There is always the danger of reading too much into the politics of a single constituency, and extrapolating it to the state or the country. Yet the result of the Kanthi Dakshin (Contai South) bye-poll, declared on Friday, is startling not because the Trinamool Congress won handsomely – that was always expected – but for the fact that the Bharatiya Janata Party came in second, comfortably.

Vote shares in the bye-poll for the Kanthi Dakshin Assembly seat in West Bengal.
Vote shares in the bye-poll for the Kanthi Dakshin Assembly seat in West Bengal.

From 9% of the vote share, the BJP near quadrupled its vote share to 31%. The Left Front on the other hand, plummeted from 34% to 10%. This, in less than one year, as the previous election had been held last May. The bye-poll was necessitated after the seat fell vacant when the previous MLA, Dibyendu Adhikari, was elected to the Lok Sabha in November.

While the Left has been declining in West Bengal for some time, the Kanthi Dakshin result might be the clearest red flag on how bad things are for the communists in the state. Given this result, it is all but inevitable that the BJP would now take up the mantle of the state’s principal Opposition, even if its current strength in the Assembly stands at just three seats out of 294.

Losing the narrative

East Midnapore, the district in which Kanthi Dakshin is located, is where the first stirrings arose against the decades-old rule of the Communist Party of India (Marxist) in the state. In 2008, the Trinamool Congress, backed by the Nandigram land agitation, defeated the Left Front in the panchayat election. Nandigram is also located in East Midnapore. Yet, even as the Left lost power in Midnapore as well as West Bengal, in 2011, it still maintained a hold in the area. In the 2016 Assembly elections, it managed to get 34% of the vote there. Yet, so dismal were its future prospects that five months after that election, its most popular face in the region, Lakshman Seth, left the Communist Party of India (Marxist) – and joined the BJP.

What is true for Midnapore is true for the rest of West Bengal. For the past year, the BJP has monopolised the Opposition space, using Hindutva to attack the Mamata Banerjee administration. While the BJP scarcely has any organisational strength in Bengal, it has managed to control the narrative at the national level, which has then filtered down to the state. This includes social media as well as television news coverage on Hindi-language channels such as Zee News, seen to be close to the BJP.

Lacklustre Left

While the Left is obviously unable to compete with the much larger BJP in the media space, even on the ground, the Communist Party of India (Marxist) faces organisational collapse, with its party machinery either under attack by the Trinamool, or in many cases having simply switched sides to Banerjee’s party.

The Left has also been in a spot since the land agitation movements of Singur and Nandigram.

Given its role in forcibly taking away farm land for industry in order to force West Bengal out of its industrial stagnation, the Communist Party of India (Marxist) ceded the Left space to the Trinamool Congress. The Left itself had come to power in West Bengal on the issue of land rights in 1977, and its extensive land reforms ensured that it ruled the state for an uninterrupted 34 years.

Even now, the land rights movement in West Bengal remains extremely strong with an agitation breaking out in Bhangar, near Kolkata, in January, in which two people protesting against a power sub-station project were killed in police firing.

The Communist Party of India (Marxist) in West Bengal is also affected by the national paralysis of the Left. Given that its communist ideology has lost lustre nationally and globally, the party in Bengal is struggling to attract young cadre. For instance, at its 20th Party Congress in 2012, only 4% of the delegates were below 40 years of age.

Don’t count the BJP’s chickens yet

The direct beneficiary of the Left’s decline has been the BJP. It won 31% of the vote in Kanthi Dakshin with barely any organisation in the area or even a relatable state leader. In fact, it had to depend largely on the muscle power of Lakshman Seth, the former Communist Party of India (Marxist) member, who is alleged to have directed the Nandigram violence of 2007.

However, while the bye-poll verdict portends the rise of the BJP as the state’s main Opposition, it is also a sign of the saffron party’s limitations in West Bengal. Till now, the BJP has fed off the Left’s decline. In Kanthi Dakshin, this has meant taking in former Communist Party of India (Marxist) leaders, and profiting from a low Muslim population in the area to reach a vote share of 31%. While this might help it in the short run, without any party machinery or leaders of its own, the BJP is a long way off from harassing the Trinamool Congress, which still retains a strong grip on West Bengal.