By Debasis Mallick
Rekha Das owns a small shanty at Pakhiralaya, a remote village of Sundarban delta. She earns Rs 150 to 200 a day by selling tea and biscuits. During my visit to Sundarbans just before the Bengal poll, I asked her about the damage caused by Amphan cyclone. Rekha Das’s thatched roof was completely blown away and she was left with virtually nothing. “Didn’t she get Rs 20,000 from the Trinamool Government to rebuild her house?” She couldn’t get a penny from them, but some of the other guys, without any perceptible damage to their property, managed to get Rs 15,000, foregoing Rs 5,000 as the cut money. Though Rekha Das was angry with the local Trinamool leadership, she admires didi for quickly sanctioning Rs 20,000 in the aftermath of the disaster. “What can didi do, if the the panchayat pradhan here becomes dishonest?”
Mamata has become the face of Bengal and the rural folk consider her in high esteem. BJP’s decision not to announce a chief ministerial face in Bengal election could be from this fear psychosis. In its failure to do so, it allowed TMC to up the ante for a possible show down between a country’s prime minister and a state chief minister. As you land in Kolkata airport and travel through its arterial road to the city centre, you will observe numerous bill boards of mamata Bannerjee and Narendra Modi. Local leadership from BJP has been conspicuously missing.
Amit Shah, the modern day Chanakya of Indian politics has applied saam, daam, dandabhed in his indomitable style to win over Bengal. He declared with a lot of conviction ‘Aab ki bar 200 paar.’ Finally he couldn’t cross double digit mark! This is, in spite of It’s central leadership camping for more than a year in Bengal. J P Nadda, Amit Malavya, their IT head and Kailash Vijaybargyia have virtually made Bengal their home turf. As much the central leadership was afraid to announce a chief ministerial face, as they wanted to keep the reins of Bengal election under their control. They never ever delegated the authority to state leadership. As a matter of fact, even the declaration of candidates was done from Delhi. There were protests, agitation among the rank and file of the BJP workers for making the turncoats from TMC as their candidates, but the central leadership refused to relent.
BJP strategized their election based on the results of Lok Sabha 2019 when the party won 18 seats against Trinamul’s 22. They could garner a vote share of 40% vis-a-vis Trinamul’s 43%. They also had high hopes on the splitting of Minority votes, an opportunity created by the entry of AIMIM in the electoral arena of Bihar, which ultimately resulted in their victory over there. Mamata Banerjee, on the other hand, took bitter lessons from the election results of 2019 and started readying her core team, ground level workers . What she did was to plug the loopholes in various pockets where she fared badly in 2019 election. She planned out to reverse the trend in Jangal mahal, tribal belt, Matua community and north Bengal area which voted in favour of BJP. In addition, she pushed her social welfare programmes vigorously. In her budget (Vote on accounts) just before the election she was magnanimous in giving grant to parar clubs, some 26,000 of them, announced Swasthashathi scheme covering 90% of population and promised free ration to the entire population, among many others. She wanted to reach women voters specifically when she announced payment of Rs 500 to 1000 to the eldest woman member of a family. Mamata Banerjee, however, has always been a true believer in dole politics. These social welfare measures are synonymous to development in her scheme of things. But it’s impact on the vote box can only be incremental, as all political parties today are vying for some attention through these kind of freebies. TMC is no exception. TMC’s 48% vote share has different connotation, as we shall see it below.
Khela Habe (Will Play the game)
Didi announced khela habe. Modi and Shah accepted the challenge. Amit Shah played all his cards. Didi too played her cards or that’s what Amit Shah thought that she had. Didi had a hidden card to her chest. Little did Amit Shah realize that it was the trump card. Amit Shah had planted a toxic tree in the name of CAA in 2019. By amending the citizenship act of 1955, he singled out Muslim as the only community from attaining citizenship in India, if they have entered before December 2014. Not only that, he wanted to formulate a national register for citizenship with the objective of identifying the infiltrators from neighbouring country Bangladesh. Muslim, as a community, felt isolated. The CAA and proposed NRC had given rise to vehement protests all over India. Modi Government was in a tight spot when the minority community people gathered at Shaheen bagh in Delhi to lodge a peaceful protest. At that point of of time Covid became the savior for the BJP. But there is no denying the fact that the issue of NRC and CAA will be used to their advantage by all political parties to score against BJP. Didi appealed to her voters that if they voted for BJP, they would be sent to Bangladesh – “I am requesting my minority brothers and sisters with folded hands, do not divide the minority votes after listening to the shaitan who had taken money from the BJP”. ‘Shaitan’, here, is Pirzada Abbas Siddiqui, who formed Indian Secular Front (ISF) in January (will discuss about him in the subsequent paragraphs).
