West Bengal Elections: An Insider’s view from the Outside

I have lived in the United States for over 35 years now.  Over time I lost touch with Indian politics.  While I kept track of the major events, the daily intrigues, twists and turns in the Indian political world did not hold any interest for me.  Things changed about a month and a half ago when I started paying attention to the assembly elections in West Bengal.   This started from my daily conversation with my parents when they expressed concern that this time Mamata may lose.  My parents are big fans of Mamata, the two-term Chief Minister of West Bengal and leader of Trinamool Congress, the party in power.  What started with these conversations led me to pay more attention to the daily news from West Bengal.  Soon, attention became an obsession, mainly because I knew the culture, the state, the language, the main characters and could identify with what people were thinking and feeling on the ground.   Since early March, I followed the election like an action-packed thriller and learned so much.   I decided to share my impressions in this piece.

Even though this is a view from a distance, I am not an unbiased observer.   Of the political parties active in Bengal, I do not like the Left, even though my political philosophy is very much left of centre.   I do not like the BJP, primarily because of their Hindu fundamentalist positions.   I am not a super-fan of Mamata Banerjee, but I really like her feisty qualities, grit, and passion for helping the ordinary people of the state.

 

Recent Political History of West Bengal

Trinamool Congress has been in power in West Bengal for the last ten years.  Prior to that, West Bengal was ruled for 34 years by a coalition of left-leaning parties with CPIM (Communist Party) as the dominant member of that alliance.  During the early parts of those 34 years, the Left Front government did some good work, primarily in the agricultural sector, such as land reform and land distribution among poor farmers. However, in other areas, such as the expansion of industries, they were an utter failure.  In fact, many existing industries, particularly small and medium-scale manufacturers, closed down or left the state during this period due to very aggressive labour movements, irregularity in power supply, inadequate infrastructure, and other reasons.  During the early days, the chief political opponent to the Left Front was the Congress, but their state leadership and state organization were extremely weak.  Mamata Banerjee started out as a youth leader in the Congress party but was frustrated in their complacency towards the party in power.  She abandoned Congress to form her own party, Trinamool Congress (Grassroots Congress).  Over time her party grew around the sheer grit and energy of this lady until it became the main opposition in West Bengal.   She still calls herself a street-fighter, and there is no other leader in the current times who understands ordinary people or can connect with the man on the street as well as she does.   Her rise to power in 2011 was aided by a major controversy and a political movement centred around two villages, Nandigram and Shingur, where the party in power had decided to hand over land to the Tatas for the construction of factories to build Tata’s Nano, a small-sized car.  Many farmers were unwilling to hand over their thriving farmlands.  Mamata Banerjee was the chief political voice in support of the farmers. The movement resulted in a major upheaval in all corners of Bengal, mainly because the ruling party acted high handedly and resorted to violence.  The tide of public opinion turned against the Left Front, and in 2011 Trinamool Congress was elected as the majority party in the state assembly.   For the first time in 34 years, the Left Front was defeated.  Five years later, Mamata Banerjee was re-elected with a larger majority.   While Mamata Banerjee has significant personal support in Bengal, there have been many reports of corruption and kickbacks against many party leaders during this second term.

The 2019 Lok Sabha elections happened under this condition, and there was general displeasure amongst the population against the ruling Trinamool Congress.  Even though Mamata was confident winning all 42 Lok Sabha seats, she was shocked when Trinamool won only 22 and BJP won 18.  Although BJP is the ruling party at the national level, their presence in West Bengal as a political force was negligible.  The surprise success energized BJP, and they smelled blood in the water.  This brings us to the current time, the 2021 assembly elections; BJP, with the newfound success, emerged as a formidable force. The national BJP leadership made it their mission to overthrow Trinamool Congress and take over power in West Bengal for the first time.  Over the last ten years, the Left Front and the Congress party became weaker in West Bengal. It was clear that the 2021 election will be a battle between Trinamool Congress, the incumbent party, and BJP, a powerful challenger.

