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How Left’s Rising Vote Share Spells Trouble for BJP in Bengal

Lok Sabha-wise analysis of panchayat and last year’s civic polls show the Left-Congress vote share coming uncomfortably close to the BJP’s.
People queue to vote for the panchayat election at a tea garden in the Dooars of Bengal. Photo: By arrangement

Kolkata: The slow but steady rise in the Left’s vote share may hurt the Bharatiya Janata Party’s chances of a good show in West Bengal in the 2024 Lok Sabha elections, trends of the recently concluded three-tier panchayat elections indicate.

An analysis of the results of the panchayat elections and last year’s civic polls in areas that fall under four BJP-held Lok Sabha constituencies reveals that the Left-Congress can spoil the saffron party’s chances, just as they did in dozens of zila parishad and hundreds of panchayat samiti and gram panchayat seats.

Overall, the Trinamool Congress (TMC) swept the elections by securing 51.5% of polled votes – they won 95% of Zilla parishad (ZP) seats (835 of 876 and 52 results were yet to be officially declared), 78.84% of panchayat samiti seats (6,716 of 8,518 seats and 1,210 results were yet to be officially declared), and 65.69% of gram panchayat seats (35,606 of 54,195 and another 9,027 results were yet to be officially declared).

The reason for the TMC’s strikingly high share of seats compared to the vote share is that the opposition votes got divided, often sharply.

In most cases, they were split between the BJP and the Left and in some cases with the Congress as another factor. This is the biggest cause of concern for the BJP, as its impressive performance in the 2019 Lok Sabha election and emergence as the main opposition party in the 2021 assembly election were made possible due to the consolidation of opposition votes in its favour.

The combined vote share of the Left, the Congress and the Indian Secular Front (ISF) – which stood at a meagre 10% in the 2021 assembly election – has crossed the 20% mark in the panchayat election. The BJP’s share was down to 23%, from 40% in 2019 and 38% in 2021.

To many political observers, the TMC’s vote share and seat share both appear inflated due to the scale of violence and other alleged electoral malpractices that marred the rural polls – over 40 people were killed in pre-poll, poll-day and post-poll violence. They expect the TMC’s vote share to go down by a few percentage points when the elections are held under the watch of the Election Commission of India, in multiple phases and with greater security cover. The TMC’s vote share in the 2019 Lok Sabha election and the 2021 assembly elections stood at 43% and 48%, respectively.

However, this possibility does not provide the BJP with any relief because the Left’s vote share is coming uncomfortably close to its own – creating a sharp divide in opposition votes. This rise in Left vote share is also consistent with the trends of the post-2021 assembly election bypolls and the 2022 civic elections – in both cases at the cost of the BJP’s decline.

Number game

The BJP’s vote share stood at 22.9%, winning 18.24% of gram panchayat seats, 12.25% of panchayat samiti seats and 26 zilla parishad seats. The Left, with a 13.2% vote share, won 5.8% of gram panchayat seats, 2.3% of panchayat samiti seats and 2 zilla parishad seats. The Congress, with a 6.42% vote share, won 4.82% of gram panchayat seats, 3.2% of panchayat samiti seats and 12 zilla parishad seats.

The reason the Congress won more seats than the Left despite a smaller vote share is that their strength is concentrated mostly in the districts of Malda and Murshidabad, where their share of votes was significantly high, whereas the Left’s vote share is spread across several districts, mostly in central and south Bengal.

Flags of TMC and CPI(M) in rural Bengal on panchayat poll day. Photo: Joydeep Sarkar

In several central and south Bengal districts – the region with 34 of the state’s 42 Lok Sabha seats – the Left’s vote share stood above 16%. This cost the BJP dozens of Zilla Parishad seats, while the CPI(M), too, lost several seats due to the BJP’s vote share. In both cases, the TMC benefitted.

A look at the results of East Midnapore district – home district of Leader of the Opposition Suvendu Adhikari where the BJP put up their best performance in the rural polls – shows that of the 70 seats, the TMC’s winning margin over the BJP was lesser than the Left’s vote in as many as 24 seats. Finally, the TMC won 55 and the BJP 12 (three seats yet to be officially declared).

