When Mamata Banerjee was a young firebrand, still in the Congress, she routinely accused her senior party colleagues in West Bengal, of acting like the CPIM's 'B-team' - transferring votes to the Left Front in return for assured wins in their own pocket-boroughs. Mamata believed this underhand deal kept the Congress from reaching the critical mass of votes needed to topple the Left. Now, with the BJP threatening to acquire the necessary critical mass that could unseat her, Didi desperately needs a B-team of her own.
The BJP's spectacular performance in West Bengal in the 2019 Lok Sabha elections may well have given Mamata a sense of déjà vu. This is exactly what happened to the Left ten years earlier. Although the CPIM-led government was in deep trouble because of the fiasco over land acquisition in Singur, no one expected the Mamata-Congress alliance to win 25 of the 42 Lok Sabha seats in the state. The BJP's massive gains in 2019 were equally unexpected.
To gauge the significance of the Lok Sabha results, we need to understand what the political scientist Dwaipayan Bhattacharyya called 'party-society', a term that is now widely used by those who study West Bengal. It stands for the particular institutional structure that the Left established in rural Bengal, through which people accessed governmental power and benefits, and in turn were organised and disciplined by it.
It began when the Left Front came to power in 1977 at the end of years of violent peasant struggles against big landlords. The gains made by poor farmers were extended by the most extensive land reforms undertaken in any Indian state. In a short albeit bloody period of six years, the entire power structure of rural Bengal had been turned upside down. Older institutions that resolved disputes and provided a social support system - the landlord's house, caste-councils, market associations, religious communities - were all but dismantled.
These were replaced by the 'party'. The party organisation and its functionaries resolved disputes, arranged medical aid, helped with school and college admissions, helped organise weddings, and even intervened to settle quarrels within the family. And above all, the party acted as the mediator between the government and the people, distributing benefits, disseminating information about policies and taking back people's grievances to the official governmental apparatus.
This dominance of the party was formalised through West Bengal's three-tiered panchayat system. However, as Suman Nath's study of the Adivasis of Bankura shows, people could not directly access the elected representative in the panchayat; they had to go through various layers of party hierarchy. Bhattacharyya has argued that this is the defining element of 'party-society', the inescapable presence of the party in every aspect of the social, political and economic life of rural Bengal. People could not imagine a life without the party, and the party, in turn, directed governmental power towards the single-minded task of winning elections.
'Party-society' was always based on the promise of violence, where party functionaries stood in for the state's punitive arms, such as the police or the judiciary. It also involved constant production of 'knowledge' about the voter along with their surveillance. Often it involved elaka dokhol or complete local control, such that no one dared to stand in panchayat elections against the Left candidate.
In such a situation, people were always scared of voting for the opposition lest they be found out and be punished by the 'party'. The Trinamool's old slogan, Chup Chaap Phoole Chhap, quietly vote for the flower, the party symbol, targeted this specific fear in the rural voter's mind. So Mamata's huge gains in 2009 gave confidence to the rural voter that the seemingly invincible Left Front could be defeated. It contributed significantly to more voters switching their allegiance two years later in the assembly polls.
Understandably, Mamata tried to occupy the 'party-society' edifice she had inherited from the Left. To do that, the TMC unleashed a violent campaign to oust Left functionaries and leaders from villages. Thousands fled to makeshift camps, while others switched to Trinamool overnight to save their skins. The difference was that unlike the CPIM, Mamata's party didn't have a centralised and disciplined cadre.
So the TMC had to rely on local heavyweights who were given a free hand to get rid of any traces of the Left. All that was required of them was absolute loyalty to Didi. In the absence of a party apparatus which could resolve local disputes, the TMC also had to revive older social institutions that had been marginalised by the Left. Prominent among these were various Adivasi and caste associations that had survived under the surface - the matua mahasangha, the santal sholo aana, associations of the Bauris, Bagdis, Rajbongshis, and several other OBC and Dalit groups. Simultaneously, Mamata Banerjee courted Muslim clerics who have significant moral authority amongst the state's 27 percent Muslim population.
It took several years for the TMC to establish regional control. This can be seen from the number of uncontested seats won by the TMC in the panchayat elections in the state. In 2013, about 11 percent of panchayat members were elected unopposed. This was similar to the proportion in 2003 when the Left ruled unchallenged. In 2018, 34 percent of panchayat seats were won by the TMC without any opposing candidate. This was made possible by a reign of terror after Mamata's second coming in 2016.
The extreme violence faced by the Left voter pushed them to look for a powerful saviour. And who better than Narendra Modi? Between 2014 and 2019, the Left Front's vote share dropped from 30 percent to just 7.5 percent. That means three of every four Left voters simply left the party. In the same period the BJP's vote share rose from 17 percent to 40 percent. On the face of it, it looks like a direct transfer of votes from the Left to the right. What is more likely is that the Trinamool also lost some upper caste votes to the BJP, but gained a good chunk of Muslim votes from the Left and the Congress. If that hadn't happened, there was a fair chance that the BJP would have emerged as the largest party in West Bengal in 2019.
There is no doubt that the BJP has managed to build a strong Hindutva-driven support base in the state. However, that is not enough to bring it to power. The findings of CSDS-Lokniti's post-poll survey in 2019 are significant in this context. It showed that six of ten BJP voters felt the demolition of the Babri Masjid was unjustified. Even though 40 percent of people had voted for the BJP, 90 percent of those surveyed believed that the Prime Minister of India should be secular. Equally significant is the fact that nearly 90 percent of survey respondents in West Bengal believed that Muslims are nationalists, compared to 75 percent in the rest of India. An overwhelming 84 percent said India is a country of all religions and not just Hindus.
Bengal watchers say the 2019 results made Mamata Banerjee realise that closing all political spaces for the Left and Congress will push their supporters to the BJP, which represents central power and is backed with deep pockets. So, it is in the TMC's interest to allow Left leaders to hold meetings and its cadre to campaign. You could call this Mamata's B-team strategy,: let the Left win back some of its voters from the BJP, and in turn, help Didi return to power this May.
(Aunindyo Chakravarty was Senior Managing Editor of NDTV's Hindi and Business news channels.)
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