Lakshmana Venkat Kuchi
Last week, I had taken a close look at the key State of Tamil Nadu in the South that will be witnessing a battle royal between the two Dravidian forces, but with a new element of the BJP making its serious bid to breach this southern State that it has not been able to so far. Although it would be hazardous to make a prediction at this State as the alliances are yet to be firmed up in Tamil Nadu, odds to seem to favour the opposition DMK led alliance of which the Congress is also a part of.
Now turning the focus towards the East, and West Bengal is particular, a bigger, tougher, and violent fight is ensuing between the ruling Trinamool Congress, seeking third straight term for Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee and the real challenger Bhartiya Janata Party that has managed to create a buzz over the past one and half years with a high potency political campaign. Ever since the BJP won Bihar in alliance with its coalition partner Janata Dal (United) in a very tight battle facing anti-incumbency, it fully plunged headlong into the battle for West Bengal. For sure, the BJP is fancying its chances going by the manner in which leaders are jumping the TMC ship. The most recent big leader who quit the TMC was former Union Minister Dinesh Trivedi, who announced his leaving in Parliament.
‘Operation Kamal’–poaching leaders from other parties, TMC in this case, has been a standard operating procedure that paid the BJP rich dividends in Karnataka and Madhya Pradesh, where it snatched Governments from the Congress after the BJP lost elections narrowly. In fact, somewhat in a similar fashion, the Congress Government in the tiny State of Puducherry is also appearing to go down to make way for a BJP-led or BJP driven Government on the eve of fresh Assembly elections to be held alongside West Bengal, Tamil Nadu, Kerala and Assam.
Will operation Kamal help the BJP cash in on the momentum is has created itself and turn this into electoral advantage remains to be seen. Its high decibel, high-powered campaigns are already forcing the TMC on the backfoot, and it is having to respond to the BJP campaigns, whether it was on the issue of corruption or on the religious issue of Lord Ram. The BJP has managed to weaponize the greeting Jai Sri Ram into a poll war cry, which has evoked a sharp response from the TMC. It now seems West Bengal will play host to a battle between Lord Ram and Goddess Ma Durga, worshipped devoutly in all of West Bengal, after TMC seemed to appropriate the Goddess as its own.
On the ground, the political atmosphere is building up–with Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Union Home Minister Amit Shah, BJP National president JP Nadda and a host of senior Ministers and party leaders crisscrossing the State for a highly surcharged battle for Bengal. “Abki Bar, 200 paar” is the battle cry of the Union Home Minister who seems to be leading the charge and in Tamil Nadu, it appears that Prime Minister Modi will focus more. The PM is slated to hold a rally in Puducherry on February 25.
While the Opposition is poised at this juncture in an advantageous position in Tamil Nadu, ground reports in West Bengal indicate a much tougher fight between the ruling TMC and a resurgent and buoyant BJP, with the Congress-Left combine running a poor third. But the presence of Congress-Left will make the contest so much tougher for the ruling TMC and ironically would help the BJP by splitting the secular vote.
Should there be an understanding between the TMC and Congress-Left combine, such a formation is expected to sweep West Bengal with consummate ease. But, for sure, this alignment is ruled out as Mamata Banerjee fought and ejected the Communists in a bitter battle a decade ago. Though formal alliance between these three formations, at present strongly opposed to the BJP, is not possible there could be isolated friendly fights that could evolve to defeat the BJP–at the Constituency level, if at all.
It would be pertinent to mention here a few straws in the political wind, caught by various pre-poll surveys conducted in the State. An average of such surveys indicates that the TMC may eventually pip the BJP and retain power, but only just that. If the BJP manages to perform very well, it may even end up as the largest single party, and could very well be in the hunt to form a Government.
But, much to the relief of the ruling TMC, indications from the ground as per the pre-poll surveys indicate a victory for the ruling party, but with much-reduced margins. The TMC is expected to score just above the magic figure of 149 and just about retain power.
A recent pre-poll survey by ABP News showed TMC winning 151 seats as against 117 of the BJP. For the BJP, it will be a multi-fold increase in strength from its present strength of mere three seats in the outgoing Assembly, slated to go for polls in April-May along with the four other States. In the 2019 Lok Sabha general elections, the BJP scored a stupendous 19 seats announcing its arrival in the State in a big way.
But Assembly elections are a different kettle of fish, is the argument trotted out by Mamata supporters who are turning the poll into a Bengal versus outsider battle. Mamata Banerjee is personally taking on the combined might of the entire top leadership of the BJP and its relentless elections-winning machine. The BJP is trying hard to win the perception battle ahead of the main battle–that TMC is a corrupt outfit and a sinking ship that its leaders were deserting. According to another survey, the BJP is expected to become the largest single party with 140 seats pushing TMC to the second spot with 134 seats.
But the poll of polls shows the TMC pipping the BJP, with an overall vote share of 41.09 percent and the BJP ending up with a vote share of 36.64 percent. The Congress-Left combine is expected to win 17.14 percent. The Congress-Left could win up to 24 seats.
All other opinion polls and surveys at present show a very close fight, but things could change as the campaign picks up momentum. As the ruling party head the sitting Chief Minister, Mamata Banerjee enjoys the greatest name recall – with some 40 percent preferring her as the CM candidate.
But, going for her third straight term for Mamata Banerjee will not be easy, given the 10 years of anti-incumbency she is fighting, other than the taint of corruption and weakening of the party due to the departures of its key leaders. The BJP on the other hand enjoys a positive image, that of the Prime Minister, and has the advantage of being the challenger.
The BJP promises Paroborthon. We have to wait and see if the West Bengal voters agree with this tagline and vote for a change.
Lakshmana Venkat Kuchi is a senior journalist tracking social, economic, and political changes across the country. He was associated with the Press Trust of India, The Hindu, Sunday Observer, and Hindustan Times. He can be reached on [email protected]
and Twitter handle @kvlakshman