As the results of the three by-elections held in West Bengal on Monday trickled in on Thursday, there seem to be definite indications of shock in the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) camp and euphoria among members of West Bengal’s ruling party, the Trinamool Congress, which in sporting parlance scored a clean sweep.
This was a result that had scarcely been anticipated for reasons that we will come to in a bit. The three constituencies that went to the polls were Karimpur, held and vacated by the Trinamool Congress’ Mohua Moitra after she won the Krishnanagar Lok Sabha seat; Kharagpur Sadar, held and vacated by BJP state president Dilip Ghosh after he won the Medinipur Lok Sabha seat; and Kaliaganj, an Assembly segment of the Raiganj Lok Sabha constituency, which fell vacant with the demise of its sitting Congress MLA Pramatha Nath Roy.
The Trinamool’s victory in Karimpur is no cause for surprise. In the 2016 Assembly elections, Moitra won the seat with over 45 percent of the vote, and over 15,000 votes ahead of her nearest CPM rival. In the 2019 Lok Sabha elections, Trinamool’s Abu Taher Khan won the Murshidabad constituency of which Karimpur is an Assembly segment with a lead of around 225,000 votes over his nearest rival, a Congress candidate. In these by-elections, the Trinamool candidate, Bimalendu Singha Roy, won the seat by over 24,000 votes. No real surprises there, especially because Moitra was seen as a good and effective representative of the constituency.
The other two results were unexpected for the neutrals. In 2016, Ghosh won the Kharagpur Sadar seat by a margin of around 6,000 votes. In the 2019 Lok Sabha elections, he won the Medinipur seat, of which Kharagpur Sadar is a segment, by around 190,000 votes. His lead in the Kharagpur Sadar segment had been an impressive 45,000-odd votes. In these by-elections, the Trinamool Congress candidate Pradip Sarkar overturned this margin to win by around 21,000 votes. The Kharagpur Sadar seat is a mixed constituency, home to many people originally from outside the state. It is linguistically diverse and the Trinamool Congress had never won this Assembly seat.
The Trinamool Congress also made its debut in Kaliaganj, which, as mentioned, is part of the Raiganj Lok Sabha constituency in Uttar Dinajpur district. The seat had been won by the Congress’ Pramatha Nath Roy both in 2011 and 2016 by margins in the region of 7,000 votes. In the 2019 Lok Sabha elections, the Raiganj constituency was won by Debasree Chaudhuri of the BJP. Her lead in the Kaliaganj segment had been around 25,000 votes. In these by-elections, Trinamool’s Tapan Deb Singha won the seat by just over 2,000 votes. This north Bengal constituency is also mixed, with a large Scheduled Caste population and a significant scheduled tribe population, amongst whom the BJP had made significant inroads in the state in the run-up to the Lok Sabha elections.
Several questions surface from these results: First, how did the BJP manage to blow fairly substantial leads in Kharagpur Sadar and Kaliaganj in six to seven months? Second, are these defeats part of a pattern? And, third, is this an indication of how events will transpire in the 2021 Assembly elections in the state, about a year and a half from now?
The answer to the first question is probably not uniform for the two seats. The state BJP had hoped that its aggressive campaign on the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill and National Register of Citizens (NRC) would go down well in north Bengal. But its candidate in Kaliaganj, Kamal Chandra Sarkar, admitted after his defeat that the NRC campaign hadn’t cut much ice with the electorate. In fact, Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee’s consistent stand against the NRC seems to have brought her party votes from all sections of the electorate in a predominantly rural constituency.
The Kharagpur Sadar result is a bit of mystery. Ghosh’s lead in this Assembly segment had jumped more than seven times between 2016 and early 2019. Effectively, in the space of a few months the BJP lost over 65,000 votes in a constituency which had registered around 156,000 votes in 2016. That’s a big number. The probability is that far from the heat and dust of Balakot, the problems with the economy, especially jobs, cost the party.
The spectacular results obtained by the BJP in this year’s Lok Sabha elections were due largely to a huge swing of Left votes in its direction. There is the possibility that this swing was reversed in the direction of the Left to some extent and redirected the Trinamool way because of disillusionment with the current regime in Delhi and a more pro-active campaign by the Left and Congress, which had an informal understanding. This understanding could, especially, have hurt the BJP in Kaliaganj, a Congress-held constituency.
Second, these defeats for the BJP (rather than victories for the Trinamool) seem to be part of a pattern. Large swathes of the electorate that voted for the BJP in the Lok Sabha elections because they believed that Prime Minister Narendra Modi was the only leader who could be trusted to safeguard the country, seemed not to have set much store by that consideration when Assembly elections came. In those elections, bread-and-butter issues seemed to figure more prominently. Thus, the BJP fared poorly in the Haryana and Maharashtra Assembly elections compared to its performance in the Lok Sabha elections and public expectations.
Finally, do these results augur anything at all for the 2021 Assembly elections? The common sense wisdom in the streets of Kolkata has been that the Trinamool Congress will win the 2021 Assembly elections, even if they just about squeeze through. A number of re-defections from the BJP to the Trinamool over the past few months that have, for instance, helped reestablish Trinamool control over all the municipal boards under the Barrackpore constituency, won by the BJP’s Arjun Singh, who switched parties at the eleventh hour, is one of the reasons for such a reading. This emphatic Trinamool triumph will strengthen the common sense reading.
But, to employ a barely defensible cliché, a year and a half is a long time in the world of politics. The Trinamool Congress would do well to avoid falling prey to complacency, while the BJP will certainly not think that it is completely down and out.
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Updated Date: Nov 28, 2019 18:58:54 IST