Demographics of Bengal – From Poll Perspectives
If we dissect the demography of Bengal from the point of view of religion and caste, Muslims constitute 30% of population, 14% belongs to Matua Community, 6% is the tribal population, balance 50% the Hindu population (including SCs). The Matua community belongs to Namashudra class which also is categorized as scheduled castes. Why we have categorized them separately is due to their togetherness as a sect. They are vaishnavite Hindus. Some of the Matua people had infiltrated from East Pakistan after partition, the majority, however, after 1971. Both BJP and TMC had been trying to garner the support of Matua community. Modi while attending the Golden Jubilee of Bangladesh Independence made it a point to visit Orakandi, which is the birthplace of Matua sect founder Harichand Thakur. Around 15 million Matuas are settled in and around Takurnagar area of North 24 Parganas. They are the deciding factor in about 35 assembly constituencies. BJP got a substantial Matua vote in 2019. The election rallies visualized a virtual tug of war between BJP and TMC to capture this 14% vote share. While Amit Shah told them if they voted them to power, citizenship would granted forthwith. Didi, on the other hand, have assured, they have nothing to lose because they are already the citizens of India. They are legalized voters. In addition, they hold caste certificate also.
Muslim have always been exploited
At the time of independence, the Bengali Muslim population was about 12% which increased to 27% as per 2011 census. Thus Muslims have always been considered a decisive factor in Bengal election. The Left Front Government which ruled the state for three and a half decades have gained rich dividends by wooing the Muslim votes. Congress miserably failed to break this allegiance of Muslims to the Left Front. The Left, however, did nothing for the Muslims. The Sachar Committee report of 2010 was an eye opener for the Muslims of Bengal. The report highlighted issues facing the Muslim community and their representation in public life. With High birthrate, low education, low per capita income, the Muslims represented lowly in Government employment or employment in the organized sector. In effect, they are the exploited lot whom the political parties have always used as vote bank but very little they did for their socioeconomic upliftment. Sachar committee observed that Muslims forms a minuscule 2.5% of bureaucratic jobs in spite of constituting 14% of total population in India. Even the scheduled caste population of India is better placed than the Muslims.
Left Front Government could enjoy uninterrupted power for 34 years due to the Muslim support base. So it was expected that the leftists would help to level up the socioeconomic plight of the Muslims as a quid pro quo. What did Left do for them? Surprising that till 2008, there was no Muslim representative in politburo. Even in the West Bengal cabinet, the left had only 10% representation from the minority community. Following Left Front rule of about 23 years under Jyoti Basus’s chief ministership, Muslims represented less than 4% in State Government jobs, less than 60% in literacy rate (75% for Hindus). Even if we compare the status of West Bengal with reference to the national average we find deplorable state of affairs of Bengali Muslims. Around 24% of Muslims are matriculate in India, the figure is 12% in West Bengal, whereas, 13% of SC/STs and 38% of Caste Hindus are matriculate in Bengal. The condition of Muslims in Bihar is better than Bengal – in Bihar 16% Muslims are matriculate. As far as Graduates are concerned only 3% Muslims are graduate compared to 5% for India as a whole. The idea of presenting this data is that the Bengali Muslims have not only been lagging behind the other communities in Bengal in respect of literacy and higher education but they are much behind the Muslims of India as a whole. If we turn our attention to economic well being, in rural Bengal, 33% of Muslim population is living below the poverty line as compared to 21% of Hindu population. The data, however, is required to be updated in 2021 census.
Mamata Banerjee after assuming power in 2011, had announced a few measures such as, introduction of imam bhatta, inclusion of a few backward Muslim categories in the OBC fold which helped to increase the representation of Muslims in the state Government. However, her policy also is incremental in nature and could at the most be termed as some sort of appeasement policy to garner votes. TMC always believed in short term gain by introducing doles and financial assistance, leaving the development agenda at the back seat. “Truth is TMC & Left’s most loyal voters,” Asaduddin Owaisi, of AIMIM, says,”have got nothing but humiliation for decades. In return for their loyalty@MamataOfficial has likened Muslims to cows to be milked.” He was referring to a comment of Mamata Banerjee in 2019, when after the debacle in Lok Sabha election she was to attend an iftar. She commented, ” Since I appease Muslims, I shall attend it 100 times. If a cow yields milk, one must be prepared to face its kick.”
