The Big Story of West Bengal right now – no doubt about it – is the landslide win of the Trinamool Congress. The party won 211 seats in the 294-seat strong West Bengal Assembly – more than 70% of the strength of the House. The next biggest party, the Communist Party of India has a vote share less than half of the Trinamool’s and its chief ministerial candidate, Surjya Kanta Mishara, lost his seat himself.
While the Bharatiya Janata Party now stands tall as the country’s largest – and after the Congress’s precipitous decline – only national party, it’s still a measly fourth place in West Bengal, with only three Assembly seats. That's the same as small fry such as the Revolutionary Socialist Party and the Gorkha Janmukti Morcha. In spite of that, the BJP won’t be displeased with the election result. Even if its seat tally is low, it has managed a somewhat respectable 10.2% of the vote – hardly a windfall but a decent figure for a party that has been West Bengal’s perpetual whipping boy.
Hindutva has never found fertile ground in Bengal. The Jana Sangh, the predecessor of the BJP got between 0.9% and 1.4% of the vote in the state in Lok Sabha elections between 1957 and 1971. In 1991, riding the Ram Mandir agitation, the BJP managed to crawl up to 11.7% in the Lok Sabha polls. But then, by 2006, its vote share had crashed to an emarrassing 1.6%.
Of course, this was a time when there was no BJP in Delhi, West Bengal’s main opposition party was the Trinamool and the Left ruled Writer’s Building. It’s a bit different now. The Left has been decimated and is looking down the barrel at even further losses. The other major party in the state, the Congress has actually managed to maintain a stable vote share in West Bengal for the past two decades, but it’s mostly limited to two districts in north Bengal. Moreover, the Congress is going down so fast nationally that its emergence as a major political force in West Bengal in the near future seems highly implausible.
Filling the opposition space
Nature, however, abhors a vacuum. Bengalis, therefore, are slowly but surely turning to the BJP as an opposition force. Its 10.2% vote share in 2016 was, for example, slightly higher than the Congress’ vote share in the 2011 Assembly election. And this vote share has seen a steady upward trend – with a handsome spike in 2014, driven by the Modi Wave.
The next big election in the state is the 2019 Lok Sabha election. Unless something drastic happens, it seems unlikely that the Communists will see resurgence. Not only are they looked at as fuddy-duddies ideologically (witness how they tried to topple their own government in 2009 over anti-Americanism) but the Trinamool is doing a competent job of destroying their famed cadre-based organisation. Since 2011, large numbers of CPI(M) workers have smoothly switched over to the Trinamool. Another five years of the same will have a rather terrible effect on the CPI(M) organisationally. Moreover, the CPI(M) hardly has any leadership which could regalvanise the party. Its national politburo system means that ideologues sitting in Delhi outrank actual mass leaders, forcing even stalwarts like former chief minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharya to nearly withdrawing from politics. And, of course, the near delegitimisation of communism as an ideology means that many bright young people will not even think of joining the party – now that it has no perks of office to offer either.
That leaves the Bharatiya Janata Party. With a superstar leader in Modi and as the ruling party at the Centre, the BJP has a lot going for it. It might not have any party organisation in the state and the BJP's current leadership might be atrocious, but for a party of its appeal and resources, that isn’t an impossible task to fix.