Bengal result: Present and future story

  • Ashok Malik
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Every election has a story to tell. Every mandate conveys a message from the voter and the electorate. It is the unusual election that suggests a trenchant break from the past or a social and political breakthrough. The State elections that concluded on May 19 were particularly rich in this sense and have left us with much to think about.

In Assam, the victory of the BJP indicates a dramatic change in the State’s polity. In Kerala, the strict bipolarity of an alliance led by the communists and an alliance led by the Congress, which has dominated State politics for 50 years if not more, is being threatened by the disruptive entry of the Bharatiya Janata Party, which has picked up many votes, but only one seat. It is on the cusp of reaching the voter threshold that will translate into a bag of seats.

In Assam, the transition is complete. In Kerala, there are strong chances of a transition at some point in the near future. In West Bengal, the transition is not over but is taking place in real time, and this election was a milestone in that journey. Simply put, the State has been left absent of an opposition. The Trinamool Congress has won 211 seats of 294, with 45% of the vote. The Congress, which contested 91 seats, has won 44. The CPI(M)-led Left Front has won only 33 of the remaining 203 seats.

The vote share of these parties is telling. The Congress has got 12.3% of the vote and its alliance partner, the Left Front, has managed 25.9%. The Left has lost almost 15% vote share since 2011, when it had got 39.4%. In that year, the Congress had managed 9.5%. Of course, the Congress was then in partnership with the Trinamool Congress. Yet, the Congress vote in the 2014 Lok Sabha election, when it contested alone in West Bengal, was similar at 9.7%. This would suggest that the Congress core or base vote in the State is in the 9.5 to 10% range.

In 2016, the alliance with the CPI(M) gave the Congress a 2.5 to three percent bump. Yet, the CPI(M) lost almost 15%, while transferring only about three percent to the Congress. Where did the other 12% go? It was divided almost equally between the Trinamool Congress and the BJP. The BJP got 10% of the vote, up from four percent in 2011. Admittedly, in the 2014 Lok Sabha election, it had got 16.8% of all votes in Bengal, but that is a separate matrix.

So what happened to the Congress-CPI(M) alliance? The Congress vote in the State is concentrated in a few districts. As the CPI(M) transferred votes, the Congress became even stronger in those pockets. Half its numbers are from just two districts (West Bengal has 25). The party won 14 seats in Murshidabad and eight in Malda.

The CPI(M) vote is spread across the State. The Congress was either unable to transfer its vote or simply had too few votes to make a difference. As a result, the CPI(M), which was in an absolute majority of its own till as recently as the 2006 election, was reduced to a tenth of the Assembly. Its effacement from its rural heartland, including from districts such as Burdwan, once an ideological and political fortress, is complete. This is no ordinary defeat for the communists; it suggests permanent or at least long-term exile.

Why? There are several reasons. Many of the denominational and social constituencies, the economic and power networks, that the Left had cultivated in its three decades in power have been taken over by the Trinamool Congress. The loyal communist voter is ageing, and as the decision to tie up with the Congress showed, desperate. The alliance was a last-ditch stand, and it failed. It is a fair bet that the CPI(M) decline is irreversible. At any rate, this incarnation of the CPI(M) is over.

So who will grab the opposition space? The Congress is geographically restricted and has no pan-Bengal leader. There is always a chance that the party may split and ambitious MLAs may do a deal with the Trinamool Congress in the coming years. The CPI(M) is in the midst of an existential crisis. The battle between the Bengal unit which advocated the alliance and generally wants a more pragmatic and less ideological approach to electoral politics and the purists based in Delhi is intensifying after May 19. Ranged against each other are general secretary Sitaram Yechury, who backed the Bengal line, and the Karats: Prakash and Brinda.

Some of this is ideological conflict, some is little more than factional jockeying. Whatever the eventuality, the fact is that it will keep the CPI(M) occupied and unable to focus on rebuilding itself in West Bengal. The probability of the party splitting and sections of CPI(M) politicians and district-level officials breaking away to set up a plain and simple Bengal Party rather than the Bengal franchise of a self-proclaimed internationalist progressive movement is high.

On the other hand, the BJP has been offered a model by its success in Assam, where a national party recast itself as a regional party, or at least an entity willing to embrace regional sensitives and sentiments. To repeat this in Bengal is not impossible but will take effort and require a pragmatism that the party has not always displayed in Kolkata. At the minimum, the party will need to prop up a Bengali face, one that can be promoted as capable of mobilising fence-sitters and incremental voters.

One suspects the opposition to Trinamool Congress lies in either of these two boxes: A re-imagined local BJP or a Bengal Party that emerges from the ruins of the CPI(M). Will either occur in time for 2021? Many will bet against it today, especially after Trinamool Congress’s massive victory, but do remember that politics always abhors a vacuum.

This commentary originally appeared in The Pioneer.

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