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Battle for Bengal 2021: Political Themes and Electoral Dynamics


Soumya Bhowmick and Ambar Kumar Ghosh, Battle for Bengal 2021: Political Themes and Electoral Dynamics, March 2021, Observer Research Foundation. 


India is set to witness the Vidhan Sabha elections in the coming months in the states of West Bengal, Kerala, Tamil Nadu and Assam, as well as in the Union Territory of Puducherry.[1] This study offers a primer on the polls in West Bengal. It outlines and analyses the most fundamental political themes in the state which could influence the conduct and outcome of the elections.

As voting behaviour can be determined by elements of the socio-economic, and cultural identity of the electorate, this primer opens with an overview of West Bengal’s demographic profile (See Tables 1 – 10). In the upcoming election, out of 2.05 million new voters, there are about 268,000 aged 18-19.[2]

Table 1: Key Population Parameters

Source: Census of India, 2011[3]

Table 2: Religious Profile

Source: Census of India, 2011[4]

Table 3: Linguistic Distribution of Population

Source: Census of India, 2011[5]

Table 4: Rural-Urban Composition

Source: Census of India, 2011[6]

Table 5: Socio-Economic Indicators

Source: Source: PRS Legislative Research[8]

Note: The GSDP (at constant prices) of the state in the year 2017-18 was 9.1 percent and its share in all-India GDP was 5.5 percent.[9] This has decreased from 6 percent in 2011-12.[10] While there is a rise in unemployment rate in the state, it is below the national average for the first time in decades.[11]

Table 6: Sectoral Contribution to State Economy

Source: PRS Legislative Research[12]

Table 7: Composition of Population Below Poverty Line

Source: Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment, Government of India[13]

Table 8: Health Indicators

Source: Authors’ own, using various open sources

Table 9: Voter Turnout in the Last Four Elections

Source: Source: Election Commission of India[17]

Table 10: Gender Composition of Voters

Source: Election Commission of India[18]

West Bengal’s 2021 Polls as Watershed: A Background

The upcoming Vidhan Sabha elections in the states of West Bengal, Kerala, Tamil Nadu, and Assam are all equally important to India’s democratic ecosystem. The West Bengal polls, however, are assuming a singular relevance[19] for two reasons. First, the Bharatiya Janta Party (BJP) is making a concerted effort to capture power in West Bengal for the first time since the party began contesting the state assembly elections about 40 years ago.[20] Since 2014, the BJP has emerged to become a dominant political force in Indian politics, winning a comfortable parliamentary majority in two successive national elections (2014 and 2019).[21] Moreover, BJP holds power in many states, either on its own or in alliance with smaller parties, and it would be a milestone for the party to be at the helm of West Bengal.[22] The second reason is that in West Bengal, the BJP is battling the ruling Trinamool Congress Party (TMC, also known as the All India Trinamool Congress or AITC) which stormed to power in a historic win in 2011 that ended more than three decades of rule by the Communist Party of India (Marxist).[23] Since then, AITC, led by present Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee, has had uninterrupted rule in the state.[24]

Table 11: Chief Ministers of West Bengal

Source: One India[25]

CM Banerjee has been a vocal opposition to the BJP since 2014. Her government has made known its strong critiques of some of the most crucial policies of the BJP-led Central government, including the passing of the Citizenship Amendment Act 2019 (CAA), the proposal for a nationwide implementation of the National Register for Citizens (NRC),[26] and more recently, the three new contentious farm laws, against which massive protests by farmers are being held.[27] The disagreements between the Union government and the WB state government have been manifested in various administrative[28] and federal governance domains.[29],[30]

Until recently, the ruling AITC enjoyed almost unchallenged political dominance in the state, as the other prominent opposition parties, the left parties,[31] and the Congress—[32] which had once dominated the political landscape of West Bengal—have over the years been reduced to marginal political players. Their vote shares have dwindled over both the recent national as well as state elections.[33] The BJP, which over the decades since independence has had little political presence in West Bengal, began to consolidate its vote share in the state in the 2014 national elections. In the 2019 national polls, the BJP emerged as the most important political challenge to the AITC, obtaining a larger vote share and winning 18 parliamentary seats.[34] Although the ruling party’s vote share was not eroded in the 2019 elections, election analyses suggest that the BJP appeared to have gained from the vote share of the Communist Party of India (Marxist)-led Left Front.[35] This has catapulted BJP to the position of principal opposition party in the state; today it has the potential to challenge the incumbent.

