Left politics has had such a long run in West Bengal, it is almost a cliché to claim that every Bengali is influenced by communism. Even when the Left Front fell in the state in 2011, its leftist economic policies did not. In fact, if anything, the new Trinamool Congress government was even more aggressive about welfare schemes than the Left administration that had preceded it.
As a consequence, the performance of the Bharatiya Janata Party in the 2019 Lok Sabha election is nothing short of astounding. The party won 18 seats with a vote share of 40%. The Mamata Banerjee-led Trinamool Congress is just a whisker ahead in terms of votes polled, with 43%. The party won 22 Lok Sabha seats.
How did the saffron party manage such a breathtaking turnaround? Here are five reasons that were evident from Scroll.in’s extensive reporting across the state.
1) Communal polarisation
This was the first West Bengal election where communalism played an overt role. The BJP ran a campaign focussed exclusively on Hindus. This included belligerent Ram Navami rallies, fake news that the Mamata Banerjee government had banned Durga Puja celebrations as well as an appeal to Hindu migrants from Bangladesh with a view to linking the communal situations in the two Bengals.
The issue of development was relegated to the backburner. In many cases, prospective BJP voters told Scroll.in that they were actually quite happy with the work done by the Trinamool government. In Bhowanipore, Kolkata for example, Anjana and Debaprasad Mukherjee were pleased with how their neighbourhood’s sanitation had improved. Yet, the BJP’s allegation that the Trinamool was appeasing Muslims overrode this satisfaction.
This Hindu-focussed campaign was a resounding success. Working on the assumption that the BJP got a negligible number of Muslim votes, the 2019 results show that more Hindus, as a percentage, voted for the BJP in Bengal in 2019 than members of the community did for the party in the 2002 Assembly election in Gujarat, which took place just after widespread communal rioting.
In fact, so cohesively have Hindus voted for the BJP that in Malda, a Muslim-majority district, the saffron party won one seat and lost the other one by only 8,222 votes. The district has a Hindu population of 48% while the BJP’s vote share in Malda is 36%*. Hence, while polarisation has meant that an overwhelming number of Malda Hindus lined up behind the BJP, Muslims were split between the Congress and the Trinamool.
2) Communists shifted en mass to the BJP
While this is being – correctly – seen as significant set back for the Trinamool, Mamata Banerjee’s party actually increased its vote share. From 39% in 2014, the party now has 43% of the vote.
How then did the BJP do so well? Answer: communist voters switched sides en masse to Modi. The Communist Party of India (Marxist) vote shares plummeted from 30% in 2014 to 6% in 2019.
Such an ideological pole vault seems inexplicable. However, matters become clearer one as gets closer to the ground in rural Bengal, where for the past few years, Trinamool workers and the state administration have kept up an immense amount of pressure on the Communists.
Squeezed by this and attracted to the deep pockets and national presence of the BJP, Left workers have jumped over to the BJP, not as part of some great ideological shift, but simply as a tactical measure to oppose the local Trinamool unit. “At the local level, Trinamool’s terror overrules everything,” CPI(M) Jhargram district committee member Pradip Kumar Sarkar told Scroll.in. “CPI(M) workers want to defeat the Trinamool at any cost and they feel joining the BJP will help achieve that goal.”
3) Social media domination
The BJP has near-total control over the social media space in Bengal. Facebook, WhatsApp and Twitter are inundated with BJP posts. This control was incredibly useful when it came to spreading communal messaging. Narratives such as the chanting of “Jai Shree Ram” or Durga Puja being banned were all over Bengali social media. As part of its ground reporting, Scroll.in also found that the BJP’s messaging around the Balakot air strikes reached every corner of Bengal thanks in large part due to WhatsApp.
On May 9, fact-checking website Alt News identified West Bengal as a “prime target of misinformation ahead of the 2019 election”.
While social media has played a big role for the BJP all across India, its role in Bengal was especially critical given that the saffron party has very little ground presence in the state. However, this was overcome easily with WhatsApp.
This means that not only has the composition of the West Bengal contingent in the Lok Sabha changed now, the very way in which politics is conducted in the state has undergone a transformation.
The West Bengali tradition of leftist ground mobilisation, from marches to rallies, was set up by the communists in the late 1950s and used to unseat the Congress. The Trinamool Congress largely continued with this. However, now, with the BJP’s successful WhatsApp campaign, this culture has come to an end after more than half a century.
4) The caste factor
Using the framework of Hindutva, the BJP successfully managed to enlist into its campaign lower-caste Hindus and Adivasis, who have been the main determinant of Bengal politics for the past decade now.
With its focus on issues like the communal situation in Bangladesh and drawing a difference between Hindu and Muslim migrants, the BJP carved out a space for itself among the vast population of Bangladeshi Dalit migrants. Adivasis, a huge number of whom are concentrated on the Jharkhand border, were weaved in using allied Hindutva organisations such as the Rashtriya Swayasevak Sangh and the Bajrang Dal.
5) The BJP’s funding
The BJP is, by some distance, India’s richest party. Compared to the big corporate funding the saffron party gets, the Trinamool and the Left deal in chump change.
On the ground, this difference is quite visible in the infrastructure the BJP has at its disposal. Trinamool and (even more acutely) Left offices are in shambles while BJP offices gleam with new coats of paint and are outfitted with flat-panel television, air conditioners and SUVs parked outside.
In the long run, this played a big part in convincing many Bengalis that the BJP and not the Left is a more viable opposition to the Trinamool Congress.
This piece has been updated on reflect new data put out by the Election Commmission on seats won and votes polled.
* This figure has been arrived at by taking into account the Lok Sabha seats of Malda North and Malda South.
Read more from Scroll.in’s ground reporting in West Bengal: