West Bengal Assembly polls: Will Mamata survive BJP scare? All eyes on May 2

While Mamata Banerjee’s TMC will be hoping to overcome the anti-incumbency factor and come to power for a third consecutive term, the BJP will be trying to build on the big gains it made during the Lok Sabha polls in 2019 in the state.

The longest-ever Assembly polls in West Bengal, held in eight phases, ended on April 29 under the shadow of a raging coronavirus pandemic.

While Mamata Banerjee’s TMC will be hoping to overcome the anti-incumbency factor and come to power for a third consecutive term, the BJP will be trying to build on the big gains it made during the Lok Sabha polls in 2019 in the state.

Exit polls have been divided over the final outcome, with some giving only a thin edge to TMC. However, they all agree on one thing — the contest in Bengal will be close and a victory for either TMC or BJP can be a matter of thin margins.

One point that all these exit polls agree upon is the fact that BJP can win well over 100 seats, which will be a massive jump from the three seats it bagged in the Assembly polls in 2016. Consequently, the saffron party’s vote share may also increase from 10% last time to around 43% as predicted by the India Today-MyAxis poll or just over 39% as predicted by ABP-CVoter.

If the BJP vote share were to see that meteoric jump, it would mean that the saffron party has to win in most  Assembly seats under those Lok Sabha constituencies where it had won in 2019. In the 2019 Lok Sabha polls, when it won 18 seats, the BJP led in 33 of the total 68 SC-reserved Assembly segments in the state. Out of these 33 seats, 26 are Matua-dominated. The Lok Sabha results show there has been a swing in the SC vote towards BJP.

The other thing such a scenario will imply is that the gains of the BJP would come at the cost of the Left-Congress-ISF Alliance. The Alliance (which did not have ISF back then) had won 76 seats in the Assembly polls in 2016, but going by the exit poll predictions, it could win anything between zero to 25 seats.

If consolidation in the Muslim vote favours TMC, what would be crucial in deciding the fate of BJP will be whether or not there is a strong consolidation of the Hindu vote. In an intensely polarised election, such an overwhelming majoritarian consolidation across class and caste lines could work in favour of the BJP.

Another important factor could be the vote of the Scheduled Caste (SC) community — at 23.51%, they form the second-largest chunk after the Muslim vote (27%) and could well be a deciding factor in this election. In Bengal, 60 recognised SC groups make up above 25% of the population in more than nine districts. Together, these nine districts account for 127 Assembly seats. Besides, in six districts, with 78 Assembly seats, the SCs constitute 15-25% of the population.

Among the SC community, two of the largest chunks comprise the Rajbanshis (18.4%) and the Namasudras (17.4%). The BJP and the TMC are vying for a larger pie of the SC vote, with both the parties trying to reach out to Matuas who form a large part of the Namasudra community.

BJP is hoping that its promise of granting citizenship through the CAA would swing the Matua vote in its favour. TMC, on the other hand, has been stating that people of this community are already legal citizens. In a bid to reach out to the voters, Prime Minister Narendra Modi recently visited Orakandi in Bangladesh’s Gopalganj district.

Another crucial deciding factor would be whether or not TMC turncoats who jumped ship to the BJP can swing votes in favour of the saffron party. TMC saw an exodus ahead of the polls, starting from leaders at the zilla parishad and municipality level to MLAs and heavyweights such as Suvendu Adhikari and Rajib Banerjee. It remains to be seen if these leaders, many of who enjoy considerable influence at the grassroots level, can help in creating a saffron surge.

The battle between Adhikari and incumbent CM Mamata Banerjee in the Nandigram seat will be one of the contests to watch out for. A decade ago, the protest against land acquisition in Nandigram was one of the key issues that had catapulted Banerjee to power in the state.

Up against an aggressive BJP, with PM Narendra Modi and Union Home Minister having addressed numerous rallies, the TMC has tried to adopt the strategy of playing up the “insider versus the outsider” issue during these polls. The ruling party hedged its bets on shoring up the Bengali ethnic identity which it claims to fight for and seeks to protect from an “imposition of an imported culture” from outside the state. This has led to bitter contestations about Bengal’s cultural heritage, with both the TMC and the BJP laying claims to icons such as Rabindranath Tagore and Subhas Chandra Bose.

Through popular jingles such as ‘Khela hobe’, the TMC has tried to portray Mamata Banerjee as the lone challenger who is fighting against the BJP ministers and “compromised central agencies”. The BJP, on the other hand, has been relentless in its attack on Banerjee’s party, accusing the TMC of indulging in large-scale corruption and blocking central welfare schemes in the state.

After a poll campaign during which barbs were exchanged, lives were lost and Covid cases escalated in the state, the jury is still out on what Bengal has chosen this time. After a lengthy election spanning over a month, May 2 could be a long day.

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