The BJP has been trying to consolidate its position in the state on various issues, including the CAA 2019[a] that aims to give citizenship to non-Muslim refugees in India, including in West Bengal, and the implementation of the NRC[b] in the state, designed to identify “illegal migrants”.[c],[36] At the same time, the BJP has thrown various allegations against the Banerjee government, involving corruption, “appeasement politics”,[d] and misgovernance.[37] In 2020, during the initial onslaught of the COVID-19 pandemic, and the landfall of the devastating Cyclone Amphan, the BJP also criticised the state government for what it said was its failure in dealing with the twin crises.[38] For its part, the Trinamool has called the BJP an “outsider’s party” that lacks historical and cultural connection with the West Bengal and its people.[39]

Analysts consider[40] CM Banerjee to be possessing of a “charismatic appeal” which they say has been AITC’s strength.[e] Meanwhile, these analysts say, BJP lacks a local leader who can compete with Banerjee’s popularity.[f] Over the course of its dispensation, the AITC has also implemented social welfare schemes[41] related to food, education and health, amongst other necessities; these have helped Banerjee perpetuate her political appeal,[42] especially amongst the lower-income populations.[43]

A challenge to AITC in the upcoming election is that over the recent years, many of its prominent leaders have defected to the BJP—citing reasons ranging from corruption within the party, to displeasure over not getting AITC tickets to contest in the upcoming elections.[44],[45] One of Mamata Banerjee’s closest aides, Mukul Roy, for instance, defected to BJP in 2017; it would only be the beginning of more high-profile exits from the AITC. Roy, who is known as an efficient political strategist, is believed to have been key in BJP’s impressive performance in West Bengal in the 2019 Lok Sabha elections;[46] he also helped bring disgruntled AITC leaders into the BJP.[47] Another important AITC leader who has shifted his loyalty to the BJP is former Kolkata Municipal Corporation Mayor, Sovan Chatterjee, who holds influence in the district of 24 North Parganas.[48]

More AITC political leaders defected to the BJP following the 2019 Lok Sabha elections,[49] the most notable of which was Suvendhu Adhikari.[50] Adhikari, a strong mass leader of the AITC from the district of East Midnapur close to CM Banerjee and a key organisational strength of the party in some districts, is believed to have the wherewithal to influence electoral outcome in this election in at least 20-30 Assembly seats.[g] At the same time, however, the appointment of these AITC turncoats to important positions in the BJP has reportedly provoked discontent[51] within long-time party leaders in the BJP in West Bengal.[52]

Apart from the AITC and BJP who are locked in a tough political fight, the CPI(M) and the Congress, with limited political wherewithal to fight the election successfully in their own right have forged an alliance with each other with Indian Secular Front (ISF)[h] for jointly fighting the AITC and BJP in the elections.[53]

Read the entire report here


[a] See “What is CAA?” Times of India, January 9, 2020,

[b] See Apurva Vishwanath & Kaunain Sheriff M, “Explained: What NRC and CAA means to you”, The Indian Express, December 25, 2019,

[c] Apart from Assam and West Bengal, these protests have escalated across India in other states such as Delhi, Meghalaya, Arunachal Pradesh, Manipur and Tripura.

See “Protests and strikes hit Assam, Manipur, Tripura against CAB,” Hindustan Times, December 9, 2019,

See “Violence Grips Assam, Meghalaya, Bengal & Delhi as Protests Against Citizenship Act Escalate; Oppn Plans Mega Rally,” News 18, December 14, 2019,

[d] The AITC Government’s decision to increase Imam allowances and Madrasa budget has been touted by the opposition as one of the moves of Muslim appeasement of the ruling party in the state.

