West Bengal election results show BJP gainers in new bipolarity, but TMC holds commanding heights

Suhit K Sen
·4-min read

In a curious twist, the Assembly elections in West Bengal in 2021 have thrown up numbers uncannily similar to those of 2016. The ruling party won 211 seats last time; at the time of writing, it's somewhere there now. In 2016, the main Opposition force won 70 seats; this year, the main Opposition is likely to end up a bit above that. The also-rans got three seats, ditto this time.

The only thing that has remained the same, however, is that the Trinamool Congress (TMC) is poised to win well over two-thirds of the 292 seats where polling is valid. The deaths of two candidates have resulted in elections for two constituencies being countermanded. The big change, of course, is that placed second with 80-odd seats is now the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), while the alliance between the Left Front and the Congress, augmented by the newly formed Indian Secular Front led by Abbas Siddique, a Muslim cleric, has almost been wiped out.

For the first time in Bengal, thus, a bipolarity has been established between a ruling bloc and a Hindutva force. That's a big step forward for the BJP, whatever anyone says, but it's also a huge victory for the supposedly incumbency-hit TMC. A few words on what led to the ruling party's extraordinary renascence are necessary to understand the new bipolarity.

Let us take anti-incumbency. There is no doubt that the TMC faced this sentiment, mostly because of the deficiencies in rehabilitation work after Cyclone Amphan devastated the state. But it was also a question of a style of governance that involves petty corruption, favouritism and intimidation at the ground level. Come to think of it, this style of functioning was taken straight out of the Left Front's playbook. Yet, the Left Front swept through seven Assembly elections, remaining in power for 34 years.

Somehow, it was assumed that this time it would be different because the BJP, commanding vast resources and being in power at the Centre, would be able to mount the challenge the Congress never could in its waning phase. This thesis, based also on the perception of a game-changing wave of polarization, floundered for two reasons.

First, there was another anti-incumbency sentiment working in favour of the TMC: the one against the BJP government in Delhi. The power of this sentiment, relating primarily to the Centre's mismanagement of the pre-pandemic economy, was reflected in the results of Assembly elections held just before the 2019 Lok Sabha elections and after €" seven in all.

The Centre's handling of the pandemic, especially in this brutal second wave, also became a factor as Bengal ploughed through an election in the middle of the escalating pandemic over eight phases and five weeks. The citizenry will likely keep counting the cost over the next couple of months. So, the anti-incumbency issue was always going to be complicated. Remember the BJP's underperformance in all Assembly elections indicated above in comparison to its 2019 Lok Sabha results.

There were some spectacular own goals score by the ruling party, as well. The biggest one was poaching on (usually discredited) TMC leaders as well as some from other parties. We won't get exact figures right away, but preliminary results suggest that 'turncoats' have fared abysmally. The new polarization was significantly complicated by this strategy.

The Communist Party of India (Marxist) €" CPI (M) €" and the Left Front have been destroyed. The CPI (M) will now have the time and leisure to reflect on two things. Once a political formation wittingly cedes ground €" as the Left did to the BJP in Bengal in 2019 €" it's hard to recapture it. The obvious question is why anyone who took shelter under the BJP's umbrella should suddenly move back to a much-weakened party.

The other point is the CPI (M)'s signal failure to correct its course. The people of Bengal have been hearing for a decade that the party will introspect or is introspecting. They have been hearing that structural change is in the pipeline and younger, more energetic leaders will be blooded. It's just talk. The CPI (M) trumpeted its selection of young candidates for these elections, but all contenders have fielded younger people.

The problem is that the CPI (M) party hierarchy and structure remains the same. A cursory perusal of the list of members of its state secretariat and committee shows it up as an ailing, risk-averse gerontocracy. After first helping the BJP in 2019 and tying up with a rank communalist this time, it has also destroyed the ideological credentials it treasured.

As for the Congress, it was and remains irrelevant. The loss of the two districts it commanded €" Malda and Murshidabad €" has been collateral damage.

Emphatic though its victory has been, the TMC will have reason to ponder. It must deliver more €" and more transparently €" and arrest Bengal's drift towards communal polarisation.

Also See: West Bengal, Assam Election Results 2021 Updates: Mamata gains lead of 1,453 votes in Nandigram

West Bengal polls: Suvendu Adhikari hands Mamata Banerjee defeat to end nailbiter in Nandigram; TMC demands recount

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