With Lok Sabha elections coming up in 2024 , the political dynamics of West Bengal – where the Trinamool Congress has been in power for almost 15 years are in a swirl once again.

One indication of this came on March 2. The results of the bye-election to the Sagardighi assembly constituency showed that the Trinamool Congress no longer has the strong backing of the state’s Muslim electorate – a group whose support it has traditionally counted on. The seat was won by a Congress candidate supported by the Communist Party of India (Marxist).

Backing from the Trinamool Congress from Muslims appears to have been waning after the party won its third term in office in the West Bengal assembly election in the summer of 2021. The bitterly fought polls took place even as India was swept by a deadly wave of Covid-19.

West Bengal’s Muslim population, which the 2011 Census data pegs at 27%, largely stood behind the Trinamool Congress amid concerns about the controversial Citizenship Amendment Act, passed in December 2019 and the proposed National Register of Citizens.

Though the Bharatiya Janata Party won an impressive 77 seats in the 294-member assembly, it could not dethrone the Trinamool Congress.

But since the 2021 elections, the state’s Muslims have been grappling with poor representation both in the Trinamool Congress and the government.

One indication came in the election to the Muslim-dominated assembly constituency of Samserganj in October 2021, which was postponed from May after a candidate died. Though the Trinamool Congress won the election, the Congress candidate secured 37% of the vote share.

In the bye-elections to the Ballygunge assembly constituency in April, the Communist Party of India (Marxist) candidate cornered 30% of the vote share even though the Trinamool Congress won the seat.

Left-backed Congress victory

The Sagardighi assembly seat in Murshidabad district to which the most recent bye-election was held had been represented since 2011 by Subrata Saha of the Trinamool Congress. In the 2021 assembly election, the Trinamool Congress had won the seat with a margin of more than 50,000 votes. But in the bye-election held after Saha’s death, Bayron Biswas of the Congress defeated the Trinamool Congress candidate by 22,980 votes. The BJP’s nominee was pushed to the third place.

In that election, the Trinamool Congress had won 20 out of 22 constituencies in Murshidabad district, but none of the 15 Muslim legislators were included in Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee’s cabinet. Further, Jakir Hossain, who served as a minister during the previous administration, was dropped despite winning the Jangipur seat by the huge margin of over 92,000 votes in the 2021 election.

The Muslim leadership of the Trinamool Congress has been marginalised as the party has grown more reliant on the advice of political management consultants.. This is evident from the reorganisation of the party at the district and block levels throughout the state in August and September that sidelined Muslim leaders.

In the bye-election for the Sagardighi seat, the Trinamool Congress high command decided to field a lesser-known Brahmin candidate, Debashish Banerjee. But he was not able to compete with the Congress’s Biswas, a well-liked businessman in Murshidabad district.

The arrest of Indian Secular Front legislator Nawsad Siddique on January 21, is also said to have angered a sizable number of Muslim voters. Siddique and 17 other party workers had held a protest seeking the arrest of Trinamool Congress leader Arabul Islam which resulted in clashes with ruling party members

Trinamool Congress leaders have alleged that it was sabotage from within that led to the party’s defeat. Had the Trinamool Congress fielded a Muslim candidate from Sagardighi, where nearly two-thirds of the electorate is Muslim, it would have addressed some of the criticism the party has faced over the poor representation of the community.

Members of the Students' Federation of India march towards the West Bengal Legislative Assembly to protest against the education system and corruption in the state, in Kolkata on March 10. Credit: PTI.

BJP tones down polarising rhetoric

The weakening of support from the Muslim community is not the only challenge for the Trinamool Congress. The party has been on the backfoot since news of the recruitment scam broke last year. Senior party leaders have been arrested in connection with irregularities, including bribery allegations, for the recruitment of teaching and non-teaching staff in government and aided schools between 2019 and 2020.

The recruitment scam and the Calcutta High Court’s reprimand of the state government in the matter have been dominating headlines. Anomalies in the housing scheme Pradhan Mantri Awas Yojana list as well as charges of coal smuggling, also involving senior Trinamool Congress leaders, may have resulted in increasing disenchantment with the ruling party.

At the same time, the BJP, the main opposition party in West Bengal, has been struggling. The party has not experienced much success since the 2019 Lok Sabha elections when it won 18 seats. The Citizenship Amendment Act and the National Register of Citizens were the focus of the 2019 Lok Sabha and 2021 assembly elections in West Bengal. Seen in tandem, the policies have been criticised for targetting Muslims.

But the BJP has since altered course and appears to be moving past divisive politics. Instead of religious issues, the BJP has been highlighting the recruitment scam and allegations of cow and coal smuggling against the Trinamool Congress. It has also dialled down its rhetoric about “Jai Shri Ram” slogans.

The BJP’s moderate performance in the 2021 elections and the bye-elections that followed may have reduced the fears of Muslim voters that the saffron party would come to power in the state. This also makes it difficult for the Trinamool Congress to maintain its consolidation of Muslim votes from previous elections.

The Sagardighi result is also the first instance of the electoral success of the Left and Congress alliance in West Bengal and this outcome is bound to revitalise both floundering parties.

Mamata Banerjee at an event organised as part of the birth anniversary celebrations of Aurobindo, in Kolkata on March 14. Credit: PTI.

Trinamool Congress losing its edge?

Of the 32 bye-elections to assembly constituencies held in the state since 2011, the Trinamool Congress won 24. Among the eight bye-elections that the party lost, one was held during the 2014 Lok Sabha election and five during the 2019 Lok Sabha elections. The other two bye-elections that the party lost – Basirhat Dakshin (won by the BJP) in 2014 and Sagardighi this year – were not held during election season.

The Trinamool Congress has also won six of out seven bye-elections held to parliamentary constituencies since 2011. The one that it lost was the Jangipur parliamentary seat in 2012 in which the party did not field any candidate against Abhijit Mukherjee, the son of former President Pranab Mukherjee.

The party’s Sagardighi setback, coming before the impending panchayat elections, may result in low confidence among the party cadre. Maintaining morale and ensuring free and fair elections will be the ruling party’s biggest task – at least, initially.

The message from Sagardighi for West Bengal is unlikely to be restricted only to Muslim-dominated constituencies since the political issues evident there affect all voters. The BJP always has the polarisation card to combat the many challenges it faces. Given how deeply the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh has infiltrated West Bengal’s rural core, turning to polarisation will not be too difficult for the BJP.

A Left-Congress alliance contesting the next Lok Sabha elections in West Bengal looks increasingly likely and will result in a triangular contest in the state. The Trinamool Congress may find some comfort in the opposition’s potential to split votes.

Seats that were seen as safe are no longer so due to the shifting political dynamics in West Bengal. It is quite likely that every seat will be at play with unique circumstances and political factors.

Spandan Roy Basunia is a student at the West Bengal National University of Juridical Sciences, Kolkata. Sumanta Roy is a Research Scholar at the Centre of Social Medicine and Community Health, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.