There are two ways to understand the most important political battle underway in India at the moment, the assembly elections in Bengal.
The first is a standard framework for examining the state of play in Bengal, as in any state election, and seeing it as a contest between the incumbent, Trinamool Congress (TMC), and the challenger, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). This party-based contest will, in turn, hinge on a set of factors.
The question of leadership will loom large — will voters decide to repose faith, for a third time, in a rooted, Bengali leader, Mamata Banerjee or will voters decide that it is Narendra Modi who deserves an opportunity to shape Bengal's future through a BJP state government?
This is, make no mistake, a straight chief minister (CM) versus prime minister (PM) battle, especially since the BJP does not have a local chief ministerial face. Voters are being told that it is only Modi who can address Bengal's challenges, since it will ensure a "double engine" government with the same party in power at both the Centre and in the state. Recent electoral history offers mixed lessons on this — in states such as Uttar Pradesh in 2017, Modi's name was enough for voters to give the BJP an overwhelming majority even without the party having a chief ministerial candidate, while in other states such as Odisha in 2019 or Delhi in 2015 and 2020, Modi's name was not enough when confronted with a popular CM.
Organisational strength will matter. The TMC is a rooted organisation in the state, which has imported the violent party machinery from the Left, and through both a mix of consent and coercion, created a formidable footprint across all villages and districts of the state. There is voluntary, even enthusiastic, support for the party — but there is also fear generated by this organisational machine. The BJP has an organisation that has built on the work done by various Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) affiliates, especially in the past decade. It, now, has a greatly expanded party network down to booth committees. But between the two forces, it is clear that the TMC retains an organisational edge, especially if you take into account all the sub-regions of the state.
Governance record will shape voter preferences. The TMC is banking substantially on its welfare schemes, with a particular focus on women. The BJP is promising the implementation of central welfare schemes, and greater investment, industrialisation and infrastructure. But governance is a lot more complex than schemes.
It is inextricably tied to politics and how the power structure responds to citizens — are some citizens (say party workers) preferred over others; are some castes and religious communities seen as being more favoured than others; is there a strong enough feedback loop on errors and a willingness to correct those errors; what is the balance between the party and the government and is the former subservient to the latter or does the party structure overwhelm governance systems?
Even if the TMC has scored on welfare, it is on these other elements of governance where it has faltered, generating a definite anti-incumbency sentiment. What is unclear is the depth of this sentiment. If there is deep enough anti-incumbency, which borders on rage against the incumbent, then, for the BJP, the absence of a local CM face or weaker organisation won't matter, and it will sail through. If there is discontent, but not necessarily deep anger, then the TMC will be able to offset it with other elements in the political matrix.
Social coalitions are key. The TMC starts with a clear advantage of having an overwhelming segment of Muslims — who constitute over a quarter of the population and are influential in determining outcomes in close to 100 seats — with the party. And most observers, including the TMC's rivals, acknowledge that despite the presence of a Muslim cleric in the third force with the Left and Congress, Muslims are largely with Banerjee. This is coupled with segments of Hindus across castes, which is what has led a TMC adviser to suggest that a majority of the minority votes and a minority of the majority votes will see the party win.
But the BJP's social coalition is remarkable in its own right. Unlike elsewhere in India, where the party usually begins with an urban and upper-caste base, the BJP's core vote in Bengal, as field work by political scientist Sajjan Kumar shows, is the subaltern vote, especially Dalits, and segments of the tribal population in rural pockets. The BJP believes Hindu consolidation is happening, primarily due to the perceived pro-Muslim tilt of the TMC, and constituencies with over 60% Hindus will see the party win. It is, therefore, banking on a majority of the majority votes and a possible fragmentation of the minority votes.
And so, whichever force has the right mix of leadership, social coalition, organisational strength,
governance platform and geographic spread (for instance, can the BJP breach south Bengal and can the TMC do well in north Bengal?) will win electorally. And then there are the unknowns — such as the impact of the CM's Nandigram incident.
There is also a second way to understand the Bengal election — and in this respect, the battle of 2021 goes far beyond who will form the government.
Bengal has a special place in the Hindutva imagination — for political, cultural, intellectual, inter-religious and intra-religious reasons. But this has not translated, over all these decades, into either deep ideological and organisational penetration of the RSS in Bengal or political strength for the BJP.
Even if the BJP loses the election, Hindutva has now established itself as an ideological factor in Bengal's politics — this has already redefined politics, visible in Banerjee's attempts to tone down her association with Muslims and play up her Hindu identity or in the Jai Sri Ram slogan becoming a chant of political resistance or in the discourse around Bangladeshi immigrants. The Hindu-Muslim question will now remain a defining feature of Bengal's politics.
Bengal's outcome will shape national politics, for a TMC win will serve as a check on the BJP's centralising tendencies while a BJP win will give it renewed political legitimacy to push through its ideological and governance agenda for the remaining three years of its term in Delhi. But most importantly, the politics leading up to the election has already changed Bengal in fundamental ways, perhaps forever.
Disclaimer: This article first appeared on Hindustan Times, and is published by special syndication arrangement.