Snakes and ladders: On competitive West Bengal Assembly polls

Disconcerting signs of violence are writ large in the electoral rhetoric in Bengal

Soaring political rhetoric has already set the tone for an intensely competitive Assembly election in West Bengal. The ferocity of the combat between the ruling Trinamool Congress and the challenger BJP is set to go further north. The BJP’s dramatic rise in 2019, when its vote tally crossed 40%, made its ambitions for power realistic, but also prompted drastic corrective measures by the Trinamool, which has been in power since 2011. The BJP has been trying to overcome its leadership deficiency by recruiting defectors, primarily from the TMC. It still cannot match the ground game of the Left Front that is in alliance with the Congress and the ISF under the new umbrella of the Sanjukta Morcha. The Morcha’s rally on February 28 was not surpassed by the BJP’s on March 7, which was addressed by Prime Minister Narendra Modi who is leading from the front. The absence of a recognisable chief ministerial candidate, and its patchy presence in much of the State are challenges to the BJP, but winning this election is within its reach. A large segment of the BJP voters remain silent and could mobilise themselves, if one goes by the 2019 experience. The dynamics of politics has changed since then, with new factors at play.

Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee has rolled out new welfare schemes and reached out to regions and social groups that tilted towards the BJP. By declaring her candidacy from Nandigram, where she will take on former colleague Suvendu Adhikari who defected to the BJP, she has shown that she is on the offensive. The violence and corruption by her party cadres meanwhile continue to shadow her spirited fight, and that is going to be a focal point of the BJP offensive. Mr. Modi’s speech on Sunday called for a regime change. The second prong of the BJP strategy is communal polarisation, which seems to have been assigned to second-rung leaders who are frequently making not-so-veiled references and insinuations about dangers posed by Muslims. Ms. Banerjee’s appeal among Muslim voters could be unsettled by the mainstreaming of the Muslim outfit that goes by the misleading name of the Indian Secular Front by the Left Front. The Left has always accused the BJP and the TMC of competitive communalism but its new tactic has thrown open various possibilities. If the Morcha claims a segment of the anti-incumbency votes, it will weaken the BJP; if it splits TMC votes, it will help the BJP. And if a sharp communal polarisation emerges, it could benefit the TMC and the BJP. It was for drama effect that actor Mithun Chakraborty, who joined the BJP on Sunday, likened himself to a cobra that can kill in one strike, but disconcerting signs of violence are writ large in West Bengal. Violent language easily translates to violent action, as Bengal’s history has shown over the years.

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