See Soumya Bhowmick, “The identity fault lines of a West Bengal voter”, LSE South Asia, June 14, 2019,

See Chandan Mitra, “Mamata Banerjee’s Appeasement Policies Have Created Real Danger”. NDTV, July 6, 2017,

[e]See Madhuparna Das, “Mamata becomes mellow ‘Bengal’s daughter’ as she rebrands herself for 2021 assembly polls” The Print, March 19, 2020,

See Shoaib Daniyal, “Mukul Roy’s exit will not help the BJP much in West Bengal”, Scroll, September 28, 2017,

See The Print Team, “Why The 2021 Bengal Polls Will See A Tough Fight Between Formidable Mamata Banerjee &BJP”, The Print, December 19, 2020, Https://Theprint.In/Opinion/Why-The-2021-Bengal-Polls-Will-See-A-Tough-Fight-Between-Formidable-Mamata-Banerjee-Bjp/570035/

[f]See Jaideep Mazumdar, “Wanted In Bengal: A Strong State BJP Leader To Challenge Mamata Banerjee’s Might”, Swarajya, December 25, 2017,

See Prerna Katiyar, “How The Absence Of Recognisable Faces Within BJP In Bengal Is Leading To A Host Of Defections From TMC”, The Economic Times, February 13, 2021, Https://Economictimes.Indiatimes.Com/News/Politics-And-Nation/How-The-Absence-Of-Recognisable-Faces-Within-Bjp-In-Bengal-Is-Leading-To-A-Host-Of-Defections-From-Tmc/Articleshow/80899585.Cms

[g]See Aditi Phadnis, “Why TMC MLA Suvendu Adhikari is a big catch for BJP before elections?”, Business Standard, December 6, 2020,

See “Suvendu impact in north Bengal”, The Telegraph, December 18, 2020,

See Atri Mitra and Ravik Bhattacharya “Explained: The importance of Suvendu Adhikari, to the TMC and to the BJP”, The Indian Express, December 16, 2020,

[h]Indian Secular Front (ISF) is a newly floated political party founded by a young cleric leader, Pirzada Abbas Siddiqui of the influential Muslim shrine of Furfura Sharif in West Bengal’s Hooghly district

[1]Press Trust Of India, “Election Body Prepares For 2021 Assembly Elections Due In 4 States 1 Union Territory”, NDTV, December 18, 2020, Https://Www.Ndtv.Com/India-News/Election-Commission-Begins-Preparations-For-2021-Assembly-Elections-Due-In-4-States-1-Ut-2340200

[2]“Election Commission releases final electoral roll ahead of West Bengal Assembly elections 2021,” Express News Service, January 15, 2021,

[3] “Census of India 2011 – West Bengal,”

[4] “Census of India 2011 – West Bengal.”

[5] Census of India, “Linguistic Survey of India West Bengal,”

[6] “Census of India 2011 – West Bengal.”

[7]Partha Ray and Rajesh Bhattarcarya, “State Finance of West Bengal”, Niti Aayog, December, 2017.  

[8]SuyashTiwari, “West Bengal Budget Analysis 2020-21”, PRS Legislative Research, February 14, 2020,

[9]Prasenjit Bose, “Is West Bengal’s Economy Really Growing as the Rest of India Shows?,” The Wire, June 25, 2019,

[10]Bose, “Is West Bengal’s Economy Really Growing as the Rest of India Shows?”

[11]Tiwari, “West Bengal Budget Analysis 2020-21.”

[12]Tiwari, “West Bengal Budget Analysis 2020-21.”

[13] Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment, “State-Wise Percentage of Population Below Poverty Line by Social Groups 2004-05,”

[14] Office of the Registrar General and Census Commissioner, India, “SRS Based Life Table 2014-2018”.

[15]Times Now Digital, “Bengal Sees improved institutional delivery, child mortality rate decreases”, Times Now News, December 24, 2020.

[16] “Bengal Sees improved institutional delivery.”

