A Game of Power: West Bengal Assembly Elections by Sanjukta Ghosh

By Sunil Pun|May 7, 2021|General|0 comments

by Sanjukta Ghosh

SSAI Sanglaap’s webinar A Game of Power: West Bengal Assembly Elections, was held with eight speakers in two related panel discussions before the result was declared this week. The Indian State of Bengal located in the vulnerable ‘borderland’ region of South Asia, is a hotspot for communal tensions and violence following the legacy of Partition and Decolonisation. Violence was building up ahead of the high-octane eight-phase West Bengal Assembly polls — a target state for the ruling majority BJP that has steadily progressed in Eastern India. 

South Asia’s national elections are known for their high pitch drama, emotional investment, demonstration of wealth, internecine conflict among contesting political parties, and competition between an array of new promises. The recent Assembly elections (April/May) in the Indian states brings into sharper focus regional powers opposing the majoritarian BJP as the ruling parliamentary party. States have control over agriculture – a burning question today, industrial employment, health, education, public order, and State public services. Hence, policies at the sub-national level impact national implementation, relations with neighbours and ultimately foreign policy – neglected areas in micro election analysis and literature on diplomacy. Within the electoral context, Bengal’s geopolitical position is crucial for the Central government relations with Bangladesh and its ambitious maritime interest to constrain China in the Indian Ocean Region and Indo-Pacific. Bengal also serves as the gateway to the North East and strategic routes in North Bengal connecting to the Silk route. The election shows the tensions brewing in the state and the Eastern Himalayan region due to leaps in BJP’s vote shares and capture of 77/292 Assembly seats ending in post-poll indiscriminate violence. While the granular data on electoral behaviour is emerging, the SSAI webinar on the pre-election analysis pointed to the impossibility of predicting a neat outcome. The triumphant results of the Bengal elections brought euphoria and relief to the ruling All India Trinamool Congress and for its leader, Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee that proves the uncertain and volatile nature of the emerging federal politics.

The Communist Party of India (Marxist) CPI (M) ruled the state for over three decades until the current Trinamool Congress won a majority in 2011, the year of Change/ Parivartan marking a decade long rule and returned to power in May 2021 with a two-thirds majority. The TMC supremo Mamata Banerjee has been sworn in as the Chief Minister of the State for the third consecutive time winning with 213 seats and 47.94 per cent in vote share. For the first time since India’s independence, Bengal Assembly will see the BJP (substantial growth with 38.13 per cent vote share) as the main opposition, with the regional Congress Party and the CPI (M) completely eroded.

Before the election, Mohammed Salim, former Member of Parliament and member of the CPI (M) Polit Bureau, spoke at the webinar about repositioning the Left with emerging regional alliances. The CPI (M) Congress alliance has been unprecedented except for pre-electoral seat understanding in 2016. Salim points to the critical aspects of grassroots and street-level participation, culture and ethos underlying a counter-narrative of the Third front, easily overlooked in the media reporting on mainly polarised political campaigns. Post-poll, the realigned Left enthusiasm received a heavy blow and has been criticised for opportunistic alliances without much groundwork by both veteran and emerging campaigners.

Prof Sekhar Bandyopadhyay commented on the ideological repositioning of caste-based identity in Bengal elections. Historically, long periods of stability in the post-Partition decades of Communist rule kept caste as a socio-economic marker of identity outside communal politics. Currently, it is gaining strength among migrants from Bangladesh who crossed over after few years of the Bengal Partition. New legislation on Indian citizenship underpinning the politics of hope has influenced the flexible political allegiance of lower caste groups and their electoral behaviour. The poll results in North Bengal reveal the divided communal response endorsing, on the one hand, the ruling TMC’s opposition to the legislation, and on the other hand, the fear of those seeking protection from Central government promises.

Prof Maitreesh Ghatak (LSE Economics) views the shift in political narrative from growth to Mamata Banerjee’s thrust on social protection schemes that potentially swelled the support of floating voters – a campaign feature emerging as the solid foundation for gendered politics in state-level opposition. West Bengal’s election campaign has been tuned to high pitch personality politics, offering the scope to challenge the patriarchal leadership.

Dr Indrajit Roy (York) gave the larger picture of Bengal’s strained relations with the majoritarian BJP led Central government systematically pushing for the 21st century, Akhand Bharat. Such a project unified under one-party rule bears regional significance in the wider Indo-Pacific and Bangladesh borders. Bengal’s ethnonationalism bypasses critical issues like the ecological hazards of the deltaic region, Rohingya refugees in the Indo-Bangladesh border that influence anti-immigration sentiments on both sides of the border. 

Dr Subir Sinha (SOAS) talks of Bengal’s hyper-nationalism and the unpredictable response to Hindutva constituting the election’s momentum narrative that privileges identity politics over any development drive or urgency. The election results boost the populist perception of Bengal’s exceptionalism and rising expectations of liberal reforms from TMC’s anti-communal stances.

The second part of the webinar focuses on grassroots responses to sectarian politics, the crisis of Bengal’s liberalism, minority questions and those emerging in the borderlands concerning China’s regional influence. Shahnawaz Ali Raihan, Epsita Halder and Ambar Kumar Ghosh comment on the nature of contentious federalism and regional identity highlighted by the election-winning slogan “Bengal chooses its own daughter’.

Overall, the discussants point to the critical and violent phase of regional coalition building and myriad media responses to India’s electoral politics. 

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