Verdict 2016

Not Easy for West Bengal’s Lone Ranger

West Bengal Chief Minister and All India Trinamool Congress chief Mamata Banerjee is going it alone in the State Assembly election in 2016 and that may be her chance, says Subir Bhaumik.

Unless her cash-and-terror strategy works, West Bengal Chief Minister and All India Trinamool Congress chief Mamata Banerjee will not find it easy returning to power. The Left-Congress alliance, long overdue but put together before the election, is making deep inroads in Mamata’s bastions, evident from the public attendance in their rallies despite huge Trinamool threats. Though the Union government headed by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) would have no particular reason making things difficult for Mamata in order to pave the way for a Left-Congress victory, the Election Commission of India (ECI) appears serious about maintaining law and order and ensure voting without fear.

Several officials, including Kolkata’s Police Commissioner, Rajeev Kumar, have been replaced after strident Opposition complaints, dozens of Trinamool leaders, like Birbhum district Trinamool president Anubarata Mondal, warned or pulled up for threatening statements, a huge posse of central para-military forces has been deployed across West Bengal and the poll schedule spread over six phases will ensure maximum vigilance by the ECI and best possible deployment of central forces.

Though the Opposition is more upbeat than ever before in the last five years since the Left Front was ousted from power, Mamata is tired and in a tight corner, but keen to fight to the bitter end. “Do everything you can, but you cannot stop my return to power,” she told the local media, obviously hinting at the Election Commission. “If [the] EC and central forces can prevent terror and allow Bengal to vote freely, Mamata will be on her way out,” said CPI(M) leader and the Leader of Opposition in the State Assembly, Surjya Kanta Mishra. He points to the embarrassment caused to the Trinamool by the Narada exposes (now that the Trinamool MPs exposed in the Narada tapes have been showcaused) and the flyover collapse in Kolkata that exposed the Trinamool-run ‘construction syndicates’ that control supply of material for all infrastructure projects, compromising on quality and asking for high rates. (The Narada tapes was the result of a sting operation by the online portal Narada News that showed Trinamool ministers and senior leaders accepting money in return for favours like lobbying for a company.)

While most poll surveys done a month ago were pointing to a facile Trinamool victory, some done recently have pointed to Mamata’s dwindling fortunes — the worst from her point of view being the one done by ‘543’ that contends that Trinamool will not win more than 100 seats in the 294-strong Assembly. Another survey done by a local group ‘Nirbachan’ says if Trinamool’s cash-for-voters and large-scale terror does not work due to the Election Commission’s tough measures, her party will win 126 seats at best. This survey, though, points out that if her lieutenants get a free run of the poll process (rigging, intimidation, last minute cash distribution), then she may win up to 160 seats. An Intelligence Bureau survey has also used a similar ‘if-and-but’ projection, saying that Mamata’s best would not exceed 168 seats and the worst could be as low as 128.

This is in stark contrast to the several surveys conducted in Feb-March that predicted an easy Mamata victory. But one has to remember that these surveys were done before the Left-Congress alliance really began to hit it off the ground and before the highly damaging Narada tapes and the Kolkata flyover collapse.

Summary of all Opinion Polls for West Bengal Assembly Elections 2016

West Bengal Assembly Election Opinion Poll 2016

Party Alliance

Times Now- C Voter(Mar)

ABP- Neil

son (Mar)



News Nation

(Mar)



ETV Bangla (Mar)

Leadtech Infoelections (Feb)

ABP Ananda - Neilson (Feb)

India TV-C Voter (Feb)

TMC

160

178

167

201

109

182

156

CPI(M)+INC

127

110

125

64

73

107

127

BJP

4

1

2

-

109

0

-

IND

2

5

3

-

3

5

11



The pollster’s challenge

So why is there such a huge variation in poll projections in West Bengal? Why are psephologists at a loss to predict the final outcome with certainty? I would imagine four factors explain that.