BJP claims to be the largest and the wealthiest political party in the world and has enormous resources.  They made it their mission to win in Bengal using whatever means necessary.   The Prime Minister, Mr Narendra Modi and the Home Minister, Mr Amit Shah, the two most influential leaders of BJP, decided to campaign in West Bengal for over a month and a half.   They were aided by BJP chief ministers from other states in India and other BJP national leaders who made numerous trips to West Bengal to the campaign.  This is quite unusual by Indian standards, where a state assembly election draws so much attention from a national party.   In BJP’s aggressive strategy to win elections poaching the opposition for their leaders is a standard tactic.  This was in full display in Bengal when about 2 to 3 months before the election. Several front-ranking leaders, including many cabinet members of Trinamool, started leaving the party to join BJP with a lot of public fanfare and hoopla.  This started giving the impression among the press and other observers that Trinamool may be a sinking ship.

 

The Campaign

Trinamool Congress is not a national party.  Although it has a powerful presence in West Bengal, it has absolutely no presence outside the state.  The BJP is a national juggernaut with a strong presence in many states and a prime minister with a very high personal approval rating in the country.   Over the last 50 years and perhaps going back even further, the state assembly contests remained confined to a competition between regional powers.   This was probably the first election in West Bengal in a very long time when a national party was competing with all its might to beat the regional party in the assembly elections.   It was clear from the outset that the BJP strategy was to overwhelm with enormous money, personnel, media, and control of every government agency.   Influential national BJP leaders effectively camped out in West Bengal for several months.  They spent hundreds of crores of rupees travelling back and forth between Delhi and West Bengal.  Mr Modi and Mr Shah conducted over 50 rallies and numerous roadshows.  Trinamool Congress seemed well prepared for this onslaught; they matched with their own rallies and roadshows.   Their main advantage was the personal popularity of the Chief Minister, the party’s face in this election. All this campaigning, the rallies and roadshows drawing huge crowds went on during the pandemic. All the parties except BJP appealed to the election commission at different points in time to reduce the number of phases (the election was done in eight phases) and ban large gatherings or take other measures to help stop the spread of the virus. Still, the election commission did not listen because the BJP never voiced the same concerns.

Although BJP put in a lot of resources in their campaign, several of their strategies seemed entirely counter-intuitive and, in the end, did not help.   With all their star campaigners being from out of state, most of their leaders did not speak the local language, Bangla.   In rural areas of Bengal, people do not understand Hindi.  So, messages delivered by Hindi speakers fell flat.  In the state assembly elections, BJP’s strategy is not to project anyone as the chief minister before the election. They tried to make this election a popularity contest between Narendra Modi and Mamata Banerjee. This did not work in Bengal, especially with a sitting chief minister with a high personal popularity level.

BJP’s slogan was “Jai Shri Ram”, and they attempted to polarize the people of Bengal along religious lines.   Muslims are just under 30% of Bengal’s population, and the rest are Hindus.    BJP’s strategy was to win by winning a massive majority of Hindu votes.   Most people in Bengal live in or want to live in harmony.   There has been a lot of political violence in Bengal, but far fewer incidents of communal violence.  The elite and educated class of Bengal are overwhelmingly secular-minded due to the left influence and the influence of the great thinkers that Bengal has produced over the years, such as Rabindranath Tagore, Swami Vivekananda, Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar, and many others.  So, Jai Shri Ram as a campaign slogan and the strategy to divide the electorate along communal lines became ineffective. Bengal is also known for the celebration of Durga Puja.  As per the epic Ramayana, Durga was worshipped by Rama when he was getting ready to fight Ravana.   This myth was used to turn the Jai Shri Ram on its head by portraying Mamata as an incarnate of the female power Rama had to worship.  Division along communal lines turned out to be a losing strategy in Bengal.   If anything, this strategy ended up consolidating an overwhelming majority of the Muslim vote for Trinamool.

Trinamool had two trendy slogans.  “Bangla Nijer Meyeke chai,” i.e., Bengal wants its own daughter.  This was a very cleverly crafted slogan.  It conveyed two fundamental concepts. First, it referred to Mamata as the daughter of the soil rather than what she is popularly known as Didi (elder sister).  While people may feel that they can make demands from or even complain about an elder sister, everyone feels protective of a daughter. That is precisely how the voters felt.  Secondly, the concept of “its own” effectively pointed fingers at the BJP’s out-of-state leaders and conveyed the message that outsiders are coming to take something away.   Trinamool had a second slogan, “Khela Hobe.”  This was a rap poem that ended up being a rallying cry all across the state, particularly among the youth.  Khela Hobe means the game is on!  So, whereas BJP was trying to create an atmosphere expecting the opponents to give up without a fight in front of a superpower, Khela Hobeworked as an antidote.  It became a household tune that transcended the political world and pumped up people to go out and play the game of voting with gusto.

