Electoral reality of Bengal versus the BJP hype

Ever the master of hype, the BJP is feeding news channels in Delhi that it is a “big force” in West Bengal. Innocent of ground realities in West Bengal, these channels are dutifully reporting this joke as a fact. What is the reality? Consider the two recent assembly by-elections in West Bengal, Chowringhee and Basirhat South. These took place in September and tested the limits of the BJP’s advance in the state.

When I was growing up, it was often said that Chowringhee was one of the Congress’ safest seats in the country. Located in the heart of Kolkata, it represented and still represents the urban core of our cosmopolitan state capital. In the 2014 Lok Sabha election, the Congress led in the Chowringhee segment with 35,998 votes. Trinamool was close behind with 34,440 votes, the BJP had 29,503 and the CPI(M) 10,796.

The by-election numbers throw up an interesting contrast. The CPI(M) has declined still more, to 8,890 votes and finished fourth again. The Congress has slipped badly and declined to 23,317 votes, a loss of 12,600 votes or about 35 per cent of its Lok Sabha tally. The BJP has slipped to reach 23,984 votes and finish second. Trinamool ran away with the seat, getting 38,328 votes.

How Chowringhee voted is an indicator of the continued popularity of Mamata Banerjee and Trinamool in urban areas, particularly in the context of the Kolkata Municipal Corporation election of summer 2015. It put paid to the BJP’s hopes of a spectacular show in the city. The party had invested a lot of hopes on Chowringhee. Amit Shah, BJP national president, had even cancelled a meeting in north Bengal to come for a canvassing event in Chowringhee.

In the end, it wasn’t enough. Not even the smear campaign run by a section of the media could shake the popular trust that Mamata Banerjee enjoys. In fact, it may have worked to her advantage.

Basirhat South too has not been a traditional Trinamool seat. It was won by a CPI(M) candidate in 2011. In the 2014 Lok Sabha election, the BJP lost in the overall parliamentary constituency but led in the Basirhat South assembly segment by 32,000 votes. When the CPI(M) MLA died, and a by-election resulted, political analysts were predicting a BJP-CPI(M) fight.

We kept a low profile and picked Dipendu Biswas, a popular local boy and former captain of India’s football team, as our candidate. He campaigned hard and reduced the BJP’s lead to a mere 1,700 votes. The CPI(M), which had won the seat in 2011, ended up third. Seeing the response to Dipendu Biswas, in a typically emotional reaction Mamatadi announced him as Trinamool candidate for the 2016 assembly election. I must point out here that the winning BJP nominee was gracious in acknowledging Trinamool’s improved performance and our ability to cut the margin.

All in all, the battle for the opposition space is between the CPI(M) and the BJP. The 2016 West Bengal election has only one frontrunner: Trinamool. As for the television channels in Delhi, they can continue living in cloud-cuckoo land.