NDTV Battleground: Contest Of Fine Margins Between BJP, Trinamool In Bengal

West Bengal’s 42 seats make it the third-largest contributor of MPs to the Lok Sabha but what has made the state even more important and interesting in these Lok Sabha elections is the keenly fought contest between the Trinamool Congress and the BJP, with neither side willing to give any quarter. 

At NDTV’s special show ‘Battleground’ on Saturday, hosted by Editor-in-Chief Sanjay Pugalia, a panel of experts and spokespersons from the BJP and TMC dissected every issue that could play a role in either party getting an upper hand and also shared their thoughts on what drives violence during elections in West Bengal.  

While Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee – and a Presidential-style contest between them – dominated the discussion, the two other main points that got a lot of attention were the Sandeshkhali controversy and the welfare push by both parties. 

Everyone, barring the spokespersons of course, seemed to agree that the contest in the state is going to be a neck and neck one and the battle is going to be one of fine margins.

Of the state’s 42 seats, 22 were won by the Trinamool Congress in 2019 and the BJP had made huge inroads and achieved victory in 18. Far from resting on its laurels, the BJP has been relentless in its quest to increase its vote share since then, but the Trinamool Congress has also fought tooth and nail to hold on to its turf.

Pointing to how razor-thin the margins are in the state, Sanjay Kumar, Professor at the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies (CSDS) said, “West Bengal is a state where the regional party is very strong but the BJP is putting up a fierce contest. The BJP has defeated the Congress in many states but it seems to be on the back foot when it comes to contesting against regional parties, but Bengal is an exception. I think there is a neck-and-neck fight. This is a battleground in the real sense.”

“There is a contest in every seat. In 2019, the difference in vote share between the parties was just three per cent. The difference in seats was also of only four. If the votes swing by 2 per cent either way… if the BJP’s vote share goes up by 2-3 per cent, the TMC can lose 7-8 seats and if the opposite happens and the BJP loses 4-5 per cent of votes it can be reduced to single digits,” he said.

Adding to this point, political strategist Amitabh Tiwari said there were 22 seats in 2019 where the margin of victory was less than 10% or 1 lakh votes – and these were split evenly between the TMC and the BJP. “So there is definitely a ‘kaante ki takkar’ (a neck-and-neck-fight) and this has become a seat-by-seat contest,” he said. 

‘Violence Vitiates Society’

Mr Pugalia pointed out there is a dichotomy in the sense that while Bengal is considered a leader in terms of culture and self-respect, it is also one of the most violent states when it comes to political violence. To this, political analyst Swapan Dasgupta said the violence is a legacy of the Left, which ruled Bengal for decades and even the Trinamool was a victim of this when it was fighting the CPM.

“Some of those rough-and-ready methods, unfortunately, have become the new normal in West Bengal and I think this is something that, regardless of which side you prefer, there has to be unanimity on stopping the violence. This vitiates society,” he said.

Pointing to an interesting statistic, Mr Dasgupta said no national party has ever won a majority of seats in the Lok Sabha from West Bengal since 1971. He also said that caste, in addition to class – which was the CPM’s dominant narrative – has made an entry in Bengal in 2019. 

How Important Is Sandeshkhali?

Asked how important a role the issue of Sandeshkhali – where there have been allegations of land grab, rape and sexual harassment against a Trinamool strongman and his aides – will be in the elections, Amitabh Tiwari said this depends on how much the BJP can make it pervade the public consciousness. 

“In 2019, Mamata Banerjee and the TMC had more of a lead against the BJP among women voters than among men. The lead was roughly 4 per cent among women as against 2 per cent among men. This issue could become important because support among women has been a strong point of the TMC,” he said.  

The mention of Sandeshkhali sparked a heated debate between TMC Spokesperson Riju Dutta and BJP Spokesperson and West Bengal State Secretary Priyanka Tibrewal, especially since Saturday was when a sting video by a private channel went viral in which a BJP leader purportedly says that no rapes or sexual harassment had taken place and women were convinced to file such complaints on the directions of senior party leader Suvendu Adhikari.

The BJP leader, Gangadhar Koyal, has claimed that his voice was edited and has also sent a complaint to the CBI.

Firing the first volley, Mr Dutta said the BJP has “never understood and will never understand the diverse, pluralistic, democratic ethos of Bengal”. 

