In July, with a few months to go before the 2024 Lok Sabha elections, the Trinamool Congress swept the West Bengal panchayat polls. The ruling Bharatiya Janata Party at the Centre has worked hard to break ground in West Bengal, which remains one of the Hindutva’s key target states as it aims for an unprecedented third term at the Centre.

Does the Mamata Banerjee-led party’s sweep put the Trinamool Congress in pole position in the state for the Lok Sabha elections? Though the Congress-Left and Indian Secular Front put up a strong showing, the BJP still holds an edge over the three parties in the general election.

Some takeaways from the panchayat election result provide an indication of the state’s political climate and show that there is little room for complacency among any of the parties.

A violent election

The 2023 panchayat elections continued West Bengal’s legacy of political violence with 59 killed, 19 of them on polling day itself. This year saw the most violent panchayat election since 2003 when 76 were killed.

Of those killed this year, more than 30 were associated with the Trinamool Congress, seven each with the Bharatiya Janata Party and Congress, four from the Left Front and one from the Indian Secular Front.

Muslim-dominated districts such as Murshidabad and South 24 Paraganas recorded 11 deaths each. Seven deaths alone were from Bhangore block in South 24 Paraganas district.

The state’s electoral history indicates that more than violence, election malpractices such as rigging harm the incumbent more in subsequent polls. West Bengal has generally had a higher turnout, compared to other states, reflecting the sentiment in favour of voting. Not being able to vote, thus, can hurt the party that tries to rig the election.

For instance, the 2018 panchayat elections were less violent with 13 official deaths. But due to the allegations of rampant rigging in the panchayat election, the Trinamool Congress won only 22 seats in the Lok Sabha elections in 2019, compared to 34 that it had won in the previous Lok Sabha elections.

In the 2018 panchayat election, the Trinamool Congress surpassed a 60% vote share in 10 of 20 zilla parishads, according to data from the state election commission. But this year, it was able to repeat this feat in only six.

The number of uncontested seats also dropped from 34% in 2018 to 12%. An indication that voting was more fair is evident from the fact that the combined opposition – the BJP, Congress, Left and Indian Secular Front – got nearly 45% the vote share in the zilla parishads and won nearly 30% of the seats at the lowest tier.

Vote share

The Trinamool Congress won all 20 zilla parishads and recorded a vote share of nearly 55%. The party improved its performance substantially in North Bengal and Jangalmahal while it continued its dominance in districts neighbouring Kolkata.

In four out of the 20 zilla parishads, however, the party’s vote share fell from the 2021 state assembly elections. Three of them are the Muslim-dominated districts of Uttar Dinajpur, Malda and Murshidabad where the party’s vote share had fallen, according to this author’s analysis of data from the state election commission.

The fourth, Jhargram district, showed signs of resentment following protests in April by the Kurmi community, who sought to be included in the Scheduled Tribe category.

The Bharatiya Janata Party’s vote share fell in all zilla parishads but it fared well in Purba Medinipur, the home district of its leader, Suvendu Adhikari: it won 14 out of 70 seats and also secured more than 40% of the vote share.

The BJP’s voters appear to have shifted to the Trinamool Congress and the alliance of the Left and Congress. The Left and Congress, however, had decided to contest most seats separately this time.

The combined votes of the Left, Congress and Indian Secular Front stood at 19.5%. The parties improved their vote share in all 20 zilla parishads and even surpassed the BJP in terms of vote share in six districts.

The author's analysis of vote share data from the state election commission's figures.

The three parties gained massively in the Muslim-dominated districts of Malda, Murshidabad, Uttar Dinajpur. In Central Bengal districts like Nadia, Birbhum, Purba and Paschim Bardhaman, too, the three parties saw their vote share grow.

The panchayat election results also suggest that religious polarisation may be waning, as a result of which the Congress has emerged as the principal opposition to the Trinamool Congress in Muslim-dominated districts.

This was not the case in the 2021 state assembly election when the Congress saw its vote share dip to a dismal 2.93%. The Sagardighi assembly bye-election result in March had indicated that the Trinamool Congress was losing support among Muslims.

The panchayat election results indicate that the Muslim voter base of the Trinamool Congress may have decreased but the party has garnered the support of some of the BJP’s Hindu voters. This may also have resulted in the BJP’s inability to hold on to its strongholds in the Rajbanshi belt in North Bengal districts and Matua belt in North 24 Paraganas and Nadia districts. If this trend of reducing polarisation continues, the Trinamool Congress and BJP could be affected in Muslim and Hindu-dominated areas.

Yet, things are far more complex. In Hindu-dominated districts, Muslims still support the Trinamool Congress, but in areas where Muslims are in majority and there is reduced fear of the BJP, many appear to be moving away from the Trinamool Congress. In the run up to the Lok Sabha election, polarisation could surge again as issues such as the Uniform Civil Code and the inauguration of Ram temple at Ayodhya are raised.

West Bengal’s panchayat election was also the first major election since controversies such as the job recruitment scam and allegations of coal and cow smuggling came to light. Heavyweight Trinamool Congress leaders such as Partha Chatterjee and Anubrata Mondal were arrested. Anti-incumbency sentiment against the state government may have been high but the ruling dispensation appears to have successfully overcome it, at least this time, with a plethora of social-welfare schemes and public outreach programmes.

Initiatives such as Didir Suraksha Kawach, the party’s outreach programme, and Trinamoole Nabo Jowar, a grassroots initiative to find the best possible public representatives, ensured that the party was in campaign mode before the elections. The Centre’s decision to freeze funds for rural employment guarantee workers in March may have also worked against the BJP.

With months to go for the general elections, there are takeaways for all political parties from the West Bengal panchayat election. For the Trinamool Congress, its declining minority voter base, political violence should be of concern. The state election commission has been accused of inaction, favouring the ruling party.

The BJP’s poor showing in North Bengal and Jangalmahal, where the voting was apparently peaceful and the Hindutva party has significant presence, should worry the party. For the Left, Congress and Indian Secular Front, the focus should be on tackling polarisation, which can potentially result in a bipolar election that may sideline all three parties.

Spandan Roy Basunia is a student at the West Bengal National University of Juridical Sciences, Kolkata.