In Bengal, get ready for an epic battle - 2

Insight Chandra

Article by Subhash Chandra and Tej Bahadur

In part-1 we focussed on the economy which has often played a critical role in Bengal elections. Today we will understand the dynamics of three key segments which will influence the vote in Bengal.

Mamata Banerjee had come to power in 2011 riding on huge support from the youth, women, the lower middle class and to some extent the Muslim vote. She repeated a strong performance again in the 2014 Lok Sabha election

Youth Segment

Young voters are quite restless across the country and no different in Bengal. Part of the reason that BJP did well in 2014 was than many young and first time voters voted for them on the back of the Modi wave. The slowdown in the pace of industry and service sector is likely to impact this segment the most. 

The first time voters in 2011 had also been a clincher for her win. Numbers show that while the left had just added 1.1 m votes to its 2009 tally of 18.2 m to reach 19.3 m while the number of first voters was around 4.4 m. There are about 1.3 m (MHRD) students in colleges at this moment with another 8 lakhs having graduated after the election in 2014. These 2 million college educated voters in the age band 18-23 constitute about 3 % of the voting base and an important swing constituency in Urban Bengal. However, the slower pace of the economy, the continued unemployment situation, slower pace of urban income growth and the continued disturbances in educational institutions is likely to have a negative impact on the TMC. 

Other issues like the handling of Jadavpur university protests , ex Trinamool MLA Arabul Islam throwing a jug at a Professor of a college in Bhangar during a meeting, allegations of misgovernance & malpractice in conducting the TET, SET exams which are recruiting vehicles of teachers and readers in schools and colleges have hurt the Mamata administration and have led to large scale protests across Bengal by all the opposition parties.

A few policies have been implemented including Yuvashree by the Govt but overall budgetary limitations make it difficult for the Govt to launch large scale programs to benefit youth in Bengal.

The question is who gains from this, will the opposition parties be in a position to offer an alternate vision to the young voters in Bengal? The BJP in particular appears to have lost steam after having benefitted from the Modi wave. It is still unclear if the Left Front has been able to establish a connection with this voting group. Finally, it is possible that educared young voters may decide to sit out of this election altogether. Either way, education and employment will have to be the two big mantras and the party that offers the best practical way forward is likely to gain in this segment. 

Women

Nearly 50% of the voting population are women and a higher turnout means that the number of female voters are almost on par with male voters, a rare feat. Lower fertility rates also imply that women in Bengal are probably far more empowered than many other States. However, the condition of women in Bengal is one of the worst in the country – whether in terms of employment or crime. Women’s unemployment in Bengal was about 26% (Census 2011) when the Left Front handed over power to Mamata Banerjee in 2011. The national average was about 9.9%. While the employment situation appears to have improved, overall rates continue to be worse than the national average. In 2014, Bengal reported a Crime rate against women of 85.4, significantly higher than the national rate of 56.3. While the increased crimes against women appears to be a national affliction, the Park street rape, which the CM had termed false and transferred the officer, Damayanti Sen,  who had registered an FIR and initiated an enquiry may have hurt her image. Another important case is the one including the Kamduni rape and murder of a school girl by members with connections with the ruling party. A Football matched was prevented from being played by the local administration in order not to hurt the sentiments of maulvis in Malda. However, her delivery of some sops through the ‘Kanyashree’ program might be able to counter that a bit. By 2014, nearly a million girls had benefitted from the Scheme.

Here again, while the overall condition of women appears to have made no significant improvement since 2011, it is unclear who will benefit from this at this moment. Parties that come up with a focussed agenda on female unemployment and significant reduction in crimes against will certainly benefit from this voting group.

The Muslim vote

Bengal has been secular across decades and Muslims have voted for all parties; the Left, Congress, Trinamool and even the BJP. The State has a good record of riots though in recent times riots have occurred closer to elections (2010 - Deganga, 2013-Canning and 2015-Malda). However, the condition of Muslims economically and in education has been a problem since many years. A recent report by Amartya sen highlights the sad conditions of Muslims in 2014. Employment appears to have expanded by about 0.3% from 2008 and 2 in 3 muslims can be classified as below poverty line. 

A significant change in the recent politics of Bengal is that Mamata Banerjee has actively sought votes from the community. 

The share of Muslims in Bengal is one of the highest in the Country. With a base of 27%, Muslims play a crucial role in numerous constituencies across the State. Out of the 20 districts in Bengal, in 12 of the districts the Muslim share of population is greater than 20%. These 12 districts contribute to 172 out of the 294 constituencies. If one considers districts with greater than 33% of the voters being Muslim, this comes down to 81 out of the 294 seats. Either way, Muslims form a significant proportion of voters in many Seats and even slight changes in the distribution of their votes could influence the overall election result.

