The West Bengal Assembly Election, 2021: Lessons for Opposition Unity
An analysis of the results of the recently held assembly elections in West Bengal reveals that if secular parties had joined hands, the BJP would never have gotten as many seats as it did in the elections. This has significant implications for opposition unity in the rest of the country.
In the recently held assembly elections in West Bengal, the Trinamool Congress (TMC) impressively won a third term, winning 213 seats out of 292. But the other big story of the election was the rise of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), from 3 seats in the assembly in 2016 to 77 seats in 2021. The Indian National Congress (INC) and the Communist Party of India (Marxist) (CPIM), traditionally the two strong parties in West Bengal, both drew a blank. Essentially, the BJP supplanted both the INC and the CPM as the principal opposition party.
But if the Congress and Left had not opposed the TMC, the BJP may not have even won as many seats as they did. The “Left” in West Bengal also includes, in addition to the CPM, the Revolutionary Socialist Party (RSP) and the All-India Forward Bloc (AIFB). From a philosophical/ideological standpoint, all five parties – the TMC, the INC, the CPM, the RSP, and the AIFB – are opposed to the BJP. But because they did not cooperate with each other and reach a pre-poll seat agreement, the BJP was able to rise as spectacularly in the assembly as they did, at the cost of the INC and the CPM.
What the Left parties and the Congress achieved in the recent elections in West Bengal was to be “vote katuas” (i.e., spoilers) for the TMC and thereby helped the BJP. They even succeeded in ensuring the loss of Mamata Banerjee, the leader of the TMC, in the Nandigram constituency. The table below shows how this happened in West Bengal. In 42 of the 77 seats that the BJP won, the margin between the winning BJP and the losing TMC was less than the number of votes polled by the third place party, be it the CPM, the INC, the RSP, or the AIFB.
The implication is that the BJP can be defeated soundly anywhere in the country if the opposition parties come together. That this is the case was also made clear by Prashant Kishor, the election strategist of the Trinamool Congress, who said in an interview to NDTV following the TMC’s win that in his view, there is a limit to religious polarization. He said that in his analysis of elections in India over the last 70 years, what he has observed is that the most you can gain by religious polarization is 50%-55% of the votes of the community you are targeting, whatever community that may be – Hindus, Muslims, Sikhs, or any other. He said that this is what has happened in West Bengal as well. Bengal has around 70% Hindus, and the BJP won a vote share of 38%, which is 54% of the Hindu population. This is a very significant observation. It tells us that if the 45%-50% of the population who do not believe in religious polarization unite, they can always defeat the BJP.
The BJP won 77 seats in West Bengal when the secular parties of West Bengal were not united. But in 42 of the seats in which they won, the margin of victory was less than the number of third-place votes. What this tells us is that if the TMC and the other parties had united before the polls, the BJP would only have won 35 seats out of 292, making them quite a minority. This would have been beneficial to all involved. The TMC would have been happier without a dominant opposition party, and the Left parties and the INC would all have representation in West Bengal politics and a share of power, in sharp contrast to their current plight, in which they have been made completely irrelevant.
This observation has significant implications for opposition unity in the rest of the country. The BJP can be beaten, but opposition parties need to unite to ensure their own political relevance.
If they do not unite to defeat the BJP, they will be annihilated.