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From fringes, new force in Bengal politics

Calcutta, Oct. 14: The rapid gains made by identity-driven parties in the Jangipur bypoll have thrown up suggestions that Bengal could be breaking out of the Left-versus-non-Left straitjacket and stepping into a fluid phase of multi-dimensional contests.

In Jangipur, where the Congress’s margin has shrunk by more than 1.2 lakh votes, two fledgling parties — the Welfare Party of India (WPI) which was set up in 2011 and the Socialist Democratic Party of India (SDPI) which was formed in 2009 — together got 66,311 (around 8 per cent) of the votes.

Both parties refer to the concerns of marginalised groups like the Dalits, tribals, OBCs, women and other minorities but their core mobilisation is among Muslims, who account for over 65 per cent of the electorate in Jangipur.

The BJP, a veteran compared with the two parties but till now an also-ran in Bengal, has secured 85,887 votes, around 10.6 per cent of the vote share, the highest for the party since it witnessed a spike in 1991 in the heyday of the Ram Janmabhoomi movement.

Some Congress leaders, such as Murshidabad strongman Adhir Chowdhury, have smelt a “collusion” between Trinamul and the two small parties to spite the Congress ( ). There may be some substance to the suspicion but such simplistic theories cannot explain how the Left too has lost as many as 48,000 votes.

“It is well known that both the WPI and the SDPI and also the BJP have identity-based politics at their core. Their emergence as determinants of poll outcomes is very significant,” said Maidul Islam, assistant professor of political science, Tata Institute of Social Sciences.

According to the academic, these identity-based political parties are expected to play bigger roles in Bengal politics in the coming days. The nature of electoral contests will shift from Left-versus-non-Left to multiple fights in which identity-based political parties will assert their presence with the stated agenda of fulfilling the aspirations of the groups they represent.

Political scientist Prashanta Roy, however, did not wish to jump to such a conclusion in a hurry. “This is a temporary phase and we will have to wait some more time before we can conclude that there indeed is change,” he said.

Identity politics has been making its presence felt in Bengal over the years but the impact has so far been confined to certain pockets. Groups like the Gorkha Janmukti Morcha and the Adivasi Vikas Parishad hold sway over their respective territories in north Bengal.

The People’s Democratic Conference of India, a minority outfit led by Siddiqullah Chowdhury, also has had some impact.

However, the figures emerging from Jangipur suggest that if minority parties decide to replicate the by-election model elsewhere in the state with a minority population of at least 28 per cent, the impact would be far wider than that attributed to any other segment.

The Left had tried to keep identity-based formations under check or at least desisted from overt promotion of such groups because of ideological compulsions.

But the Trinamul Congress, which had sought to broadbase its appeal among the marginalised as wide as possible, has given several groups recognition, with Mamata Banerjee directly establishing contact with their leaders before the elections.

Realising their potential to make or break the fortunes of the mainline parties, these outfits are expected to seek real power and join the electoral battle the way Yadavs and Dalits have done in states like Uttar Pradesh and Bihar.

“Groups like the WPI and the SDPI will play a big role in electoral outcomes in Bengal as the state has around 28 per cent minority votes,” said Maidul Islam, the assistant professor.

Raisuddin Baidya, the state president of the WPI and also its candidate in Jangipur, said his outfit had drawn up plans to field more candidates in the coming elections, starting with the panchayat polls.

“The Jangipur verdict is an indication of a new trend, similar to that in UP and Bihar, where various backward classes and religious minorities wield considerable influence and extract their share of power,” Baidya told The Telegraph.

While the WPI, considered the political wing of the Jamat-e-Islami Hind, highlighted the deprivation of minorities in the campaign, SDPI leaders led from the front for the Murshidabad campus of the Aligarh Muslim University. The SDPI too has plans to contest the rural polls in minority-dominated districts like Malda and Murshidabad.

The BJP, which has been opposing the campus, has also reaped political dividends.

“The bypoll results indicate that people are looking at the BJP as an alternative to Trinamul, the Congress and the CPM, and we are confident that our performance will improve further,” said Rahul Sinha, BJP state president.

“The chief minister’s politics of patronising Muslims is not going down well with either Muslims or Hindus, and voters are turning to us,” he added.

Latent in the comment is an assessment that if the mainline parties appease the aspirational minority groups, the BJP is counting on gains from a consequent polarisation.

Sinha’s claim cannot be tested as Trinamul did not take part in the election. But the deep decline in the share of Congress votes — by around 8 per cent in comparison with 2011 when the two parties were allies — is an indication of the steady decline in the UPA government’s ratings.

Some Trinamul leaders played down the BJP surge. “One should not read much into the performance of the smaller parties in the Jangipur polls as the fight was not between the two main parties, Trinamul and the CPM,” said Subrata Mukherjee, veteran Trinamul leader. There is no reason for the BJP to cheer,” said Subrata Mukherjee, veteran Trinamul leader.

In official briefings, CPM leaders showcased a silver lining. Rabin Deb, a state secretariat member of the party, highlighted the victory of the CPM candidate in four of the seven Assembly segments.

But the fact that the CPM could not gain from the Congress’s loss has been discussed in the party, said a source. “If identity-based political parties or fundamentalist outfits gain in strength, the state will suffer,” a central committee member said.

But many believe that if the Left is able to protect its core base (of which there is no visible sign yet), it could be an indirect gainer from the division of votes as the minority groups will find it easier to wean away sympathetic voters who have now allied with Trinamul or the Congress.

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