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Most national general elections in India have a central theme which define the political trajectories of various parties, ideologies and visions. For instance, the 1984 election was all about Indira Gandhi’s assassination and the ascendancy of a young new leader. Similarly, 1999 was all about giving a thumbs-up to the Vajpayee government’s victory in Kargil war and to support the Nuclear power status of India. If 2009 was a reaffirmation of socialist policies of UPA government like NREGA & farm loan waiver schemes, 2014 was built on overwhelming anger of voters against humungous corruption scams of UPA 2 and the widespread policy paralysis. The list goes on. 

Two rare exceptions to this rule are the 1996 and 2004 national elections that simply had no redefining theme. The 1996 general election was the first post-reforms election which neither the Congress party wanted to take ownership of nor the opposition wanted to oppose, thus the whole reform process was left a political orphan and the elections were simply localized affairs of different parties and groups. The 2004 national election was again a confused election as BJP had preponed the polls without any clarity as to what exactly it stood for. Although deputy PM Lal Krishna Advani made an attempt to create a central theme of ‘India Shining’, he failed miserably because BJP, for most parts, sounded like a wannabe-secular cousin of the Congress party (for ex: in April 2004, there was actually a bus full of Muslim intellectuals going on a 17-day trip across Uttar Pradesh named as “Atal Bihari Vajpayee Himayat Caravan” that was seeking Muslim votes for BJP with promises like 2 crore jobs for Urdu teachers!).

The central theme of 2019 is Modi. It is all about his government, his policies, his vision for India, his rhetoric and his Hindu Nationalist credentials. Political parties, leaders and workers are either with him or against him, there is no third political current in this national election. Whether it is Balakot strikes against Pakistan or demonetization and GST or toilets or the whole ‘idea of India’, opposition parties have to oppose Modi because that is the only logical course of action for them to stay relevant in the electoral arena.

If Modi is the central theme, then the result of 2019 should be a foregone conclusion, isn’t it? For most parts, this argument holds true. Logically, 2019 should produce a 1984 like majority for Modi simply because there is no coherent opposition or alternate political vision to him. In fact, as of now, we believe there are only two states standing between Modi and emphatic victory this summer.

The two crucial states of Uttar Pradesh and West Bengal together account for 122 parliamentary seats and will in all probability decide the fate of 2019. Why only UP & Bengal, why not say a state like Rajasthan or Madhya Pradesh where Congress has formed a government just 3 months ago defying the political current of the last 5 years? The answer to that question is three-fold.

  • The primary reason is that UP sends the highest number of MPs, almost double the number of both Rajasthan & Madhya Pradesh put together, while Bengal is the 3rd largest state in terms of total number of MPs.
  • The second reason is that although Congress narrowly won the assembly elections last year, the fact of the matter is that most voter anger in these states was directed at state governments and local leadership. Voters want to return back to the BJP fold in the national polls. Furthermore, Congress state governments have disappointed the voters within the first 3 months to such an extent that there is widespread “buyers’ remorse” among the populace here.
  • The third and perhaps the most important reason is that both these states (Rajasthan & MP) will start voting only from the fourth phase on April 29th by whence the trend would have completely solidified one way or the other, whereas UP and Bengal begin voting from the very first phase.

 

It is in this background that we have been tracking both Uttar Pradesh and Bengal for the last one month relentlessly. The results are quite astonishing to say the least. Today, we will be doing a quick analysis of the Bengal trajectory (wait for part 2 when we will be analyzing Uttar Pradesh) and measuring the change here in 2019. We at 5Forty3 datalabs have teams present in 33 of the 42 parliamentary constituencies of Bengal and have used extensive fieldwork as well as highly accurate predictive models for this study.

The primary question that we wanted to answer was whether Bengal is ready for a change, because it is a highly status-quoist state that repeatedly elects same set of representatives and political parties for long durations of time. The answer to that question seems to be an overwhelming ‘yes’, although one needs to be cautious when reaching quick conclusions about a state like Bengal.

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The rapid growth of BJP in Bengal is one of the most under-analyzed political changes of the last decade. To give an idea of how massive this growth has been, consider this. In the 2013 Panchayat elections of Bengal, BJP could only find about 9000 candidates to contest across the state and managed to get a paltry 3% in terms of overall vote-share. Cut to 2018, in just five years, BJP had grown to such an extent that it managed to pit 34507 candidates in Panchayat elections of the state even as its vote share grew to a whopping 23% in rural Bengal – an increase of a mindboggling 666% in 5 years. 