(a) Polling in West Bengal has often been highly ‘doctored’ by parties in power. The Congress was never expected to win the 1972 State polls but it did so through massive rigging and vote fraud with even the late Jyoti Basu losing his Baranagar seat by more than 40,000 votes. Mamata’s victory in 2011 was caused by a genuine slide back in popular support for the Left and its cadres failing to arrest a huge popular swing by using its regimented party organisation. Mamata has used the Left tactics of ‘scientific rigging’ and ‘select terror’ more brazenly in all polls since 2011. But this time on, her party organisation appears somewhat demoralised and directionless as the Left was in 2011. So, pollsters are not able to calculate the impact of the ‘organisation factor’ in the final outcome of the polls.

(b) In every state election since the party was formed, the Trinamool Congress has fought the polls with a strong ally, a national party. Initially, it was the BJP but in 2001, Mamata switched back to the Congress and her victory in 2011 owed as much to the 10 per cent Congress vote in Bengal as to the fact that the Congress was in power in Delhi. But now, the Trinamool Congress, for the first time since its birth, is fighting a state election alone. Pollsters who tend to judge poll outcomes by vote share in the previous polls are unable to work out a standalone vote share that the Trinamool is capable of achieving, contesting the state polls on its own. Call it the ‘alliance factor’ that the pollsters are finding it difficult to calculate. For instance, some local analysts like Biswanath Chakrabarty would argue that since the Congress vote in Bengal was largely an anti-Left vote, it would largely transfer to the Trinamool and not to an alliance headed by the Left as a senior partner.

Some pointers may be available in the Trinamool’s sweeping victory in 2014 Lok Sabha polls, but parliamentary and state legislature polls don’t produce similar outcomes in India, as the recent Bihar polls would show. And in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections, the Congress and the Left were not in alliance.

(c) Bengal has traditionally witnessed polarised voting since independence between the Congress and the Left. Then came the Trinamool and it replaced the Congress as the main challenger to the Left. When the Trinamool and the Congress joined hands in 2001, the state returned to its traditional polarised voting pattern that makes predictions easy. But the sharp rise in the BJP’s vote share — 17 per cent in the 2014 Lok Sabha polls — has introduced a third force factor, which we can call the ‘saffron factor’. This helped the Trinamool Congress sweep the 2014 Lok Sabha polls in the State (34 of the 42 seats) because the BJP cut into what was increasingly a polarised TMC and anti-TMC vote. By eating into the anti-Trinamool vote share, it reduced the vote for both the Left and the Congress candidates. How the ‘saffron factor’ plays out this time is not at all clear, though pollsters agree the saffron vote share will sharply drop to single digit. But how much of that lost saffron vote will transfer to the alliance and how much of it to the Trinamool is again not clear.

(d) Personalities have played a key role in Bengal polls. The Left owed much of its electoral success to Jyoti Basu’s towering personality because Basu had become a national leader of some standing. But for some of his party comrades, he would have been India’s Prime Minister in 1996. Buddhadev Bhattacharyya could not fill that vacuum and the ‘towering effect’ was lost. Despite his best of intentions to develop Bengal and his efforts to secure investments, Buddhadev could not produce that ‘towering effect’ that could have stopped Mamata in her tracks in 2011. On the other hand, Mamata did produce that ‘towering effect’ in 2011: the right mix of projecting hopes for a new dawn, her austere living as a symbol of integrity and her street-fighter image helping consolidate the anti-Singur and Nandigram agitations into a march for poll victory. If the BJP has failed to project a real solid local face (unlike in Assam where they have Asomiya ‘jatiyo bir’ Sarbananda Sonowal or in Bihar where they had Sushil Modi but failed to project him enough), the Left-Congress alliance has been able to project a determined (though quiet by Bengal’s garrulous standards) and suave leader in Surjya Kanta Mishra, now the Leader of Opposition. As Mamata’s rhetoric has touched new heights of irresponsibility and betrayed desperation, Mishra has come across as a mature and determined leader, adept at not only fighting a rival like Mamata but also anti-alliance comrades like Prakash Karat. But pollsters are uncertain how much impact Mishra will make on the electorate as an effective replacement for Mamata.

