Kicking off this season of assembly elections, voters in two of India’s largest eastern states, West Bengal and Assam, in substantially tribal-dominated districts, will begin the process of electing their local representatives on Saturday, with major national and regional parties — the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), the Congress, and Trinamool Congress (TMC) — engaged in an intense battle to win or retain power.
The polls in Bengal will see Mamata Banerjee’s TMC attempt to defend its turf against a resurgent BJP, which won 18 of the 42 seats in the state in the 2019 Lok Sabha elections and has emerged as the primary challenger. In Assam, it is the BJP which is seeking to win retain power, as a coalition of the Congress and Badruddin Ajmal’s All India United Democratic Front challenge the Sarbananda Sonowal-led government.
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Political observers believe that the outcome in the elections in the east will determine if the BJP’s hegemony remains intact despite governance challenges in recent months, including due to the pandemic, or whether non-BJP forces are able to ensure a wider distribution of political power. It is also expected to shape the future of Centre-state relations, with the BJP campaigning on the idea of a “double engine growth” — of having the same party in power at both the Centre and in the two states — and non-BJP forces claiming that their victory is essential to check what they see as the BJP’s centralising and undemocratic alliances.
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Commenting on the significance of the polls, political scientist Neelanjan Sircar of Ashoka University and the Centre for Policy Research said, “The results of the Assam and West Bengal election will have major reverberations across India. The BJP has had a rough few months, with the farmers protests and publicity around a democratic breakdown. It is seeking a strong electoral performance in these states to change the narrative. This is why we have seen so many visits from senior BJP leaders to the region, particularly West Bengal, along with a very aggressive campaign. If on the other hand, the Congress can give a fight in Assam and the TMC wins against all odds, it will signal a new era of opposition with Mamata Banerjee as the most important opposition leader.”
In Bengal, where polls are spread out over eight phases, voting will take place in 30 of the state’s 294 assembly seats in parts of five western districts — East Midnapore, West Midnapore, Purulia, Bankura and Jhargram, of which the last four are part of the Jangalmahal region. A hotbed of Communist Party of India (Maoist) activities in the final years of the Left Front regime, which lost power in 2011, Jangalmahal is home to the biggest chunk of the state’s tribal population. Bengal’s scheduled tribe (ST) population stood at 5.29 million during the 2011 census, accounting for about 5.8% of the total population.
Banerjee is banking on her decision to create welfare boards for all major tribal communities such as the Santhals, Lodhas and Kurmis, and development projects, including new roads, hospitals, schools and polytechnic colleges. But the BJP, which did well in this region in the 2019 polls by winning five Lok Sabha seats, is banking on acute deprivation as well as tribal discontent against the TMC. Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Union home minister Amit Shah and Banerjee have held back-to-back rallies over the past few weeks, promising jobs and development. To ensure peaceful polling on Saturday, the Election Commission has deployed 684 companies of central armed police forces.
This region is also the political home of key BJP heavyweights, including state president Dilip Ghosh, who is an MP from West Midnapore, and Sisir Adhikari, father of Suvendu Adhikari — both father and son are new entrants to the BJP, with Adhikari senior winning from the Contai constituency of East Midnapore district in 2019.
Both parties have, as is usual before polls, projected confidence. “We will sweep in the first phase. People will cast their votes in peace. They are with us,” Ghosh said on Friday. “I visited the region. We are ahead of others on the ground. The ruling party will do extremely well,” said TMC Lok Sabha member Saugata Roy.
Kolkata-based political science professor and election analyst Udayan Bandopadhyay said, “The BJP performed very well in the Jangalmahal districts in 2019. The TMC’s fortune will depend on the amount of lost ground it has managed to recover since then.”
Political scientist Sajjan Kumar, who has travelled to all the 294 constituencies of Bengal during his pre-election field research, said, “In the first phase, there is substantial SC, ST and OBC population with communities such as Bauri, Bagdi, Santhal and Mahto-Kurmis. This phase will show which way the Bengali Hindu subaltern vote will go, to the development-Hindutva pitch of the BJP or the welfare outreach of the Trinamool.”
In Assam, 47 of the state’s 126 seats will go to polls on Saturday. Most of these seats are in the tea-rich districts of Upper Assam. The tea-tribe community, which comprises tea garden workers and former workers and their families, accounts for 17% of Assam’s population and its vote plays a decisive role in 35-40 seats. Because of the high number of seats and usually en masse voting by the tea-tribe community, the outcome of the first phase is crucial in determining which party or alliance will form the next government in the state.
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Considered a traditional Congress bastion in the past, in recent years, the BJP has been able to make inroads in the tea-tribe community with promise of scheduled tribe (ST) status, many welfare schemes for women, students, young people, and development projects such as the construction of roads, hospitals and schools in tea gardens. The BJP has also given representation to leaders of the community, and, currently , two Lok Sabha MPs and one Rajya Sabha MP from Assam are from the community. One of them, Rameshwar Teli, is a minister in the Modi Cabinet. But despite its promise in 2016, the BJP hasn’t been able to give ST status to the community and increase daily wages of tea garden workers to ₹351. The Congress is trying to win back support of the community by promising to increase daily wages of tea garden workers to ₹365 if it comes to power.
While the BJP is contesting 39 of the 47 seats in the first phase, its ally Asom Gana Parishad will contest in 10 seats (there is what is being called a “friendly contest” between the allies in two seats). The Congress will contest in 43 seats and newly formed Assam Jatiya Parishad in 41 seats. In 2016, the BJP-AGP combine won 35 of the 47 seats, and the BJP alone won 27 seats — close to half of its total strength of 60 seats in 2016. The Congress won just seven seats.
“The BJP-AGP combine will win 42 of the 47 seats in the first phase,” predicted senior Assam minister Himanta Biswa Sarma on Thursday. BJP state president Ranjeet Kumar Dass earlier said that the party will also win several of the seven seats won by the Congress in 2016. The Congress expressed confidence that it will be able to drub the BJP-AGP combine in the first phase this time. “In 2016, the BJP and AGP dominated these seats. But in this election, the results will get reversed. The Congress will win around 30 plus seats in the first phase and will come to power with our allies,” Congress state president Ripun Bora said.
Commenting on the significance of the first phase, Akhil Ranjan Dutta, professor of political science in Gauhati University said: “The BJP promised to grant ST status to six communities in 2016. Five of them, Tai-Ahom, tea-tribes, Maran, Muttock and Chutia, have a sizeable presence in the seats that are in the first phase. The party wasn’t able to fulfil that promise. The BJP is now focussed on [issues such as ] a clash of civilisation and a cultural threat of Assamese identity with the idea of polarising voters. The party has been able to penetrate the tea-tribe vote bank, but during this campaign, the Congress has been to regain some trust of this community. The poll outcome in the first phase could spring some surprises.”
Political scientist Sajjan Kumar said: “In Assam, the electoral significance of the issue of NRC-CAA will be tested as the poll-bound districts have been the hotbed of the Khilonjia (son of the soil) sentiment until recently. It will be a crucial test whether the BJP can override the Khilonjia factor by their successful coalescing of non-Ahom communities, the general Assamese, the tea tribes, the Gorkhas, the Indigenous tribes (Kacharis, Bodos, Mising, Doley etc.) against the anti-CAA pitch of the Ahom leadership, of the Congress, Raijor Dal (Akhil Gogoi) and Assam Jantiya Parishad (AGP), a breakaway group from the AGP.”