Five Trends I Noticed While Travelling West Bengal On Election Coverage

Since 2014, West Bengal politics has been going through a transition in which parties’ vote shares keep changing from election to election

(Photo by Sudipta Das via Getty Images)
Old women are showing their voting mark after casting their vote at a Model Pink booth during the seventh and last phase of India's general election in Kolkata, India, on June 1, 2024. (Photo by Sudipta Das via Getty Images)

“Pakistan will capture parts of India if Narendra Modi loses the election,” said Shyamal Mandal, a resident of Nasibpur with the Singur assembly segment of Hooghly Lok Sabha in southern West Bengal. His comment was striking, as he had just told me that he and most of his family have been traditional Left supporters.

It was a hot, humid and discomforting evening. A man in his fifties, Mandal was out for an evening walk with his granddaughter, a primary school student in the Diyara area.

Five days before the election was scheduled in their constituency, Mandal’s comments, in a sense, summed up how Bengal continues to go through the uncertainties of a political transition the shape of which is still unclear.

Transitioning Stage

Standing outside a tea-cum-grocery store, Mandal elaborated, “My son is a CPI(M) polling agent. He is going to vote for them. I voted for the CPI(M) in the panchayat election, but the national election is different.”

According to him, most Left supporters in their neighbourhood and their immediate and extended family shifted their votes to PM Modi’s BJP in the 2019 Lok Sabha election and the 2021 assembly polls. However, in the 2023 panchayat election, a section switched back to the Left, while another remained with the BJP.

It was evident from the electoral trends. Singur, the land of the anti-displacement struggle that paved Trinamool Congress (TMC) chief Mamata Banerjee’s political revival from 2006 onwards, has been a TMC bastion. In the 2019 Lok Sabha election, the BJP polled 93,177 votes in Singur, taking a lead over the TMC’s 82,748 votes, while the Left got only 17,632 votes. However, in the 2021 assembly election, the CPI(M)’s vote increased to 30,016 and the BJP’s dipped to 75,154, resulting in the TMC’s victory by a margin of 25,000 votes. In the panchayat election, the Left’s vote rose to 38,490 and the BJP’s came further down to 53,601.

Now, the question that intrigues locals as well as political observers – which side will these votes go? Will anti-TMC votes consolidate behind the BJP like in 2019 or remain split between the BJP and the CPI(M), as in 2014? Mandal said that some of his family members were still in a dilemma.

The case of the Mandal family exemplifies one of the most important features of the Lok Sabha election 2024 in West Bengal, where the fate of about one-third of the state’s 42 Lok Sabha seats hangs on the answer to this question.

This is important because, since 2014, the TMC’s vote share has only increased – it stood at 39.8% in the 2014 Lok Sabha election, 39% in the 2016 assembly election, 43.3% in the 2019 Lok Sabha election and 48.5% in the 2021 assembly election. It is mostly the opposition space where votes are shifting.

The Hindu Vote Bank

The Left has two major barriers on their way to regaining lost votes. First, the BJP, by virtue of being in power at the Centre, has an advantage over them in playing the TMC’s main opposition.

Second, even though the shift of Left votes to the BJP -- partly in the 2018 panchayat election and largely in the 2019 Lok Sabha election -- was initially a “tactical shift” by a section of Left supporters to push the TMC on the back foot, a large number of these neo-BJP supporters have since then started believing in the BJP’s campaign on issues like “Muslim aggression”, “appeasement politics” and “national security.”

It was not Mandal alone who claimed to be a traditional Left supporter but echoed the BJP on the question of national security. At the Bangladesh-bordering Bongaon town in North 24-Parganas district of south Bengal, Tushar Biswas and his friends – all in their 30s – explained their new dislike for the CPI(M).

They claimed to have voted for the Left till the 2018 panchayat election. Upset with the local BJP MP, the Union minister Shantanu Thakur’s performance, some of them were considering voting for the CPI(M) in the Lok Sabha election 2024.

“However, the CPI(M)’s electoral manifesto speaks of restoring Article 370. We can’t vote for them after knowing this. At the national level, the communists and the Congress are a threat to national security,” Biswas said.

His friends nodded in agreement. One of them added that he would have voted for the Left in 2021 itself but the Left’s alliance with the “Muslim party” Indian Secular Front (ISF) deterred him.

ISF was launched ahead of the 2021 assembly election by Abbas Siddiqui, a cleric at the Furfura Sharif, and is now led by his brother, Naushad Siddiqui, the state’s only non-BJP, non-TMC MLA. Even though the ISF has Dalit and tribal activists in its leadership and workforce, the perception of the ISF as a “Muslim party” continues. This time, though, they are contesting separately after seat-sharing talks with the CPI(M) failed.

As the discussion with Biswas and his friends at his lottery shop in Bongaon revealed, after the BJP overtook the Left in the 2018 panchayat election as the TMC’s main rival, many of these Left supporters started following the BJP’s social media pages, attended BJP’s events and joined the BJP’s WhatsApp networks. This has moulded the thinking of many of them and winning back this section of voters would be difficult for the Left.

In short, the BJP has significantly widened its “core voter base.”

Service over ideology

While the BJP and the Sangh Parivar had tried to ideologically win over the traditional Left supporters to create their own permanent support base, the influence of ideology on people’s electoral choice seemed to have waned.


The likes of Mandal and Biswas who spoke on issues like national security were far fewer in number than those who raised issues of local governance and economic plight over continued inflation and stagnant income.

To a majority, the services provided by the government and the local administration – or the lack of it – mattered the most.

In a sense, to a majority of the electorate, the main issue was the state’s Mamata Banerjee government’s performance – whether they were happy with the welfare schemes or angry over corruption and misgovernance. When they were pleased with the service from their local public representatives, corruption or ideology took the backseat in electoral consideration.


Women Polarisation

From Malda in northern Bengal to Howrah in the southern part of the state, men who spoke against the TMC and said will be voting for the BJP or the Left-Congress alliance candidate often conceded that women at their home were likely to vote for the TMC because of the government’s welfare schemes, especially the monthly assistance scheme of Lakshmir Bhandar.

Women, on the other hand, cited not only Lakshmir Bhandar but also the health insurance scheme of Swasthya Sathi, the maternity support schemes, the Sabuj Sathi bicycles for students, and Kanyashre (educational assistance) and Rupashree (marital assistance) schemes for girl students and young women. Several women mentioned the expansion of self-help group networks.


Youth Disenchantment

The TMC’s popularity appeared the least among the youths, especially in urban and suburban areas. They appeared predominantly critical of the TMC government for its failure to draw big-ticket projects and generate employment opportunities.

While her government’s welfare schemes for farmers and women have created a beneficiary base for the party in rural Bengal, and service-oriented politics created a base in urban areas, a good section of the youth are unimpressed. They want industrial development, which the last Left Front government had attempted in 2006. The initiative, though, got botched, as the industrialisation effort led to the land conflict and toppled the government.


Debabrata Chakraborty, a resident of Nagerbazar on the northern outskirts of Kolkata, pointed out another interesting aspect. “Both my sons are staunch TMC critics. They have no soft corner for Mamata. I guess it’s because they were still in their early teens when she came to power in 2011. Those who haven’t seen her as an opposition leader do not have the same sympathy as us,” he said.