Mamata’s huge success

Mamata Banerjee reached her pinnacle in 2011. The Bengal Congress has a tradition of revolt against the High Command since the early 1920s. Deshbandhu Chittaranjan Das and his protégé Subhas Chandra Bose both challenged the High Command and broke away to form new parties — the Swarajya Dal and the Forward Bloc, respectively. But despite their enormous stature and huge prestige as great inspiring leaders, neither Deshbandhu nor Netaji could break and undermine the Congress in Bengal and reduce it to a second fiddle of their own parties. The Congress remained ever so much more powerful than the Swarajya Dal or the Forward Bloc. Even Pranab Mukherjee created a regional party, Rastriya Congress, in the mid-1980s, after his clash with Rajiv Gandhi. That did not work, though when Pranab Mukherjee went into revolt, he had been practically number two in the Union Cabinet under Indira Gandhi. He failed to make any impact and returned to the Congress.

Mamata has made Mohammed come to the mountain, as goes the English proverb. Within a decade of her breaking away from the Congress, she eclipsed the Congress to third position in Bengal. Then she successfully challenged the CPI(M)-led government and toppled it to become the numero uno of West Bengal politics. The Bengal Congress that has produced leaders of huge stature does not have one capable of teaching the Congress central leadership a lesson. Mamata Banerjee shared the long Bengal Congress tradition of challenging the Delhi leadership, the AICC's style of functioning, of dominating the state leadership. But she is the only one who has forced the Delhi Congress to come to her begging for even a junior position in the alliance.

The importance of Battle of Bengal 2016

For the Congress, therefore, it is not only an opportunity to humble Mamata and pay her back for breaking out of the UPA three years ago, but also to forge an alliance with the Left that could emerge as the main challenger to Narendra Modi’s BJP-led NDA. Though the Congress is a now a junior partner to the Left in the Bengal alliance, it would surely be the senior partner in a national alliance. Stakes are, therefore, much higher for the Congress — if successful in ousting Mamata, this could translate into the main anti-BJP alliance at the Centre. “Oust Didi in Bengal, Modi in Delhi’ is an appropriate slogan heavily used by most Congress top shots during the Bengal campaign.

For the Left, this election is not just an effort to win back their most stable political base, but also an attempt to experiment with a major non-Left national party. Unless they control Bengal, the Left cannot expect to play a major role in national politics. So, this poll battle is not merely a question of the Left’s survival in national politics, but also all about experimenting with a new alliance that takes it beyond the 1978 Left Front model and explores a larger broad-based alliance of secular forces to fight the rising tide of political Hindutva.

For Mamata and the Trinamool, with all the success she has had so far, failure to sustain beyond a single term would mean an end to the brief essay of Bengali regional politics. The Left has always pandered to regional Bengali sentiments as have Congress stalwarts like Sarat Chandra Bose in his desperate attempt to prevent a partition of Bengal in 1947, but Mamata is the first Bengali politician who has structured her politics on ‘standing up for Bengal’s interest’ rather blatantly. That brought her an instant and ever-expanding support base until her stay in power was blackened by her huge governance failures. For Mamata, this election is as much one of survival as it is for the Left. A defeat may lead to heavy defections from the Trinamool to the Congress and open the Pandora’s Box in the party, as some senior leaders like Subrata Mukherjee may come out to openly challenge Mamata. So, this poll defeat may effectively finish the phoenix that Mamata has so far turned out to be.

For the BJP, the prospect of a hung Assembly or anyone winning by a razor thin margin would be a boon. Not only could it become politically significant in the numbers game that would follow (don’t forget the Governor in such a situation and Keshari Nath Tripathi, the present Governor, is a hard core BJP politician) but a political vacuum may help the Hindutva forces to expand their political base at the grassroots. The RSS is already looking to double its state membership, as are its other offshoots. But the lack of its political relevance and a strong local face will continue to haunt the saffron parties. The BJP tried hard to get Sourav Ganguly but now has to settle for a lesser Ganguly star — ‘Draupadi’ Roopa Ganguly. She has proved to be a tough campaigner and a brave one, but lacks the aura of the former Indian captain. BJP’s anti-infiltration rhetoric, so useful in Assam, has not worked in Bengal. So if the saffron parties intend to dig deeper in Bengal’s politically intense and bloody soil, they have to find a face and a message that goes well here. This election is all about finding one such leader and a message of inclusiveness for the saffron camp.

All in all, the stakes are high for the all the top four.

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