[17]“Election Commission of India,”

[18]“Election Commission of India.”

[19]SuvojitBagchi, “The Significance Of The Bengal Election For The Key Players”, Observer Research Foundation, February 13, 2021.

[20]SumeetKaul, 2021 “West Bengal Elections: Amit Shah Has Set The Stage For The Most Important Election Of 2021”, Times Now, December 21, 2020.

[21]Milan Vaishnav and Jamie Hinton, “The Dawn Of India’s Fourth Party System, Carnegie Endowment For International Peace, September 05, 2019.

[22]Indo Asian News Service, “Himachal Pradesh, Gujarat Election Victories, Gives BP Power In 19 States, 14 Chief Ministers”, Hindustan Times, December 18, 2017.

[23]Press Trust Of India, “Mamata Ends 34-Year-Old Left Front Rule In Bengal”, The Hindu Businessline, May 13, 2011.

[24]Shikha Mukherjee, “The Closer It Gets To The Elections, The Harder It Is Getting For The BJP In West Bengal”, The  Wire, January 18, 2021,

[25] List of Chief Ministers of West Bengal and their Tenure Periods”.

[26]ManogyaLoiwal, “Mamata Banerjee’s Bengal Becomes 4th State To Pass Anti-CAA Resolution”, India Today, January 27, 2020.

[27]Shiv Sahay Singh, “West Bengal Assembly Passes Resolution Demanding Repeal Of Centre’s Farm Laws”, The Hindu, January 28, 2021.

[28] Mamata Banerjee To Skip NITI AayogMeeting”, The Hindu, June 07, 2019.

[29]Chandrachur Singh, “ModiGovt’s Order To Bengal IPS Officers Shows Federalism Is Back To Indira Gandhi’s Ways”, The Print, December 15, 2020, Https://Theprint.In/Opinion/Modi-Govts-Order-To-Bengal-Ips-Officers-Shows-Federalism-Is-Back-To-Indira-Gandhis-Ways/566800/

[30]Press Trust Of India, “Bengal, Centre Clash Over Central Teams’ Visit; TMC Calls It ‘Adventure Tourism’”, The Times Of India, April 21, 2020, Https://Timesofindia.Indiatimes.Com/India/Bengal-Centre-Clash-Over-Central-Teams-Visit-Tmc-Calls-It-Adventure-Tourism/Articleshow/75278481.Cms

[31]AbhijitMajumder, “Will Mamata Banerjee’s Decline Revive The Left In Bengal Again?”, Firstpost, December 20, 2020, Https://Www.Firstpost.Com/Politics/Will-Mamata-Banerjees-Decline-Revive-The-Left-In-Bengal-Again-9129241.Html

[32]Press Trust Of India, “Congress Fights For Existence In West Bengal”, Business Standard, April 11, 2019, Https://Www.Business-Standard.Com/Article/Pti-Stories/Congress-Fights-For-Existence-In-West-Bengal-119041100184_1.Html

[33]Express Web Desk, “As Congress, Left Front Unite For Bengal Elections, This Is How They Fared In Previous Polls”, The Indian Express, December 25, 2020, Https://Indianexpress.Com/Article/India/Congress-Left-Front-Bjp-Trinamool-West-Bengal-Assembly-Elections-7118630/

[34]Smita Gupta, “The Rise Of The BJP In West Bengal,” The Hindu, May 16, 2019, Https://Www.Thehindu.Com/Opinion/Op-Ed/The-Rise-Of-The-Bjp-In-West-Bengal/Article27140846.Ece

[35]Roshan Kishore, “LokSabhaElections 2019: Why BJP Gained Despite TMC Vote Share Rise”, Hindustan Times, May 24, 2019, Https://Www.Hindustantimes.Com/Lok-Sabha-Elections/Lok-Sabha-Elections-2019-Why-Bjp-Gained-Despite-Tmc-Vote-Share-Rise/Story-WG1QJcYE2RjvIsQq1lnsnO.Html