In the 2014 election, Trinamool had about 35% of the vote share (CSDS 2014) amongst Muslims, every 10% point increase in share would yield nearly 3% additional vote share neutralizing any loss in vote share due to anti-incumbency. In 2013, she passed a reservation bill for minorities which was actually something that the Left had announced in 2010. This is contingent on expanding seats in educational institutions and therefore work in progress. In fact, reservations in Jobs for Muslims existed before she came to power. 

Some of other promises are still to be met, recognition to 10000 madrasas, multi-speciality hospitals. She also started a dole for Imams and Muezins(who call out the Azaan). The last two has not only led to her being accused as communal but the non-delivery of the promises has also alienated the very constituency she tried to create. The protests related to wages of teachers in Madarasas, the death of Farzana Alam may also had a negative impact. 

Therefore, over the last few months, Mamata has been actively reaching out to the Muslim population with increasingly risky strategy of sharing dias with Siddiqullah Chowdhury whose past track record inspires no confidence to secular minded people. Late last year she shared stage with preacher Toha Siddiqui who had been a bitter critic of Mamata Banerjee in the past on her work for the Muslims. The biggest challenge for Ms Banerjee is the fact that the condition of Muslims hasn’t improved significantly since she has come to power. For example, in 2013-14, only 6% of students in Colleges were Muslim (Population share is 27%). The continued sad state of affairs of Muslims in Bengal make it difficult for Ms Banerjee to position herself as a sole benefactor of the Muslim Vote.  

One of the biggest advantages of a Left-INC collaboration is that together they had about 54% of the Muslim Vote in the 2014 election. It is likely that the collaboration between the two parties will attract Muslim voters who are unhappy with the Trinamool thereby boosting the alliance. On the other hand, should these parties fight independently, Muslims voters are likely to be split across all the 3 parties with Trinamool likely to win the largest share given that it is likely to be seen as the probable winner of the election. Mamata had also successfully projected the Trinamool as the party which could defeat a rising BJP but with that threat receding after the civic polls, this card might lose its power.However, Mamata’s aggressive Muslim push could create a backlash in favour of the candidate who can defeat her, which would help the Left and the Congress .

Therefore unlike the Trinamool which has to woo Muslim voters, the Left will have to present itself as a likely winner with a clear vision for Bengal and mission for Specific voting segments including Muslims. Presenting itself as a strong contender will automatically attract the voters of dissatisfied Muslims and thereby propel the Party to the winning position. The Left can also point out to the fact that communal incidents under the Left between 2006 and 2011 was much lesser than during the Trinamool regime (Average of 16 per annum versus 21 per annum under Trinamool)

In case of the Congress party, being an ally has a lot of value as that would further consolidate Muslim votes behind it. However, as a smaller party fighting independently, it is likely to continue to perform poorly outside the 28 seats it was leading in 2014. Further, it is likely that some voters in these 28 seats will also move to the stronger competitors viz. Trinamool and Left thereby leading to even lower number of Seats. It is therefore important for the Congress party to target both the Trinamool and the Left governance and win it sufficient seats to enjoy a post election leverage on both the Trinamool and the Left.

The BJP is on a weak wicket in Bengal and its only hope lies in one or all the alliances playing the Muslim card too aggressively and scaring educated Hindu voters. This could help it retain many of the upper caste Hindu and Hindi speaking voters who voted for it in 2014 and deliver the 15-20 seats it was leading in 2014. It can then hope that these 15-20 seats can act as a leverage over the Trinamool during Government formation..

The competition for Muslim vote will intensify over the next 3 months as all the 3 left of centre parties actively woo these voters to either expand or consolidate their voting base. The BJP on the other hand would hope to use this open wooing of Muslim votes to consolidate the upper class Hindu vote ( no possibility). Each party should however be careful not to play with fire, Bengal has had little communal disturbances for the last 40 years and encouraging negative forces for power has always turned out to be a huge disaster.

Summary

As we saw in our previous article, the Mamata Govt appears to be on a strong footing in rural Bengal. However the 3 segments that are more vulnerable to shift from the TMC include Urban Youth, Muslims and Many Women . However, this does not automatically make the others a better alternative.  All the parties will need to come up with specific plans to improve the overall employment, education and security scenario of the State across all the 3 voting segments. The parties that convince the voting blocks of their plans will be in the best position to win 2016.