India’s understandable preoccupation with the management of the Covid-19 pandemic meant that the outcome of the Assembly elections, particularly in eastern India, received far less attention than would have been the case in normal circumstances. The final three phases of the long-drawn West Bengal election were marked by low turnout in the urban areas and a desperation to complete the exercise before the pandemic became even more menacing. Consequently, beyond cheering the winners and taunting the losers, the dissection of the polls was marked by superficiality and even disinterest.
While public interest in competitive politics may take time to resurface, it is important to flag some of the issues arising from the verdicts in West Bengal and Assam where incumbent governments were re-elected with conclusive majorities. These are likely to have a significant bearing on the region’s future.
The striking feature of the voting behaviour in Bengal and Assam was the deepening sectarian fault lines. In both states, the electorate was sharply polarised along Hindu-Muslim lines. The schism may not be so apparent at the macro level. In Assam, for example, the BJP-led coalition secured 44.5% votes while the Congress-led Mahajot that included Badruddin Ajmal’s AIUDF, Bodoland People’s Front and the Left parties was narrowly behind with 43.3%. In Bengal, Mamata Banerjee’s AITC was ahead of the BJP by a comfortable 9.8%— 47.9 % to 38.1.
These statistics may prompt a facile conclusion that both sides in Assam and Mamata in Bengal transcended religious identity and that bread-and-butter concerns prevailed. However, a disaggregated reading of the results — as gleaned from the authoritative CSDS-Lokniti surveys — tells a different story.
COUNTING ON THEM: Mamata received solid support from the state’s minorities
The sectarian schism is most vivid in Bengal. Mamata may have won an emphatic victory over the BJP and obliterated the Left Front and Congress but her triumph owes almost entirely to the solid support she received from the state’s Muslim community. In the 2019 Lok Sabha election, the AITC secured 70% of all Muslim votes, and this rose to 75% this election. Since Muslims comprise an estimated 30% of the state’s population, with an estimated voter turnout of three per cent above the state average, Mamata’s over-dependence on the minority community for her big victory is obvious.
The contrast with how Hindus in Bengal voted last month is instructive. CSDS-Lokniti estimated that 50% of Hindu voters preferred the BJP and only 39% sided with Mamata. Although the choice of the BJP by Hindu voters fell from the high of 57% in 2019, the party led decisively over the AITC among Dalits and Backward Castes, and less conclusively among Adivasis. The BJP’s lead over Mamata was narrowest among upper caste Hindus, indicating that the ‘secular’ misgivings over the BJP are largely a bhadralok phenomenon. In other sections of Hindu society, a subaltern Hindutva has developed roots.
In Assam, where the Muslim population was 34.2% in 2011, 81% of the community voted for the Congress-led Mahajot. The NDA secured 11% support in the Muslim community. This included a quarter of Assamese-speaking Muslims. The Bengali-speaking Muslims — the main target of the past anti-foreigner movements — were rock solid in supporting the Mahajot.
The quantum of Muslim support for the Mahajot in Assam and Mamata in Bengal was nearly the same. What made the critical difference in Assam was the bigger Hindu consolidation. The CSDS-Lokniti findings suggest that as much as 67% of all Hindus in Assam sided with the BJP-led alliance; the Mahajot secured only 19% support, a steep fall from the 32% that supported the Congress in 2016. The support for the BJP was quite marked among Bengali-speaking Hindus, mainly in the Barak Valley. As much as 74% of this community supported the BJP, not least on account of the Citizenship Amendment Act.
In short, the success of the BJP in Assam and its failure in Bengal can both be attributed to the magnitude of Hindu consolidation. In Assam, where the party has greater social depth, a longer record of political activism and a more visible local leadership, it was able to neutralise Muslim consolidation. In Bengal, Mamata could supplement Muslim consolidation by securing more than one-third of Hindu votes, not least on account of the BJP’s own deficiencies.
However, Mamata has managed a unique distinction in electoral politics. She has secured a two-thirds majority in the Assembly despite being a clear loser among the state’s majority community.
(Dasgupta was a BJP candidate in the Bengal elections)
Views expressed above are the author’s own.
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