In Bengal, get ready for an epic battle -3

Insight Chandra

The issue of alliances

In the previous parts we discussed the economy and the various voting segments, in this part we will focus our attention on alliance politics and the various options in front of the various parties.

Bengal alliance politics has picked up steam from December with Mamata Banerjee’s meeting with the Gandhis in Delhi. Why does a party that swept Bengal in 2014 need an alliance with a smaller party?

The Alliance with the Congress party is extremely important for the TMC because of the likely deterioration in performance of the BJP. The BJP won 17% of the vote share in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections, large proportion of it from the Left Front. Many of the votes were won on the back of the Modi wave. However, with the Modi wave having ebbed and the party still sorting out on leadership issues, it is unlikely they would do very well in the 2016 election. The question is how bad and what % of those votes would go back to the Left? T has less than 10% share in Bengal but is not a bit player. Mamata had an alliance with the Congress party in 2011 and swept Bengal. In the 2014 election, TMC and INC had a -76% correlation (Highest amongst all the parties). TMC and INC appeal to the same vote base and a strong performance by the INC would damage the performance of the TMC. For example, a combination of TMC and INC would have delivered 39 additional assembly segments during the Lok Sabha election in 2014.

In the last 5 years since having been booted out of power, there hasn’t be a lot of good news for the Left Front. After having lost the 2011 election, the Left front was wiped out in the Lok Sabha elections winning just 2 seats and had an uneven performance even in the recent Municipal election. Having been in power for 34 years and having ended with a dissatisfaction as high as 37% means that the Left Front cannot rely just on the past to swing voters from other parties. It needs to win additional voters and data seems to suggest that many of these additional voters will have to come from those who voted for the BJP in 2014. The medium negative correlation with BJP means that its focus will have to be on the 60+ seats where  BJP scored more than 15% votes but those seats were won by Trinamool. Further, it will also need to wrest another 10 seats where BJP and INC are small players and the vote share gap between Trinamool and Left is less than 10% (Lok Sabha). If it manages to win all these seats, it would still end up at about 105 seats versus 140+ seats for Trinamool. Not enough to return to power.

That said, the above data clearly suggests that Left will have to target many upper class and young BJP voters (CSDS)) to switch sides and probably return or vote Left back to power. Given the levels of historic dissatisfaction with the Left and the relatively less dissatisfaction with Trinamool, this would be a challenging if not impossible task. A strong Left-Congress alliance would also attract swing voters as well as Muslim voters who would probably look to back the winner. The big question is, will the Left be able to win Congress voters? As we all know transfer of votes will always be a challenge. Inspite of the long unity of the Left, there have always been reports of the inability of some of the smaller Left constituents, with a far less regimented and disciplined organisational compared to the CPM, in transferring their vote to the CPM. The Congress has a weak organisation base across  Bengal.  Further, Bengal has politicaly savvy  voters and the contradictions between the two are ideologies could be a different sell.

The coalition would need time to establish a credible terms of reference in order to leverage the coalition at the ground level.  Secondly, attracting new voters will need an inclusive and positive vision for Bengal which while based on traditional rights will need to emphasize on Job creation which is a huge problem in Bengal.  Lastly, any decision in Bengal could have a bearing in Kerala where the Left and Congress are in a pitched battle for power.

In sum, Left will have to seriously consider an extremely complex situation and have to shoulder the responsibility of reading the tea leaves accurately to project  strong leadership who will  articulate the aspirations of the people of Bengal and create bi-partisan appeal, re-fashion its agenda items to focus squarely on employment as the No.1 Goal and lastly, find agenda items that will attract many who are disillusioned with the TMC, elements of its own disgruntled base and swing voters amongst BJP voters in 2014. In our view, many Muslim voters of Trinamool are likely to back such an alliance if the alliance builds up sufficient momentum close to election day.

BJP and Congress

Surprisingly, both the BJP and Congress party have far more opportunities in this election than the two mainstream parties.

In case of the BJP, the massive jump in vote share in Lok Sabha 2015 came on back of the Narendra Modi wave. However, it is not seen as a serious player in Bengal in 2016 as it is seen as being very cooperative with the Mamata Govt (slowdown in investigations in the Sharadha scam) and its performance in the centre has been less than stellar. Our assessment is that the relatively high dissatisfaction ratings of both the Left front and the Trinamool Governments offer the BJP an unique opportunity to be a significant part of the changing power equations in Bengal. This could  materialise by capturing most of swing away from Trinamool while losing no voters to the Left front. As we saw earlier, the Left recovery is very dependent small share of votes from both the BJP and Trinamool. If the BJP were successful in this strategy and manage a 5% swing in its favor, it could end up with a tally of about 50 seats. With 50 seats it could easily come into the reckoning for an alliance with Trinamool and entry into the Govt in West Bengal. Its ability to win an additional 5% share will have to be built on the twin edifices of Jobs and its reminder of the levels of Governance of both the Mamata and Buddhadeb regime. An alliance between the Left and Congress will also be preferable as that alliance is in a better position to damage the TMC’s chances and therefore make it even more reliant on the BJP for power in 2016. However, this seems a remote possibility.

The fact that both the Left and the Trinamool are wooing the Congress is enough evidence of the Congress party’s residual clout in this election. As we have articulated earlier, both the Left Front and the TMC will probably need Congress to form the next Government. The big reason that the Left alliance would be preferable is because an alliance with TMC will enable TMC win a majority on its own thereby ignoring the Congress party as did so in 2011. With the Left front it is likely that it will get an opportunity to be a part of the Government in Kolkata. In many ways, its strategies will need to mirror the left as that is the only way for it to gain vote shares from the left. It will also need to find a sensible common minimum programme focussed on Jobs that will ensure that its votes are easily transferred to the Left Front. Even if the alliance does not win a majority on its own, the unpredictable performance of the BJP could give the Congress other opportunities including a post-poll alliance with Trinamool.

It is fairly clear that this is an exciting election with a variety of possibilities which also means that each party will need to implement its strategies with care and attention. The wafer thin swings will need to be attracted through very targeting messaging to the relevant segments. For political Junkies, this is another Bihar in the making, watch this space for more on Bengal….