The countdown has begun. Today, May 2, 2021, the much-debated, long- awaited results of the eight-phase elections to the West Bengal Assembly will be declared.
Four other Indian states went to the polls recently but none of these, arguably, created the kind of national, even international, buzz that Bengal, tucked away in the country’s eastern region did. “Other than the Covid-19 pandemic, it is the topic of discussion in political circles here,” says Sujan Dutta, Delhi-based journalist.
Why is that?
Political commentators attribute the high degree of interest that Bengal elections, particularly, the 2021 Assembly polls, has generated to different factors. Chief among these is the argument that what happens in Bengal impacts the entire country and really parts of the world.
Paranjoy Guha Thakurta, journalist and editor of digital news portal, “paranjoy.in” writes, “The outcome of the ongoing elections to the West Bengal legislative assembly will have important implications for the working of not just the state’s polity but on the future of democracy in India. If the Bharatiya Janata Party is able to come to power for the first time in Bengal, there will be no stopping Narendra Modi’s relentless drive to create an Opposition-mukt (Opposition-free) Bharat and his unabashed endeavour to establish what can best be described as an ‘electoral autocracy’ in the country.” (https://www.paranjoy.in/article/questions-galore-what-does-bengal-think-today).
In fact, the BJP’s possible capture of Bengal has been likened to the British takeover of the region and subsequently the entire country in the 1757 Battle of Plassey. Defections into the saffron party of top leaders from ruling Trinamool has been called as treacherous as Mir Jaffar’s betrayal of Siraj ud Daula. The comparison has been made by journalist Sagarika Ghosh in one of Guha Thakurta’s documentaries on the Bengal elections.
Psephologist Professor Biswanath Chakraborty says, “Bengal elections are important because who rules Bengal has local, national and international relevance.” An example is the role played by West Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee in the bi-lateral discussions on sharing river water with Bangladesh.
Geopolitically, Bengal is strategically located, surrounded as it is by four of India’s seven international neighbors, namely Bangladesh, Bhutan, Nepal and Myanmar. Since ancient times it was considered an important political and economic port because of its vast natural resources. The Himalayan mountains stretch out across its north. The Bay of Bengal spreads out to vast horizons on its east and south and the Hoogly, a large part of the river Ganga flows gently along its west. No wonder the British made Bengal its base.
For any Indian government with ambitions of strengthening ties with its neighboring countries, as seemingly nurtured by Prime Minister Narendra Modi since he came to power (he went to the extent of dropping in, by way of a surprise visit to Pakistan in 2015, just a year after assuming office, to meet then Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif), Bengal’s strategic importance cannot be overstated. And after India’s recent border disputes with China and with China reportedly sending friendly signals to India’s friends Nepal and Bangladesh, India is keener to get the neighbours on its side.
However, it was not always easy to get hold of power in the state for India’s Central rulers. Since 1977 the ruling establishments of Bengal made it impossible for the parties ruling at the Centre to get a foothold. The Congress Party, which held power at the Centre for the greater part of the 34 years that the Left Front government ruled Bengal, was a weak Opposition in the state. When Mamata Banerjee with her fledgling Trinamool Congress finally put up a strong Opposition, she decimated the Left in the state but her party’s presence was not a national phenomenon. No wonder she tried on several occasions to put together a Front with other regional parties that would fight Central elections together. For a while the names of a number of leaders of these regional parties including Mamata’s did the rounds as possible candidates for PM in case such a Front were to come to power in the Centre. One would remember how Bengal’s intellectuals like author Mahasweta Devi had famously declared during a Trinamool rally that she wanted to see Mamata as a future PM.
What makes the 2021 Assembly Elections of Bengal even more significant in this regard is that this is the first time in nearly half a century that the same political party ruling the Centre is staking a claim for the state of Bengal by putting up a credible option as an Opposition. When the BJP won only two seats from Bengal in the general elections of 2014 right in the middle of a Narendra Modi wave that swept him into power, it was reassuring for Mamata Banerjee. But the BJP’s Parliamentary seats from Bengal shot up to eighteen five years later in the general elections of 2019, right in the middle of a Mamata Banerjee wave (it must be remembered that she returned to power with a thumping majority three years earlier in the 2016 state elections). That is what is a cause for concern as far as the Trinamool is concerned because suddenly there is a strong Opposition. That too, with a strong – very strong – national presence.
Indeed, BJP’s gaining of sixteen seats in 2019 has been compared to the Trinamool’s gaining of nineteen in the general elections of 2009, just two years before it dethroned the Left government.
What the implications are if the BJP indeed does do to Trinamool in 2021 what Trinamool did to the Left in 2011 is another matter.
The question for right now is, will it?
The answer will emerge today.
In the meantime:
Predictions of Political People:
- Professor Biswanath Chakraborty, psephologist:
“A regime change cannot be ruled out. Anti-incumbency has been a factor. However it will be a close contest between BJP and Trinamool. The Third Front comprising the Left, Congress and Indian Secular Front (ISF) of Abbas Siddiqui is unlikely to get more than 20 seats.”
2. A conversation with a Trinamool party worker who works at a state government office in Kolkata:
“We will return, won’t me, sister?” he asks. “You are a reporter, you will know.”
“What do YOU think?”
“I think we will. If we fall short of the numbers, I believe that the Left, Congress and ISF combine will support us just to keep the BJP out.”
“Even the Left will support you?
“For the Left, the BJP is a bigger enemy. With Trinamool, there is at least some common ground.”
“What common ground?”
“I am a Muslim and I know that Muslims voted for Trinamool, for the Left and for ISF. Few Muslims voted for BJP.”
Voices of the Voters:
- A forty-year-old man, a florist of Kolkata:
“Everyone is the same. None of us have any expectations from the political parties that come to power. However we will chose change. If we can we will ensure no government becomes complacent. If we can we will remove the government and install a new one every five years.”
2. A sixty-five-year-old woman, a manager at a beauty parlour:
“I think change is now necessary. Maybe it will be a choice between the devil and the deep blue sea but we will chose change.
3. A thirty-year-old woman, an author.
“The right wing government needs to go. We cannot let it come to Bengal. I hope we do not.”
4. A fifty-five year old woman, a caretaker at a housing complex in Kolkata:
“Didi has done a lot for us poor people. She has given us rice for rupees two per kilo. And look at what they did to her and her foot got injured. But they cannot stop her. We are with her.”
5. A sixty-year-old rikshaw puller:
“My eighty-year-old mother is a staunch supporter of the Communists and she will never vote for anyone else. But I will vote for whichever way the wind is blowing and I think it is blowing for change.”
The answer, to disagree with Bob Dylan, is not blowing in the wind. But the storm that has been brewing will strike today.
UPDATED 5pm May 2, 2021: Trinamool, the grassroots blossom, has bloomed in Bengal. An analysis will follow soon.