About 49% of voters in West Bengal are women.   Mamata Banerjee is the only female chief minister in the country at the moment.   And during her tenure, she has implemented many programs specifically targeting women’s welfare.  Kanyashree, Rupashree, Syasthosathi, are some of the many popular schemes whose benefits were felt all across the lower and middle-income households of Bengal.   And Trinamool made these the centrepiece of their campaign.  And in contrast, they were able to highlight the BJP government’s failure in price control of essential commodities such as cooking gas, petrol, and diesel.   The contrast was never clear-er, the promised Ram Rajya and a religion-based polarization versus the safety of a secular message and government aid from Didi.  In the end, people chose the latter.

One other aspect seemed quite funny from my personal vantage point.  It was the failure of the BJP supremos to understand the audience they were trying to convince.  They must have found out that many historical personalities in West Bengal are revered all across the state, such as Rabindranath, Netaji, Swami Vivekananda, and others.   To appeal to the Bengal masses, BJP tried to show the same kind of reverence but bungled this effort repeatedly by making factual errors and incorrect historical references.  In the end, their ignorance was in full display and became a source of ridicule for the party.   One particular aspect came across as quite juvenile.   Narendra Modi has been growing his beard for quite a while.   While no one in BJP explicitly stated anything, the rumour on social media was that he was trying to copy Rabindranath’s look just in time for the Bengal elections.   Modi is known for these kinds of marketing stunts.  Rabindranath holds a special place in the hearts and minds of all Bengalis across the world.  And, I believe, this particular move was not well received among the masses of Bengal.

 

Election Commission

The electoral process in India is a highly centralized affair where an independent agency that is part of the central government conducts elections.  The Election Commission is designed to be and has traditionally been a very independent agency free from any political influence.  In fact, election commissioner late Mr Seshan became a legendary household name in the early 90s for his fierce independence in running the process.   However, the experience this time left a lot to be desired and raised many questions about the independence of this unit.  Many of their actions raised doubts among independent observers that they were perhaps acting as a political arm of the BJP.  In the time of Covid, they organized an election spread over eight phases that lasted from the end of March right through the end of April.   In each phase, somewhere between 30 to 45 seats went for polling.   West Bengal assembly has 294 seats.   At this same time, elections were also held in Tamil Nadu, a much larger state and has 230+ assembly seats, yet the Tamil Nadu elections were completed in just three phases and in just about a week.

Usually, in a phased election, the process starts from one part of the state, and it moves either east or west or goes from north to south as one proceeds from one phase to the other.   This is standard practice, which makes the most sense logistically when you have to move security forces, election officers and other personnel across the state to run the process.  In a pandemic, it made even more sense to do it geographically or district by district.   Yet, for the first time ever, the election commission chose not to do that.   The accompanying picture from Wikipedia shows how the eight phases were divided.   Many districts were carved out and had seats where elections were held in three or four different stages.  For example, 24 Parganas South was broken up into four phases, greater Kolkata seats went to poll in six phases.   This meant that a vast population of security forces and other personnel crisscrossed the state all the time going from one end to the other multiple times during a pandemic.   There was no explanation offered as to why such a plan was used.   One can only speculate that this was done to allow the out-of-state BJP campaigners to come back repeatedly to hold large rallies in between phases.   Also, in places where Trinamool was perceived to be stronger (such as 24 Parganas), breaking up the district into multiple phases, Trinamool was hindered from building up momentum in the region.   Before the start of the election, new covid infections in the state was in the low double digits per day.  By mid-April, it had already jumped to over 2000 per day.

As per India’s code of conduct for elections, religion or religious symbols in the campaign are strictly prohibited.  However, religion and religious symbols were extensively used by BJP with impunity.   Despite this, the election commission never ventured even close enough to call out the BJP on this.  Instead, they were aggressively calling out and penalizing the leaders of other parties even for minor infractions.

The most tragic example of the failure of the election commission was the death of four young men when security forces opened fire in Sitalkunchi in North Bengal.   The election security forces and the state’s entire administrative structure were under the control of the commission during the election period.   The security force personnel claimed that a mob of local voters of Sitalkunchi came to attack them with weapons.  But videos of the event showed no such evidence.   Instead of an extensive investigation into these killings, the election commission hurriedly cleared the security forces of any wrongdoing.