For example, in the three zilla parishad seats in Kolaghat block, the TMC’s winning margin over the BJP stood at 6,430 votes, 4,838 votes, and 8,934 votes, whereas in these seats the Left’s vote stood at 9,788, 9011 and 11,147, respectively. In the two seats in Nandakumar block, the TMC’s winning margins stood at 741 and 252, whereas the Left secured 6,301 votes and 8,177 votes, respectively.

In zilla parishad seat number 19 in Mahishadal, the TMC’s winning margin was 2,689 votes, while the CPI(M) got 5,014 votes, spoiling the BJP’s chances. In seat number 24 in Sutahata, the TMC’s winning margin stood at 1,451 votes, while the CPI(M) got 7,800 votes.

In Nadia district, which has 52 ZP seats, either the BJP or the Left lost 24 ZP seats due to each other’s vote share, and in Hooghly, which has 53 ZP seats, there were 11 such ZP seats. Such trends were observed in all districts. Even in the north Bengal district of Cooch Behar where the Left is quite weak, the BJP lost seven seats due to the Left’s vote share.

Also read: Why There’s No One Left to Vote in North Bengal’s Tea Gardens

In Nadia, ZP seat number 43 in Ranaghat recorded 38,523 votes in favour of the TMC, 24,853 in favour of the BJP and 15,516 in favour of the Left. The TMC’s winning margin was less than the Left’s votes. In ZP seat number 45 in the Chakdah area, the TMC, BJP and Left votes stood at 28,266, 18,932 and 10,032, respectively. In ZP seat number 1 in Hooghly district at Serampore-Uttarpara block, the TMC, The Left and the BJP’s votes stood at 12,703, 9,361 and 8,685, respectively, with the BJP’s spoiling the Left’s chances.

People queue to vote in Junglemahal, Bengal. Photo: By arrangement.

Considering block-wise results of ZP seats (blocks usually have 2-3 ZP seats), in Jangipara and Haripal of Hooghly district where the TMC was way ahead of both, the BJP’s and the Left stood nearly neck and neck – in Jangipara the Left’s 27932 was slightly above the BJP’s 26,480 and in Haripal BJP’s 37,509 was a little above the Left’s 30,478. Jangipara falls in Serampore Lok Sabha and Haripal in Arambag.

The ZP-wise result of Gangajalghati block in Bankura district shows the following vote share – 53,021 (46%), BJP 43,145 (37.41%), Left – 17,187, (14.9) Congress – 1,969. In Indpur block of the same district, the TMC’s votes stood at 44,134, the BJP’s at 30,446 and the Left’s at 20,012. In Hirabandh and Khatra blocks, the Left and the BJP played spoilsport for each other.

The big picture

The best way to get the Lok Sabha-wise picture of local body election results is to add the figures for the Zilla parishad seats, the highest tier of the panchayat system, as the ZP seats are considered to reflect the closest trend to assembly election voting patterns. Each assembly is made of two to four ZP seats and sometimes urban bodies.

Lok Sabha-specific results of the last year’s civic polls and the recent panchayat elections show that in Hooghly Lok Sabha, which the BJP won in 2019 with a margin of 73,000 votes, the Left and the Congress’ cumulative votes secured in urban and rural elections stand above what the BJP received.

Also read: Why Bengal’s Panchayat Polls Will Be Different This Year

Hooghly Lok Sabha is made of 21 ZP seats and three urban bodies – Chandannagar municipal corporation, Hooghly-Chinsurah municipality and Bansberia municipality. The results of these 21 zilla parishad seats show the TMC has got 5,93,217 votes, while the BJP has got 271411 votes and the Left secured 2,18,122. In the 2022 urban elections, the TMC secured 1,40,009 votes, the Left got 77,003 votes and the BJP polled 31,568 votes.

