in West Bengal by branding Mamata with a ‘pro-Muslim’ tag. In 2017, BJP alleged that more than 40 communal riots had taken place under Mamata’s regime. The chief minister responded by allocating Rs 28 crore to Durga Puja committees.

West Bengal politics is different from many other parts of the country, in that class and not caste is a major determining factor.

Mamata seized the class divide opportunity in the 2008 Singur agitation against the Tata Motors plant, and has never looked back.

Elections 2019 ‘State Of Play’: Mamata-Modi Clash Crowding Out Left And Congress?

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Caste Politics Rising, BJP Has To Manage Contradictions In Social Base

Since 2009, caste politics has slowly started making its way into the state. As a Trinamool MLA from south Bengal explained, “the caste factor was suppressed. It was like a volcano waiting to erupt. Just have a look at how many ministers from the state have been from any community, apart from the educated upper-caste elites or bhadralok.”

Mamata Banerjee, along with her then-aide Mukul Roy, had a plan to split the Dalit vote which accounts for 23 percent of the population. In December 2009, Mamata became a member of the Matua Mahasangha, to appeal to the influential Matua community which has a significant hold over 10 seats in south Bengal. Earlier, about 55-60 percent of scheduled caste voters would choose the Left Front. In the 2011 state assembly elections, the Matua Mahasangha worked along with Trinamool Congress to bring in 48 percent of Matua and 46 percent of other schedule caste votes.

This also opened doors for BJP to push caste-based politics in the state.

During the 2014 Lok Sabha campaign, Modi attacked Mamata in an election rally at Krishnanagar with “Matuas aren’t treated as Indians”. In that election, 40 percent of SC voters polled for TMC, 29 percent for the Left and 20 percent for BJP. The death of the community’s leader Boroma Binapani Devi in March 2019 resulted in a split in her family, with one faction supporting BJP and the other staying loyal to TMC. With upper caste voters also moving toward the BJP, the party will have to balance the social contradictions in simultaneously seeking upper and lower caste votes.

Elections 2019 ‘State Of Play’: Mamata-Modi Clash Crowding Out Left And Congress?

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Congress Wooed Mamata, Then Left, But Ended With Ekla Chalo Re

Briefly in 2018, Congress and Trinamool seemed eager to revive their alliance but Rahul Gandhi ruled that out in December. By March 2019, talks between the Congress and the Left had also fallen through.

The Congress support in West Bengal comes from the central region which has a high Muslim population. All four seats that Congress won from West Bengal in 2014 were from this region. Same for the Left, which bagged two seats.

With BJP knocking at its door, Mamata needs to win these seats from Congress and the Left to compensate for potential losses in the south and urban Bengal. Trinamool is strong in the south-east, Greater Kolkata and the south-west.

Elections 2019 ‘State Of Play’: Mamata-Modi Clash Crowding Out Left And Congress?

Also read: Elections 2019 ‘State Of Play’: Tamil Nadu’s Game Of Musical Chairs

Unemployment Top Issue, Mamata Scores Over Rahul In Leadership Ratings

Jobs are the top issue in the state according to 42 percent surveyed in an India Today poll. 14 percent said farm distress was at the top of their minds, which lower than the national average. Modi tops the list of who respondents think is best suited to be Prime Minister list with 54 percent. Mamata Banerjee was picked by 23 percent, followed by Rahul Gandhi at 12 percent. The Congress president’s poor numbers in the state may have been another reason for TMC to not explore an alliance.

While opinion polls predict BJP could better its tally, the party’s internal surveys have made it hopeful of winning as many as 22 seats. But does the BJP have the machinery to take on Trinamool’s ground game, and to capitalise on Modi’s popularity in Bengal?

Amitabh Tiwari is a political commentator, strategist and consultant advising political parties and leaders. He was a corporate and investment banker.

The views expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of BloombergQuint or its editorial team.