(from Wikipedia)

 

The Media

The media in India now consists of a mishmash of many different entities.  The national media, fondly known by many as the “godi media,” is perceived by people as merely a mouthpiece of the federal government.  It was pretty evident from their coverage that they were similar to Fox News in the United States.   It was somewhat laughable looking at some of the election predictions and exit polls they were reporting on the eve of the results.   TV channels such as Republic TV, TV9, India TV News predicted that the BJP will win with a thumping majority.  It all turned out to be fake exit polls.   None of these came to fruition.

The other component of the media were the local media, TV channels and newspapers from the state.  They offered more balanced coverage, and the reports were closer to reality.   The most critical component, and in my mind the most refreshing part, was the presence of independent media in this whole landscape.  Having a microphone and a camera can make someone into an investigative journalist in this day and age.   Access to YouTube has enabled independent and independent minded journalists to go on the street and cover major events such as elections.   From my perspective, this is a very refreshing development in India.  Many journalists came from outside West Bengal and essentially camped out there for many weeks.  They went all over the state, including many remote corners and talked to ordinary people.   I found them to be professionally honest and refreshingly curious about the truth.  Shakshi Joshi, Rajeev Ranjan, Meera Rajput, Nikhat Ali, and many others were doing a fantastic job of covering the real world.  It was evident in their coverage, frequently posted on YouTube, that no matter what the national media was showing, the reality on the ground was something else.  And Trinamool had overwhelming support among ordinary people.  In their coverage, it was also refreshing to see that ordinary people on the streets could rattle off why they wanted Mamata Banerjee to stay in power and why they did not want the BJP.   People would spontaneously mention the various successful schemes such as Kanyashree, Rupashree, Syasthasathi, that she has implemented to benefit the poor irrespective of religious backgrounds.  Many of these schemes were mainly directed at women and the welfare of women.  People could also rattle off many specific failures of the central government, such as poor economy, rising prices of cooking gas and fuel, falling bank interest rates, and other broken promises from the previous Lok Sabha election.  BJP kept on claiming that they were going to build “Golden Bengal or Sonar Bangla”. The people on the street repeatedly demanded that they build a golden UP or golden Bihar, a golden India.

 

 

Prashant Kishor (PK)

The most important political figure who has emerged over the last 7-8 years is Prashant Kishor. If you have not heard of him, you may not be the only one.  He is not a political leader, doesn’t hold any elected office, but is perhaps the smartest political mind in India at the moment.  Prashant Kishor, originally from Bihar, used to work in the United Nations before he came to Narendra Modi sometime around 2011 to talk about some water resources project.  It is unclear how their first interaction started. Still, Mr Modi liked him a lot. He listened to him so much in those days that he emerged as one of the political advisors of Narendra Modi when Modi was projected as BJP’s candidate for Prime Minister in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections.   This was probably the first election when social media was effectively used by the BJP to win at the national level.   Many novel ideas such as “Chai pe Charcha” or holographic images to reach the masses or use social media-based networks to reach out to the youth were all very effectively implemented during the 2014 election cycle Prashant Kishor was the chief architect behind it.  After the election, his association with BJP ended, but he emerged as a political strategist in many subsequent elections.

He helped Nitish Kumar and Lalloo Prasad Yadav to join forces and defeat the BJP in Bihar in 2015.   He helped Jagan Mohan Reddy beat Chandra Babu Naidu in Andhra Pradesh.   He helped Captain Amrinder Singh of Congress beat the BJP and Akali Dal in Punjab and worked with Aam Admi Party to defeat BJP in the Delhi assembly elections.   During this current election cycle, he worked with the Trinamool Congress to strategize against the BJP and worked with DMK in Tamil Nadu to help beat the AIADMK-BJP alliance.  Prashant Kishor also helped start I-Pac, an organization that provides a platform for young people to get involved in the political process.   These young activists work on campaigns such as the ones mentioned above to organize the political parties, gather information at the grassroots level, gather data, get a pulse of the people, and plan the campaign based on what the data shows.   I found it quite intriguing because this is a very scientific approach that Prasant Kishor is using to win elections, and he has put together a stellar record of wins.  In my profession, we call this the Design Thinking approach of problem-solving.   In West Bengal, Prashant Kishor worked with the Trinamool Congress to help them win.  Among the many things he implemented for the Trinamool, Didi-k-bolo (Tell Didi) and Duare Sarkar (Government services at your doorstep) have been extremely popular.

