What are the representational outcomes of the West Bengal 2021 election? What the social characteristics of the old and new occupants of the Vidhan Sabha? In this article, we combine data collected by the Trivedi Centre for Political Data team through the campaign to historical data collected for the SPINPER project to provide an overview of some key historical representation patterns in the West Bengal assembly.
We look in particular at caste representation, gender and minority representation, as well as the career trajectory or profile of MLAs in Bengal.
Assembly caste profile
West Bengal has always been at odds with most of the rest of the country, which has a pronounced decline of traditional elite representation. Until 2011, the majority of MLAs belonged to the upper castes (mostly Brahmins and Kayasthas).
It is hard to get a precise sense of what portion of the general population are upper caste. But quick arithmetic based on what is known about other groups place the general category population somewhere between 30% to 35% of the total population. But not all of them are members of the upper castes, since some backward castes do not get classified as Other Backward Classes in West Bengal.
The rise of the Trinamool Congress brought a modest measure of transformation of the caste profile of the assembly, with fewer upper-caste MLAs and a few more Muslim MLAs. But has the chart below shows, those changes have been modest.
Upper caste representation remains at the same level (43%), while Muslim representation decreased by 5%. The other notable change is the increase of representation of the Scheduled Castes, from 24% to 27.4%. Twelve Scheduled Caste candidates have been elected in general seats this year, which is very unusual.
Forty seven percent (112) of the 213 Trinamool MLAs are upper caste as are 34% (26) of the 77 Bharatiya Janata Party MLAs. Muslim and Dalits get nearly equal representation in the Trinamool (42 and 44 seats each). Other groups, which include Other Backward Classes, Intermediary and non-Other Backward Classes lower castes, Scheduled Tribes and other groups, only get 25 seats.
Scheduled Castes also make the largest group among the BJP MLAs, which also offers nominal representation to other backward groups, excluding Muslims. This results comes from the fact that the BJP did comparatively better in reserved seats, not that it was necessarily more inclusive from the start.
The distribution of caste groups by major parties and alliance shows that the three main contenders remain heavily skewed in favour of upper caste candidates, the BJP first among them (with 52.4% of all tickets distributed).
The Left Front Alliance, which includes Congress, made more space than others to Muslim candidates (26.5%, against 15.3% for the Trinamool). All of them marginalise non-Scheduled Caste backward groups, which get barely represented in the Assembly.
Plotting caste data on a map reveals the presence of distinctive clusters of representation. All major groups – upper castes, Muslims, lower castes – tend to dominate particular areas, districts and regions.
We saw earlier how Muslims’ representation is confined to three areas. Scheduled Caste seats are also heavily clusted in Bardhaman district, South 24 Parganas, across the border of the Nadia and North 24 Parganas district, and in the non-tribal parts of the Jalpaigury district, as well as in Cooch Behar.
A comparison with 2016 shows that there is great stability of caste- and community-based representational outcomes. Much like in many other states, the political geography of caste tends to be quite stable, regardless of the political churning and government alterations.
Note: There remain many ambiguities in our caste dataset, which is why we are not including a jati-based analysis at this time.
Women have played a major role in this election. With her victory, Mamata Banerjee remains the last standing woman chief minister in India. Her campaign draw much support from women voters and among major parties, the Trinamool Congress has been in recent years the most inclusive in terms of women candidates nomination.
In 2021, the West Bengal Assembly lost one woman member (40), even though women representation among candidates slightly increased.
The Trinamool nominated 48 women candidates, against 45 in 2016. The BJP 38 against 32, the Communist Party of India (Marxist) 21 against 19 and the Congress only seven against the nine it had done five years earlier.
The Trinamool and Communist Party of India (Marxist) numbers are higher than those of most parties in India, but the following chart shows the state of women’s marginalisation in West Bengal. In total, they made up 11.3% of all candidates.
Most women were elected in general seats (27) but women candidates performed better in Scheduled Caste seats, even though the share of candidates is roughly equivalent across constituency types.
All in all, despite the fact that the Trinamool Congress did nominate more women this time (although much below the share of tickets it gave to women candidates in the 2019 General Election – 41%), women’s representation has not made much progress in West Bengal this year.
Fewer Muslim candidates and MLAs
A similar story can be told about Muslims’ representation in Bengal. The rise of the Trinamool Congress in 2011 led to the sharpest increase of minority representation, who in one election went from 44 MLAs (in 2006) to 61 (in 2011).
