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Which Way Is West Bengal Headed ?

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With   a three-cornered contest now assured in the West Bengal Assembly polls and  candidates  to be announced  soon, it is time for a closer look at how the competing formations measure up during the  pre-poll run up.

To start with the ruling Trinamool Congress(TMC) :  Among its advantages are its   ( as yet ) uncompromising opposition to the Bharatiya Janata Party(BJP) which earns it high marks about secularists and liberals across the board.   

Its governance record is somewhat patchy and  highly controversial.  Still, the party will win support for the work done in the rural areas— better roads, street lights, water supply, water conservation etc.

Noticeable civic improvements in Howrah, development of new Town, the launch of the  Eco park,  generally good municipal work in greater Kolkata and the suburbs , the improvements  carried out at Dakshineswar and Tarakeswar   temples , both major tourist sites, will all help. Ditto  the  stress on tourism projects in both North and South Bengal.

The TMC’s disadvantages :    Major failure to secure industrial investments  and significant  urban/rural job creation, poor performance in education, health and law and order maintenance, the politicisation among the police.  There are massive allegations of corruption and extortion  against the party in all its welfare measures in both rural and urban areas, not to mention the abject official failure to help  lakhs of calamity  -struck people following the major May 20 cyclone Amphan.

Politically, dissidence and rebellion within its own ranks continue  unabated  since the 2018 Panchayat polls. Many have crossed over to BJP . The possibility of more defections to other parties  (a) after  the nomination of candidates and (b) after the May 2 counting, appears inevitable.

The alignment of the Indian Secular Front(ISF) led by young leader Mr. Abbas Siddique in south 24 Parganas with the Left[/Congress combine, will cut into the TMC’s Muslim support . Mr Siddique’s   moves expose his stronger aversion to the TMC rather than the BJP—– the party which stands to gain, not lose, electorally  from the new alignment.  Moreover,  even if the TMC fields  fresh new faces for the polls, there is no doubt that the older workers and ticket aspirants will switch over to other parties en masse.

The Congress-Left front/ ISF : 

In terms of performance and   recent activism, the CPI(M)-led LF is streets ahead of its other two partners. As the recent left programmes like rallies,various  protests and meetings  indicate, there   has been a growing support for progressive causes among the youths, which should worry the TMC as well as the BJP. The ruling TMC has been forced to follow/copy some left programmes like providing quality food at low prices among common people.  Politically, the joining of the ISF  has undoubtedly increased the left outreach among Muslims and in some areas will act as major  spoiler against TMC’s calculations.

Ironically, given present conditions the party that stands to gain the most is the Congress. The oldest national party of India in recent months has  hardly moved a muscle by way of organizing protests and opposing the TMC effectively. The discordance between the state  unit and top INC leaders —the High command is neither high  nor  commanding  even in the figurative sense these days— continues to  hobble its efforts in Bengal. 

Largely on the basis of left activism and the Siddique factor, the  new combination should win significantly more votes than the Congress or the Left polled  while fighting separately the 2019 Lok sabha elections. Their combined votes accounted for only 11% of the total.

This should worry both the TMC and the BJP .  New voters and youths  following their natural bent  to register a protest, to oppose the establishment , may well support the new formation. The division in anti- TMC votes should help the ruling party  in theory, but not significantly. Why not ?  An analysis of the BJP”’s prospects provides  the answer.   

   Outlook for the BJP :   There is no question that among  Hindu  voters, a polarisation has  occurred in Bengal in favour of the BJP. This has happened not  because of any special initiative  by the BJP. It is what is perceived rightly or wrongly as a policy of Muslim appeasement by the ruling TMC that has led to this situation. The phenomenal increase in the BJP’s votes ( up to 40% as against the TMC’s 43%)  as indicated  in the 2019 Lok Sabha poll results  strongly attests to this.

Nor is it only a matter of   the BJP winning more votes. More importantly, the party is widely regarded as the only convincing alternative as against the TMC, not the Left/Cong/ISF combine. True, the new formation may well upset the BJP’s apple cart in some districts and help the TMC win some seats. But this should be counter balanced by the division among  young new Muslim voters who seem to be keen followers of Mr. Siddique !

  To sum up : Even if the TMC emerges as the first party in the coming Bengal elections winning the most seats,   the BJP’s prolonged preparation for the Bengal polls   , its determination in carrying out anti TMC programmes defying both armed miscreants and the systemic hostility of the state administration towards its efforts  should win    considerable support among the state’s educated middle classes and job aspirants.  It seems certain that the BJP will probably emerge as the runner-up party closest to the TMC  . As of now, it hard to see the new Left/Congress-ISF combo  as the second leading formation after the TMC.

Significantly, a few expert surveys conducted by some TV channels show the TMC winning about 150/160 seats   as against 98/110 by the BJP ,the magic figure for single majority being 148 in a house of 294. The surveyors scrupulously avoid answering the critical question :  if the TMC  manages to achieve only the narrowest of majority margins in 2021, what is to  stop 20/25 of its members from crossing over to the BJP  after the polls or even after the formation of the new TMC Ministry ?  Look at what has happened in  many other states.  

Whatever may be said of the TMC as a political party, the loyalty record of its   leaders and followers falls well short of the exemplary.  That remains  a major factor that could well decide the  outcome of the coming polls, more than the number of seats won and lost.

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