Together, the TMC’s vote stands at 7,33,226, the BJP’s at 3,02,979 and the Left’s at 2,95,125. However, the Congress polled over another 25,000 votes in these polls. The Left-Congress combined votes are thus above what the BJP polled in the local elections. Even though the Left and the Congress mostly contested separately in the local body election, they are going together in most assembly or parliamentary elections and by-elections.

The Left-Congress votes reflect a significant improvement in their performances, as in the 2019 Lok Sabha election they polled 1,46,962 votes fighting separately and in 2021 secured 1,71,100 votes in the seven seats that make up Hooghly Lok Sabha, fighting in alliance.

Similarly in Malda Uttar Lok Sabha of northern Bengal, which the BJP won in 2019 with a margin of 84,288 votes, the local body election statistics put the BJP at the third position. Habibpur, Bamangola, Gazole, Chanchal I and II, Harishchandrapur I and II and Ratua I and II community development blocks and Old Malda municipality.

Election graffiti at a village in Gazole, Malda. Photo: File

In the zilla parishad seats that make up the Lok Sabha and the Old Maldah municipality, the TMC’s votes stand at 4,59,536, the Left-Congress combined vote at 3,20,402 and the BJP’s at 233,121.

In the 2019 Lok Sabha election, the BJP got 5,09,524 votes, against the TMC’s 4,25,236, while the Left-Congress cumulative votes stood at 3,55,671. In the 2021 assembly election, the TMC, BJP and Left-Congress alliance’ votes stood at 7,46,681 votes, 4,71,042 votes and 1,51,060 votes, respectively.

In Bishnupur Lok Sabha in the Bankura district of southwestern Bengal, the Zilla parishad and civic body election results put the TMC’s votes at 7,90,166 votes, while the BJP’s stood at 4,11,841 and the Left-Congress combine’s at 2,32,760. Over 2 lakh of this is the Left’s vote. Barjora, Gangajalghati, Onda, Bankura II, Bishnupur, Taldangra, Kotulpur, Joypur, Patrasayar, Indas and Sonamukhi blocks and Bishnupur and Sonamukhi municipalities make up the Lok Sabha.

In the 2021 assembly election, the cumulative vote share in the seven seats concerned was 6,77,147 votes for the BJP, 6,48,438 votes for the TMC and 1,25,686 votes for the Left-Congress alliance.

In Ranaghat Lok Sabha of Nadia district in central Bengal, the local body election results put the TMC’s votes at 7,05,022, the BJP’s at 4,24,538 and the Left-Congress’ at 2,02,912. Nabadwip, Santipur, Ranaghat I and II, Hanskhali, Chakdah and Krishnaganj blocks and Ranaghat, Birnagar, Santipur, Nabadwip and Chakdah municipalities and Taherpur notified area make up the Lok Sabha.

In the 2021 assembly election, the votes for the BJP, the TMC and the Left-Congress alliance stood at 7,60,040 votes, 6,58,351 votes and 87,786 votes, respectively. In 2019, the BJP bagged the Lok Sabha seat by securing 7,83,254 votes, against the TMC’s 5,49,825 and the Left-Congress total vote stood at only 1,21,068.

According to political scientist Dwaipayan Bhattacharyya, who teaches at the Jawaharlal Nehru University and closely follows Bengal politics, the results are particularly bad for the BJP because the Left vote share increased despite widespread violence, while the BJP failed to retain its votes.

This indicated there are two oppositions – the BJP, the official opposition which is losing ground, and the emerging force of Left-Congress-Indian Secular Front (ISF) combine which is playing the real opposition on the ground.

To him, the panchayat election results assume significance because this situation is leading West Bengal to a phase of triangular contests. Politics here has traditionally remained bipolar. Even after the formation of TMC in 1998, it surged ahead of the Congress and the elections remained largely bipolar, a trend which continued even after the rise of the BJP in 2014, he pointed out.

“The Lok Sabha election results will depend on multiple national issues, including how the BJP plays out the politics around the Ram Temple inauguration and public sentiment over economic issues. But it would also depend significantly on how the Left-Congress combine manages to posit themselves as the real ideological opponent to the BJP, as there is a clear indication of triangular contests,” Bhattacharyya told The Wire.

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