“In a sting, a BJP block president is saying that the party’s Leader of the Opposition Suvendu Adhikari has paid Rs 2,000 to these women to file fake rape cases dating 7-8 months back. Can you imagine what a concocted conspiracy this is to defame Bengal. The BJP can debate till the cows come home that this is morphed but this is what their leaders are saying,” he said.

Ms Tibrewal countered that Mamata Banerjee had initially said that the victims were lying and alleged the Trinamool Congress may have spent a lot of money to make sure the video went viral. 

“The court has asked the CBI to probe this (Sandeshkhali allegations) and, in a hearing on Thursday, said there are similarities between the CBI report and the victims’ affidavits. This shows that such incidents have taken place there.  At least 750 affidavits were given and the TMC wants to say 750 people are lying. Mamata Banerjee’s talk of nari shakti (women power) stands exposed today,” she said. 

When Mr Pugalia asked pointedly whether something happened in Sandeshkhali, Mr Dutta said, “Mistakes were made in Sandeshkhali. Excesses happened. But Sandeshkhali is a land issue. Some people misused the Trinamool symbol and grabbed land. But the politics being done on women’s bodies, that never happened. That has been exposed today. We have suspended the Trinamool leader and others have been thrown out of the party but Brij Bhushan Sharan Singh and Prajwal Revanna are still stars for the BJP.”

Mr Kumar of the CSDS said the issue of Sandeshkhali has probably resonated more among urban, upper-class voters and not so much among the poorer classes, which is a significant vote base for the Trinamool Congress. “I am not getting into what’s true and what isn’t, but I don’t think it will have a significant impact on the vote,” he said.

‘Integral Part of INDIA Bloc’

To a question on why the TMC was fighting alone in West Bengal and not as part of INDIA alliance, Mr Dutta said his party is an integral part of the INDIA bloc and is with them.

“But we are with INC, the Indian National Congress, and not ARC, which is Adhir Ranjan Congress, because Adhir Ranjan Chowdhury is the conduit pipe of the BJP in Bengal. He was BJP’s ears and eyes and now he is working as a direct agent of the BJP,” he alleged.

“As a result, when Mamata Banerjee, Rahul Gandhi, Sonia Gandhi, Sitaram Yechury are having meetings in Delhi with the single objective of defeating the BJP, Adhir Ranjan Chowdhury is abusing Mamata Banerjee and the Trinamool Congress. And that is why we have said that, in Bengal, the TMC is the INDIA alliance. I will say this on record: Whatever seats the BJP is going to get in the 2024 general elections, TMC is going to get at least double of that,” the party spokesperson said.

Clash Of The Titans?

On the issues in Bengal, Sanjay Kumar said that while topics like unemployment and inflation are key, like they are in other states, the battle in Bengal revolves around Mamata Banerjee to some extent.

Using the popular name for the chief minister, ‘Didi’, Mr Kumar said, “It’s about whether you like Didi or not. Just like the contest in the country revolves to a large extent around Prime Minister Modi. We are often asked whether the 2024 election is a presidential one, I say it isn’t. It’s a referendum in a way. In Bengal, it’s whether you are with Didi or against her. When this kind of politics happens, the issues also get buried to some extent,” he said.

Mr Dasgupta said that the TMC would want the focus to be on local issues and said the BJP can fall into the trap of saying Mamata Banerjee should be removed. “If the BJP forgets this is a national election, about Prime Minister Narendra Modi – and unfortunately one or two BJP people have forgotten that – (then it can fall into the trap),” he said.

Senior Journalist Nishtha Gautam said her analysis from speaking to people of all hues in Kolkata points to something strange having happened in the past decade. “PM Modi and Ms Banerjee have emerged as doppelgangers of each other. The situation in West Bengal – Modi’s guarantees vs Mamata’s guarantees – it is exactly the same issues. The growth is happening without jobs, doles are being given out. If we talk about welfarism, both leaders have weaponised it very well for electoral gains.”

“Some voters say they hate Mamata Banerjee, they don’t want her but what is the alternative? They don’t even want Modi ji to have a stronger footprint. It is very strange.”

Other experts also felt that the draw of the leaders and the strong welfare schemes will play a big role but conceded that emotional factors and last-minute decisions can also make the decision swing at the last moment.

Six of Bengal’s 42 seats have voted so far and people from the state will cast their ballots in all remaining phases as well, until June 1. The results will be declared three days after that.

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