Bengal Sends PM Modi A Huge Wake Up Call
West Bengal’s was a national election. For the past one year, Team Modi-Shah threw all their weight into winning the state. Some say that if Bengal hadn’t voted this year, we might have seen more governmental attention to the COVID crisis. Having used up all its political oxygen on the state, it was imperative that the BJP won West Bengal.
As it turns out, not only did the BJP not manage to consolidate on its 2019 gains, it failed to even hold on to that vote share. This is the exact opposite of what the Trinamool managed in 2011. The Trinamool’s alliance with the Congress party had put up a massive challenge to the Left two years before that in the Lok Sabha elections of 2009. It created a sort of bandwagon-effect, giving fence-sitters the confidence to switch to Mamata in the 2011 assembly polls.
Most analysts expected something like this to happen for the BJP this time. The party’s incredible performance in 2019, where it more than doubled its vote-share and ended up just 3 percent behind the Trinamool, made the pundits feel that the BJP could improve its tally in the assembly polls. The BJP’s rise had then come mostly at the cost of the Left and Congress, but it had also managed to take away a small chunk of Mamata’s Hindu votes. So the assumption was that the BJP would manage to take away most of the Left-Congress’ Hindu votes and get some of the Trinamool’s marginal voters.
On the other side, the Trinamool was expected to consolidate more Muslim votes behind it. A CSDS-Lokniti post-poll survey said that Mamata had got 70 percent of the total Muslim votes in 2019. Trinamool supporters were expecting this to increase to 85 percent in this election. That alone would have given Mamata a 4 percent additional vote share. The question on every political analyst’s mind was what would be the net effect of the consolidation of Hindu votes behind the BJP and of Muslim votes behind the TMC.
Although it will take time to get the details of how Bengal voted, a first cut suggests that instead of gaining votes, the BJP lost votes compared to 2019. This is despite the fact that the Left-Congress alliance contracted further this year. The Congress and Left parties had managed to get about 13 percent of the votes in 2019. If CSDS-Lokniti’s survey got it right, about 8.5 percent of this consisted of Muslim voters. That still left a 4.5 percent vote-share for the BJP to target. Early trends suggest the Left-Congress vote-share has dropped to about 8 percent today. If things went according to plan, the drop should have been even sharper, with Muslim votes going to the Trinamool and Hindu votes shifting to BJP. That has not happened.
There is no other way to spin it but to say that it wasn’t Mamata who won West Bengal, but the BJP that lost it. Despite all its money power, its dominance over both mainstream and social media, its heavy-hitting leaders, its attempts at polarisation, the party couldn’t even improve on what it had achieved two years ago.
In some sense, it is reminiscent of the Uttar Pradesh elections of 2012 which came on the back of the Congress party’s unexpected wins in the state in the 2009 Lok Sabha elections. Rahul Gandhi had been given credit for that victory, and he camped in Uttar Pradesh for almost a year before the assembly polls. In the run up to the state elections, many political pundits predicted that the Congress could cross 100 of 403 seats, even emerge as the single-largest party in the state. In the event it could win just 28, because by 2012, the UPA at the centre had become immensely unpopular: The centre’s bad karma rubbed off on the UP results.
Has something like that happened in West Bengal as well? Has the Modi government’s poor performance with the deadly second wave of COVID made it lose ground amongst Bengal’s voters? One will only get some answers when detailed results are in place. A phase-by-phase result analysis might tell us whether the BJP lost its momentum over April, as COVID began to spread across the country.
Whatever the truth, a BJP win in West Bengal would have given ammunition to the Modi Government and the Sangh ecosystem to claim that Indians have faith in the centre’s actions against COVID. The loss, on the other hand, weakens that claim and strengthens opposition voices. It will make many fence-sitters amongst India’s ruling elites switch sides, or at least rethink their positions. It will also work as a signal to institutions across the country that Team Modi is not invincible.
Ironically, this might end up helping the party which has performed the worst in these state elections – the Congress. The party has lost in Assam, Kerala and Puducherry, where it was either in power or the principal opposition party. It has been wiped out in West Bengal, where it wasn’t expected to make much of a difference. The Congress is only on the winning side in Tamil Nadu, where it is a bit player. Yet, it is still the only national opposition to Narendra Modi’s BJP. So if the elites decide to start hedging their bets, it is the Congress which will be the biggest beneficiary.
The question is whether Rahul Gandhi has the political smarts to act upon this opportunity. This will require him to build bridges with India Inc, the people who control money flows in this country. It will require him to dial down some of his rhetoric. He will also have to appear to be a team player – a young leader who listens to the wisdom of elders in his party. The Congress will have to present Rahul as a face backed by the triumvirate of Manmohan Singh, Sonia Gandhi and P Chidambaram. That will help soften his extremist image to the moneyed and the powerful.
For PM Modi, the West Bengal elections will be a wake-up call. This is a major setback, which has to be tackled immediately. It is different from the elections in the Hindi-belt in the winter of 2018, which the BJP lost. West Bengal was there for the taking. It probably slipped from the BJP’s hands because of its mishandling of the COVID crisis. Perhaps the best way for the Modi government to gain back its legitimacy on the ground is by taking COVID head-on.