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There is a tendency in the secular media circles to simply ‘blame’ BJP’s growth on polarization – no doubt, Mamata Banerjee’s unprecedented Muslim appeasement politics has had a bearing on Bengal – but the fact of the matter is that BJP’s growth in the state has come about due to gargantuan organization building exercise undertaken by the party over the last 5 years. For instance, in the 2014 elections, BJP had polling booth level infrastructure in only about 21000 polling booths which ensured that TMC faced little challenge in the interiors. Today, BJP’s spread has increased by three-fold as it has strong ground-up infrastructure in nearly 62000 polling booths of the state.

BJP’s growth in Bengal has been both organic as well as inorganic. The organic growth has come about because of TMCs Muslim appeasement which created an ideal environment for Sangh and affiliated organizations to build their presence in the state, while the inorganic growth has come from a huge influx of leaders from both TMC and the Communists like tribal leader Khagen Murmu, Brackpore strongman Arjun Singh and perhaps most importantly, the man responsible for building the TMC organization in north Bengal, Mukul Roy.

Let us take the case studies of two different MP seats from two different sub-regions of Bengal to understand the import of this organic-inorganic growth duality of BJP in Bengal. The first one is the famous Malda North parliamentary seat which is considered as a fiefdom of the Ghani Khan Chaudhary family and is an important bell-weather seat to understand the demographic shift of the state’s electorate. Here both TMC and Congress have nominated Ghani Khan Chaudhary’s family members which is leading to a clear split in the Muslim votes. BJP has fielded Khagen Murmu who has strong grassroots support from the tribal populace. Although some BJP workers were initially angry about an outsider getting the ticket, now the Sangh ecosystem seems to be working at consolidating Hindu votes. As a result, as of today BJP is sailing ahead in this important Congress citadel.

The second case in point is the Barasat LS seat in the North 24 Paraganas district. Here, a renowned psychiatrist and a former member of “Overseas friends of BJP”, Dr. Mrinal Kanti Debnath is giving TMC’s unpopular sitting MP Kakoli Ghosh a run for her money. Dr. Debnath is a philanthropist and well liked across Barasat and is even getting support from dissident TMC cadre while Ms. Ghosh is facing stiff resistance wherever she is travelling.

These two examples apart from a dozen others like that of Cooch Behar where BJP was a distant third in 2014 but is surging ahead of TMC today or the case of Chandra Kumar Bose of Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose family in Kolkata south all demonstrate the same uniform swing across the state. This pattern of organic Hindu consolidation and opposition vote division in Bengal is very much reminiscent of Uttar Pradesh 2014 when BJP swept the polls.

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Our teams have travelled across the state and we have counter checked all our findings at least three times to come to this surprising conclusion of BJP and TMC being equal in terms of voter support at this point of time. This is an incredible feat by any standards, for BJP’s leadership itself has been targeting about 25-28% vote-share in the state for the last three years since the debacle of 2016, but our research is showing that the saffron party has surpassed its own target here. There are three big caveats though for this study that must be stressed.

  1. There are still about 21% undecided voters who may yet tilt the balance one way or the other considering the fact that the election season in the state spreads across 50 days and seven phases. This is also the reason why seat conversion should not be attempted at this moment because with 1 out of ever 5 voters being undecided, any seat conversion matrix would be fraught with danger.
  2. Voter support may yet not translate into large number of seats for the BJP because it still is weak in many areas of the state – especially the western sub-region – and the fact that BJP lacks proper infrastructure in about 12000 polling booths of the state’s 78000 odd booths is still a big worrying factor.
  3. The importance of free-and-fair elections cannot be overstressed in the Bengal context and how effectively the Election Commission deploys the central forces during this long drawn out election season will be a crucial factor deciding the fate of 2019.

 

Despite these caveats, BJP’s rise in Bengal is staggering. What can help BJP immensely is the way the election schedule has been drawn up. As north Bengal where TMC is at its weakest and BJP at its strongest goes to polls in the first two phases, it can lead to a massive perceptional victory for the saffron party because its cadre would be highly enthused in the next phases. As of today, BJP’s base case scenario in Bengal is a dozen odd seats (and best case scenario can well go beyond 25) which all but puts the party as the alternate pole to Mamata Didi’s politics of unprecedented and unbridled minority appeasement politics.

[In the next part, we will be analyzing Uttar Pradesh and its impact on 2019. West Bengal will be further analyzed at the sub-regional level as the election unfolds from this Thursday].