President Pranab Mukherjee’s son nearly lost it, the CPM nearly won it, but the real story from the Jangipur bypoll is about what the BJP did and what it could mean for Bengal politics.
Nobody expected the BJP to win the vote and it didn’t. But many expected the party to improve its vote share and it surpassed the expectation. The crucial question is whether Jangipur is a trend-setter for the next big churning in the state’s politics.
The Jangipur poll came in the wake of another big churning, the parting of ways between the Congress and the Trinamul Congress. On the face of it, there was a local and temporary truce, as reflected in Trinamul’s decision to not put up a candidate against the Congress nominee.
Trinamul made it out to be a good gesture — it had no love lost or left for the Congress but it wouldn’t queer the pitch for the President’s son. But Mamata Banerjee must have seen it more as a strategy than as a gesture.
Not putting up a Trinamul candidate was her best bet. The constituency being a traditional Congress stronghold and part of the fief of the party’s Murshidabad strongman, Adhir Chowdhury, a Trinamul nominee fighting both the Congress and the CPM at Jangipur had absolutely no chance of winning.
Worse, a Trinamul candidate would have split the non-Left vote and almost certainly gifted the seat to the CPM. This was something that Mamata could hardly afford to allow to happen.
The razor-thin margin of Abhijit Mukherjee’s victory is certain to cast its shadow on the steadily deteriorating relationship between the Congress and Trinamul. Trinamul will try to project it as further evidence of the Congress’s decline in Bengal — Pranab Mukherjee won the seat in 2009 by over 128,000 votes, against his son’s victory margin of 2,536.
For the Congress, the narrow victory is proof of Trinamul’s betrayal. The party will also blame Trinamul for the BJP’s rise. Both the Congress and the CPM are confident that a section of Trinamul’s supporters voted for the BJP candidate at Jangipur to spite the Congress.
The BJP does not accept this explanation of the rise in its vote share. The party argues that its rising appeal has a larger context and is not to be confused with the local politics of Jangipur.
In the party’s view, more and more people are looking at the BJP as an alternative political choice away from the hitherto polarised camps of the Left and the Congress or Trinamul.
Mamata, the Congress and the Left would all have reason to be jittery about the BJP’s show at Jangipur and its possible replication elsewhere in Bengal.
The BJP can rise primarily at the expense of one of the two camps. That was what happened when the BJP had a dramatic rise in its vote share in the 1991 Lok Sabha elections — from less than 2 per cent previously to over 11 per cent — in the thick of the Ram Mandir movement.
But Mamata may be more worried than the Left after the Jangipur results, which show that the Left has largely retained its committed vote while the Congress has suffered big losses. How much Trinamul has suffered cannot be measured by votes, but there is no doubt that a section of the party’s supporters voted for the BJP.
What happens next could be Mamata’s bigger worry. Jangipur was an unreal show in the sense that it did not reflect the divorce between the Congress and Trinamul and its bitter aftermath. The elections hereafter will be a different matter with the non-Left camp divided among the Congress, Trinamul, the BJP and possibly new outfits.
The fact that the candidates of two new parties —supported mostly by Muslims — together secured 7.6 per cent of the votes in Jangipur could be an early indicator of new patterns in Bengal politics.
Unlike in the past, though, the division in the non-Left camp may not necessarily benefit the CPM. The fragmentation of the political space may actually hurt the CPM. But it may also dramatically reduce Mamata’s advantage.
In the game-changing Assembly election of 2011, the Trinamul-Congress alliance secured 47.23 per cent of the vote while the Left’s share had a dramatic fall to 41.32 per cent. With the known polarisation of Bengal politics accounting for nearly 90 per cent of the total votes, the BJP’s share shrank to 4 per cent.
All this may change substantially if the BJP surges ahead. The big gap that Mamata and the Congress together had with the Left would certainly be reduced and future polls would see the vote shares of the Left and Trinamul coming closer.
The first of the multi-cornered contests will come during the panchayat polls next year. The rural polls have often seen even alliance partners fighting each other. With the Trinamul-Congress alliance falling apart and the CPM still unable to recover much of the lost ground, the BJP will see the panchayat polls as its first big opportunity across the state.
By the time of the next Lok Sabha polls, Mamata may lose further ground because of the growing popular disenchantment with her government. The Congress too may suffer, thanks to the steady decline in the UPA government’s popular ratings. And, if the BJP’s national prospects brighten, the surge in Bengal may overtake its heady moments of 1991.
It’s not that the BJP is finally here to conquer Bengal. But it has a chance, as never before, to matter in Bengal, to make or unmake it for the main players.