Mamata Banerjee’s power conquest strategy included the promise of greater representation of minorities, who according to the 2011 Census, make 27% of the state’s population.
However, Muslim representation decreased after 2011, even though the Trinamool Congress gave more ticket to minority candidates in 2016. In 2021, Mamata Banerjee reduced the number of Muslim candidates fielded by her party in 2016, from 51 to 44. Thirty-one of them got elected. With the BJP’s exclusion of Muslims among its candidates, Muslim representation in Bengal is back to where it was before the Trinamool came to power.
There is not a simple correlation between the number of candidates fielded by parties and representation outcomes. Overall party performance and electoral behaviour at the end of the day determine how many Muslim get elected. Thus, the Trinamool saw an increase of Muslim MLAs even though it distributed a smaller share of its tickets to minority candidates compared to the previous election (12.9% against 16.9%).
The following chart shows that the majority of Muslim candidates run on tickets of small parties or as independents. Hardly any of them ever get elected. This year, one of the two non-Trinamool, non-BJP MLA, is a Muslim (elected on a Rashtriya Secular Majlis Party ticket).
This year, nearly all Muslim MLAs in West Bengal belong to the same party. Before that, Muslims’ representation was more or less equitably distributed among major parties. With the rise of the BJP and the decline of the Left and Congress, it is not surprising to see Muslim’s representation going down. They literally have only one party to turn to, which is a strong electoral advantage for the Trinamool, given their demographic importance.
Finally, comparing the average vote shares and victory margins of Muslim and Hindu Trinamool MLAs suggest that the former tend to win their seat far more decisively than their Hindu counterparts. This may have to do with demographic concentration of Muslim voters. It is also likely indicative of the cohesiveness of Muslim support for Muslim candidates, as well as the ability of these candidates to mobilise support from voters others than Muslims.
The geography of Muslims’ representation shows that Muslim MLAs are clustered in three areas, in and around Calcutta, in the Murshidabad region and across the Malda region. Muslim representation is therefore a geographically constrained phenomena.
In the next section, we look at the career profile of the West Bengal MLAs. How many of them are career politicians, how many newcomers have been elected? What has been the performance of all the turncoat candidates that made so much headlines? We use here an original dataset (accessible here), derived from Election Commission of India data and the results of the 2021 state elections, to explore the performance of incumbent candidates and turncoats.
A high individual incumbency
It is understood in India that most sitting MLAs usually don’t even get to re-run, and that most of those who do get kicked out by voters, leading to a high turnover of politicians across state assemblies.
West Bengal is a bit of an exception, as a high ratio of sitting MLAs usually get to re-run, and as the strike rate of these incumbent candidates is usually quite high. As a result, politicians in West Bengal tend to make longer careers than in most other states.
In 2021, 191 sitting MLAs re-ran (65.4%), and 120 of them were re-elected (63%). This are lower figures than in 2016, when nearly all sitting MLAs re-ran (85.4% of them) and when most of them (71.7%) got re-elected. These numbers dipped in 2011, which happens when there is a big swing election. But other than that, individual incumbency in West Bengal has always been high.
Barring swing elections like 1977 or 2011, the ratio of first-time MLAs usually hovers between 35% and 40%. In 2021, the performance of the BJP brings in many new faces, which is how the ratio of first-timers increases above 50%.
There is not, however, much cumulative experience in the Vidhan Sabha. Recent political churnings have led to a deep renewal of West Bengal’s political class. Only 98 MLAs out of 292 are serving a third term or more. The two veterans of the assembly are Abdul Karim Chowdhary, the eight-term MLA from Islampur, and Sadan Pande, another eight-term MLA elected in Maniktala. Both are Trinamool politicians.
The three most experienced BJP politicians in the assembly are Suvendu Adhikari (third term), Mihir Goswami (third term) and Biswajit Das (third term). All of them come from the Trinamool.
Stable political class belongs to the Trinamool
MLAs elected three time or more form what we call the “stable political class”, or a class of professional politicians. The following chart shows that barring the three aforementioned BJP turncoats, all of them belong to the Trinamool (the dark squares are successful turncoat candidates).
This means that even if the BJP tried hard to poach politicians from the other side, it did not succeed in attracting and getting elected many career politicians.