Prashant is a follower of Gandhi’s philosophy and says he is a fan of Gandhi.  Using data and information gathered from constituents, he helps a party take corrective actions and prepare their manifesto.  Manifestos are published with great fanfare before elections, and parties run on the platform.  As he explains, he can wield a lot of power by influencing what promises are crafted.  Once the party wins, they are duty-bound to deliver on these promises.   Since the promises are crafted in response to real people’s real needs, they have the potential of being high-impact actions.  This way, without running for or holding any office, he has been able to do a lot of good for the masses by ushering in changes through these platforms.   In my opinion, he has figured out a very clever way to influence the direction of politics without actually getting involved in the electoral process himself.   This way, he can do a lot more for a lot of people than what he would be able to achieve by being in a position of power.  Looking at it from a distance, he seems to have a lot of power and has a very clever way of utilizing it for the benefit of ordinary Indians.  The press in India has not quite understood the value of Prasant Kishor.   He is viewed as more of a soothsayer or a magician who keeps making the correct prediction about wins and win margins for his clients.   In all his interviews, he is sincere and candid, and very often, the interviewer misses the actual message he’s trying to send.  Instead, they focus on becoming a Rajya Sabha member or a Lok Sabha member or wants to hold elected office.  When he says that he is much more ambitious than that, they keep focusing on personal ambition instead of realizing that he is talking about a mission to change the Indian political system and social fabric by bringing in radical social change for the benefit of the masses.  While the national media were harping on how the BJP will win over 200 seats during this election, Prashant Kishor openly challenged that BJP will not cross double digits. There was a lot of discussion and hand-wringing among people in the media who felt that he’s overpromising and will have to eat his own words.  In the end, he was proven right; the BJP could manage only 77 seats while Mamata Banerjee’s party won 213.   Prashant Kishore is an enigma in the Indian election world and will be an even more consequential figure in the near future.

 

Epilogue

The election is over.  Trinamool Congress won with close to 48% of the vote.  When compared with the previous two cycles, the vote percentage stands as follows:

2011 Trinamool Vote share 38.93%

2016 Trinamool Vote share 44.91%

2021 Trinamool Vote share 47.98%

Sadly, the Left Front and Congress did not get a single seat. BJP won 77 seats with 38% of votes and have emerged as the main opposition in Bengal. That is quite an achievement in itself. But the average win margin of Trinamool has also increased significantly from the last two times.  The average win margin in 2011 was 20485 votes, in 2016 was 22226 votes, and in 2021 it is 31760 votes.  The one number that is yet to be available but will likely shock us when it comes out is the distribution of women’s vote.  From every report, it was clear that women are voting for Mamata in huge numbers irrespective of their religious persuasion.   We will have to wait to see the data on that.

Post-election political violence in Bengal is nothing new. There were quite a few cases of violence leading to several deaths in the state. Both the leading parties claimed that their supporters and workers have died. But along with the news of real violence, many fake stories have spread about violence in Bengal. The pictures show tweets about two such fake stories.

Unfortunately, the second wave of Covid-19 has hit India very hard. While the national leaders were busy campaigning in Bengal, the shortage of Oxygen, lack of medicine, shortage of hospital beds and shortage of vaccines hit hard in the form of dead bodies piling up in hospitals and morgues, homes, and street corners. People all over the world are trying to help India cope with this wave.  The failure of the national government is for everyone to see.  Mr. Modi is nowhere to be seen and has been eerily silent.  He is not fighting anything from the forefront.   At the time of writing this piece, the Supreme Court has formed a task force for Oxygen distribution; a task that clearly belongs in the realm of the administration had to be taken over by the Supreme Court.   NRI’s are sending aid, as are many foreign governments.  There is news that a lot of that is not reaching where the need is because of bureaucracy and red tape.   Death numbers keep going up.  And, the world watches in agony.

 

 

 

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2 thoughts on “West Bengal Elections: An Insider’s view from the Outside”

  1. Dear shuvra
    Thanks for presenting us such a lucid and interesting article on west bengal election. Wish to see more. This would help us in discussing many issues at local level.yours elderly prof somnath sen, ex- nehruite, architect planner.

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