A significant development in the election scenario of West Bengal was the formation of Indian Secular Front by a 33 years old Muslim cleric Abbas Siddiqui. Abbas Siddiqui is a junior pirzada of Furfura Sharif which controls over 3,000 mosques in Bengal. Abbas Siddiqui decided to form an alliance with Congress and left parties. Targeting the TMC he said, “We must remove Mamata first to stop BJP. And we do not talk much about BJP because they are not in our thought process.” Md. Salim of CPM, in the mean time, played all his cards to rope in Abbas Siddiqui’s ISF to forge an alliance. He requested Abdul Mannan of Congress to convince Adhir Choudhury to join hand with ISF. Adhir Choudhury was never comfortable with an alliance with a Muslim outfit, though after lot of dilly-dally he finally gave in.
2021 Election was all about garnering 30% vote
Politics is stranger than fiction. The leftists voted for BJP in 2019 to keep TMC at bay while 2021 was the other way round. If we compare the vote share of 2014, 2019 and 2021 it would be easy to analyze the poll result of 2021.
YEAR 2014 (LS) 2019 (LS) 2021 (Assy)
TMC 40 43 48
BJP 17 40 38
LEFT+CONG 40 14 8 (+ISF)
While the vote share of Left and Congress went in favour ot BJP in 2019, this time their share has gone in favour of TMC. BJP’s vote share reduced by only 2% , whereas their seats reduced from 121 (in terms their lead in the assembly constituencies in 2019 LS poll) to 77 in 2021. However, in terms of vote share TMC is much ahead of BJP- a wide gap of about 10%. It’s evident from the above table that the vote share of Congress and left has reduced by 6%, a significant percentage of which has gone in favour of TMC. It may not be feasible to calculate the percentage of Muslim votes garnered by TMC- but according to the political analysts 80% of Muslim votes polled went in favour of TMC. Considering 85% of polled votes in respect of Muslims, Didi could garner 20% votes from this segment. The balance 28% votes have come from Matua (Approx 6%), tribal population (2%) and caste Hindus, including SC (20%). In West Bengal one fourth of the population belongs to SC/ST category, because of which 84 assembly seats are reserved. BJP hasn’t done too bad in these seats, winning 39 of them, TMC wresting the rest. BJP’s dominance in Jangal Mahal area has, however, substantially dwindled, in as much as the party losing all the four seats in Jhargram district. Thus BJP has got 50% of their tally from the reserved seats. Out of the balance 210 seats, BJP could win only 38 seats. About 110 seats of Bengal belong to areas dominated by Muslim voters. The Muslim voters have a strong presence in the two districts of Malda and Murshidabad, and to a great extent in North and South Dinajpur. Kolkata has also a significant Muslim population. BJP has virtually drawn blank in these districts. If we remove these 110, the balance seats are dominated by caste Hindus. BJP hasn’t done badly here either.
BJP failed to change a course correction midway
The world’s most famous fictional detective Sherlock Holmes said that once you have eliminated all the possibilities whatever remains, however impossible, must be true. The BJP leadership has always banked upon winning this election on a single premise – the split of minority votes between TMC and the third front. It was icing on the cake when Abbas Siddiqui formed a separate party and AIMIM leader Asaduddin Owaisi also decided to contest in 8 seats. TMC supremo Mamata Banerjee was apparently perturbed at the meteoric rise of a young clergy of Furfura Sharif. She masterminded to thwart the effort of Abbas Siddiqui by taking a number of steps. How she did it leads us to the improbabilities which became truth later on.
First, she released an official grant of Rs 26 million to Senior Pirzada of Furfura Sharif, Toha Siddiqui for the development of the shrine. Toha siddiqui is uncle of Abbas Siddiqui. Pirzada Toha Siddiqui vehemently criticized his nephew for forming a new party to oppose TMC. He wholeheartedly showed his allegiance to didi.
Second, an interview of Abbas Siddiqui was taken by Suman Dey, Senior Editor of Bengali news channel ABP Ananda on 12th March, 2021. In this interview Suman Dey virtually grilled him, ragged him to totters. He displayed two important videos of Abbas Siddiqui to the viewers. In one video, he can be heard appealing to the crowd to pray to Allah so that he sends a deadly virus to India which would kill 500 million people. He hoped that India would soon follow China’s footsteps so that this country too gets affected by coronavirus pandemic. This speech was made on 23rd February, 2020, when covid 19 was playing havoc in China. In another video he called for the flogging of actor and TMC MP Nusrat Jahan and said she made money by selling her body. In this one interview itself, Pirzada Abbas Siddiqui’s political carrier was nipped in the bud.