[36]V K Tripathi, “West Bengal Revisited: BJP’s Campaign On CAA/NRC Bearing Fruit”, National Herald, December 18, 2020, Https://Www.Nationalheraldindia.Com/India/West-Bengal-Revisited-Bjps-Campaign-On-Caanrc-Bearing-Fruit

[37]PushkarTiwari, “Corruption Has Been Institutionalised In West Bengal: BJP Chief JP NaddaSlams TMC”, Zee News, January 09, 2021, Https://Zeenews.India.Com/India/Corruption-Has-Been-Institutionalised-In-West-Bengal-Bjp-Chief-Jp-Nadda-Slams-Tmc-2335075.Html

[38] “BJP’s 9-point attack over Bengal govt’s respone to Covid-19, Cyclone Amphan”, Hindustan Times, May 28, 2021,

[39]Press Trust Of India, “TMC Stokes Bengali Pride Calls BJP ‘Outsiders’, BJP Hits Back”, The Tribune, November 20, 2020, Https://Www.Tribuneindia.Com/News/Nation/Tmc-Stokes-Bengali-Pride-Calls-Bjp-Outsiders-Bjp-Hits-Back-173265

[40] Sanjaya Baru, “Politics of personality”, The Week, January 17, 2021,

[41]Bagchi, “The significance of the Bengal election.”

[42]Smita Gupta, “Decoding Didi’s popularity”, The Hindu, May 20, 2016,

[43]RomitaDatta, “Mamata Banerjee Plays Welfare Schemes Card Ahead Of Elections”, India Today, July 27, 2020, Https://Www.Indiatoday.In/India-Today-Insight/Story/Banerjee-S-Welfare-Programmes-1705040-2020-07-27

[44]Times Of India Editorials, MamataTroubled: Defections Help BJP Project Growing Acceptability While Damaging TMC Morale”, The Times Of India, December 20, 2020, Https://Timesofindia.Indiatimes.Com/Blogs/Toi-Editorials/Mamata-Troubled-Defections-Help-Bjp-Project-Growing-Acceptability-While-Damaging-Tmc-Morale/

[45]Romita Datta, “Will TMC defectors cost Mamata the election?”, India Today, January 27, 2021,

[46]Snigdhendu Bhattacharya, “Mamata’s former confidante Mukul Roy emerges as Bengal BJP’s key poll manager”, Hindustantimes, February 9, 2020,

[47] “BJP gets new team: In Bengal, Mukul Roy elevated, dropped Rahul Sinha asks ‘is this my reward’”, The Indian Express, September 27, 2020,

[48] “Sovan Chatterjee joins BJP, severe jolt for TMC”, Economic Times, August 14, 2019,

[49] Suchitra Karthikeyan, “Suvendu Adhikari & 23 Others Join BJP In Amit Shah’s Presence; Thunders ‘BhaipoHatao’”, Republic World, December 19, 2020,

[50] “Disadvantage Didi: Adhikari’s exit hurts TMC prospects for the assembly elections”, The Times of India, December 18, 2020,

[51]“BJP gets new team: In Bengal, Mukul Roy elevated, dropped Rahul Sinha asks ‘is this my reward’”, The Indian Express, September 27, 2020,

[52]Madhuparna Das, “Ghosh vs Khan in Bengal BJP is a fight for control between old guard & Trinamool defectors”, The Print, October 28, 2020,

[53] Times News Network, “Congress, Left Put Alliance Seal On 193 Bengal Seats”, The Times Of India, January 29, 2021, Https://Timesofindia.Indiatimes.Com/City/Kolkata/Cong-Left-Put-Alliance-Seal-On-193-Bengal-Seats/Articleshow/80525618.Cms

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Soumya Bhowmick

Soumya Bhowmick

Soumya Bhowmick is an Associate Fellow at the Centre for New Economic Diplomacy at the Observer Research Foundation. His research focuses on sustainable development and ...

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Ambar Kumar Ghosh

Ambar Kumar Ghosh

Ambar Kumar Ghosh is an Associate Fellow under the Political Reforms and Governance Initiative at ORF Kolkata. His primary areas of research interest include studying ...

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