Turncoats go home
Turncoat candidates got a lot of attention in this election cycle. The BJP in West Bengal made it its strategy to cannibalise its opponent’s organisation by drawing as many MLAs and cadres as it could. Here, we consider turncoat candidates who previously ran, successfully or not, on a different party ticket than in 2021. It therefore excludes the party workers that were poached, lured with the opportunity to contest for the first time.
By that measure, we find that in West Bengal, only 26 out of the 87 turncoat candidates won their race and only eight of them on BJP tickets.
Ironically, most successful turncoats in West Bengal ended up winning on party tickets other than that of the BJP. Unbeknownst to most, the Trinamool ran 28 turncoat candidates, out of whhom 18 were elected (nine from Congress, five from the Communist Party of India (Marxist), and four from smaller communist formations). Of the eight elected BJP turncoat candidates, only four come from the Trinamool.
The turncoat phenomenon makes for appealing headlines but ends up concerning a fragment of the contestants, most of whom ending up losing.
In the next section, we look at the socio-demographic profile of the new West Bengal Assembly
A (slightly) younger assembly
The New West Bengal assembly is not particularly young. The median age of a legislator is 55 in 2021 against 56 in 2016. The 60 to 65 have moved to the 65+ category but have not been replaced in equal measure by the 50 to 55 generation.
By virtue of having a greater share of newcomers and first-time contestants, BJP legislators dominate in the younger category (under 55) while the Trinamool has a higher share of older politicians (above 55).
Diverse education profiles
Of the Assembly’s 292 MLAs, 180 have a graduate degree or above. 59 have a postgraduate degree and seven have a PhD. More 12th pass legislators have been elected in 2021 (62) than five years ago (45).
The BJP has a higher proportion of less educated legislators (21% against 14% for the Trinamool). They also have a higher proportion of postgraduates. But given the circulation of candidates between the Trinamool and the BJP, one should not expect too much variations between the social profile of both parties’ MLAs.
Trinamool legislators are wealthier
The legislators from the Trinamool, as well as its candidates, are significantly richer than the BJP’s: 58.2% of all Trinamool MLAs are crorepatis, against 31% for the BJP. Left Front Alliance candidates were also not as rich as the Trinamool’s.
One possible explanation for this gap is the fact that the BJP hurriedly put its candidates lists together, and did not use personal wealth as a selection criterion, as they usually do. They also fielded more political novices who hadn’t had an opportunity to convert a political career into political gains. More prosaically, the BJP did not place its candidates at the centre of its strategy, which also may contribute to that outcome.
Governments come and go and party performance may vary significantly over time. But this does not necessarily mean that political churning reflect deeper social transformation. The eruption of the Trinamool on the political scene of West Bengal led to a modest alteration of the fabric of West Bengal’s political class. They remain skewed in favour of traditional elites, make a bit more space to minority candidates than their predecessors, but not in a particularly spectacular way.
The BJP has always attempted to paint the Trinamool as the great panderer of minorities. In reality, Mamata Banerjee has given Muslims a place in public life slightly more consonant with their demographic weight. The larger balance of power between elites and non-elites has not fundamentally been altered by the changes of political regime.
The BJP attempted to depict this election as a battle of the low against the high, the non-elites against the establishment, incarnated once by the Left and now by the Trinamool. But it still nominated a majority of elite upper caste candidates and opened its door to members of the establishment it otherwise decries.
When we look at elections, our eyes are naturally drawn towards any sign of change or transformation. A data analysis of representational trends over time shows to the contrary that there is still a great deal of stability and continuity in West Bengal politics.
Gilles Verniers is Assistant Professor of Political Science at Ashoka University, co-director of TCPD and Visiting Senior Fellow at the Centre for Policy Research.
Avishek Jha is Affiliate Researcher, TCPD, and PhD Candidate in Geography at the University of Melbourne.
Mohit Kumar and Neelesh Agrawal are Research Engineers at TCPD.
Ayaan Sagar, Jenish Raj Bajracharya, Mayank Sharma, Niharika Mehrotra, Paravi Sapra, Prashasti Agarwal, Priavi Joshi, Pulari Bhaskar, Rashmi Guha Ray, Shreya, and Shreyashree Nayak have contributed to the data, with the TCPD team. We also thank all our state level contacts for their valuable time and Shoaib Rashid Mirza for all his assistance with the coordination.
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