Third, on 7th April before the 4th phase of election in Cooch Behar, didi urged the the women activists of her party to gherao CRPF personnel deployed in the state on election duty. On 10th April, four persons died of firing by CRPF personnel at Sitalkuchi. Sitalkuchi is a Muslim dominated area and all the people killed due to police firing were Muslims. Sitalkuchi incident was a major turning point in Bengal election. TMC never looked back after this. The incident is still shrouded in mystery. Reports have been submitted by the SP of Cooch Behar. No video has so far been uploaded. In the absence of any published documents, it’s not fair to comment on such a sensitive issue.
Fourth, Rahul Gandhi was one of the first national leaders to congratulate Mamata Banerjee on her stupendous victory. The way the other senior Congress leaders such as, Kapil Sibbal, Anand Sharma, Ashok Gehlout and Verappa Moili have showered heaps of praise on Mamata Banerjee and her leadership, it cast aspersions on the motive of Congress leadership. Mamata Banerjee enjoys a good relationship with Sonia Gandhi. That Congress is rejoicing the victory of TMC over BJP, indicates only one thing, that senior leadership of the party decided to give a walkover to TMC. Such action or rather inaction is, however, not uncommon in the field of sports, war and politics. Indian politics have witnessed this in the past. History of Bengal has shown us how Mir Jafar, in spite of his presence with a huge contingent of soldiers decided not to participate in the battle of Palashi in 1757 so that Nawab Siraj-Ud-Daulah is defeated by Col. Robert Clive of East India Company. During the election campaign, Central leadership of Congress party refused participate in the election meetings and rallies. Rahul Gandhi attended a lone meeting and then subsequently cancelled all his meetings. Priyanka Gandhi never showed her face. The message was loud and clear to the state leadership – pass on the votes to TMC. By doing so, the party drew a blank, not representing in Vidhan Sabha for the first time, and who knows what is in store for the grand old party in Bengal. If Congress gives a walkover to TMC, can Left be far behind? Left also left the battle field to assist their bitter opponents. Perhaps, the party leadership had taken a considered view of what the CPI(ML)(Liberation) General Secretary, Dipankar Bhattacharya said – “the Bengal faction of CPM lacked anti-BJP thrust.” He advised the CPM leadership to identify BJP as political enemy number one. He said, ” TMC and BJP can’t be put in the same bracket. A BJP Government in West Bengal will be a bigger threat for the Left and the entire set up.” The initial euphoria created in Brigade Parade Ground meeting which was attended by their Secretary General Sitaram Yechuri lost midway during the course of election process. The leftists did a good job in selection of their candidates. Lot of new faces, intelligent and educated students were fielded by state leadership. Unfortunately, they were not backed up either by the state leadership or by the central leadership leading to their ignominious defeats by huge margin.
Fifth, Malda and Murshidabad districts considered to be the bastions of Congress were swept off by TMC this time. The Congress has always won Sujapur of Malda district. Not in 2021. Md Abdul Ghani of TMC defeated Isha Khan Choudhury, the sitting MLA by a huge margin of 130 thousand votes. Consider this statistics also – in 273 out of 294 seats the fight was bipolar between TMC and BJP. TMC has won 199 of these seats and BJP was second to TMC in 200 seats. So, is the debacle of Left and Congress accidental or matter of chance? Certainly not. It was a part of TMC’s game plan –Khela habe. In Malda and Murshidabad there was a whisper campaign. The Muslims voters were clandestinely approached and told not to waste their vote to the third front, but cast it to TMC. Muslims were scared that in case BJP comes to power, they all would be sent back to Bangladesh. Is Amit Shah listening? When he referred the immigrants from Bangladesh as termites and declared he would throw them out, little did he realize that his statement would backfire one day.
Getting a vote share of 48% is a tremendous achievement for a party which fought tooth and nail against all odds. TMC supremo focused on strategy dynamics which is a fact based approach to analyzing and improving performance over a period. ( Kim warren – Strategic Management Dynamics). Such a strategy is a mix of planned and unplanned activities to never reach a full equilibrium state. Compared to this, the strategy adopted by BJP leadership was static – it refused to align to real time situation. Perhaps, BJP’s macro economic management also suffers from this deficiency in as much as its political strategy does.