What’s at stake in the West Bengal elections?

India's fourth most-populous state goes to the polls for a verdict on local corruption, party politics and Hindu nationalism.

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Legislative Assembly elections in West Bengal, one of the most populous states in India, are underway. Voting began on 27 March and will continue until the end of April. The result will determine how dramatically life shifts in both the state and the nation.

The current ruling party in the state is All India Trinamool Congress, or TMC, which was founded and is led by Mamata Banerjee. 

From 1977 to 2011, West Bengal was run by the Left Front, an alliance dominated by the Communist Party. The party was everything in West Bengal, so much so that the state’s politics were referred to as “party-society”, meaning party was more important than other types of social grouping, such as caste.

“In the heyday of the Left Front there was a sense that they were invincible”, said Mukulika Banerjee, an associate professor of anthropology at the London School of Economics. “And she [Mamata Banerjee] managed to dislodge them.”

Mamata Banerjee quickly established "a kind of personal populist regime”, the political scientist Dwaipayan Bhattacharyya said of the TMC leader's personality-drive style of government, winning support from a variety of groups – including Muslims, who make up roughly a third of the state’s population. She combined a cult of personality with “quick fix politics”, Bhattacharyya added, such as using state funds for handouts to support women, children and the elderly.

But at the same time, the new leader also took on many of the traits she once campaigned against. 

“For years” before coming to power, Mamata Banerjee “railed against corrupt bossism [control by a set of party managers] of the left”, said Milan Vaishnav, director of Carnegie South Asia. Yet now, “she’s essentially replicated that with a new group of people”.

And so, ten years later, some are tired of Banerjee and TMC. Corruption is rampant, her detractors say. People want jobs. And while some from the Left Front were taken into TMC, there are others who found they no longer had a place in politics after Banerjee won, which “has bred a lot of resentment”, Vaishnav said.

Enter the BJP.

***

There was a time that the Hindu-nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party was thought of as a regional party, associated with northern and western India. But then Narendra Modi, who had been chief minister of the state of Gujarat, led the party in the 2014 general election. It won, gaining control of the lower house of parliament and making Modi prime minister. This was followed by the 2019 parliamentary elections, in which the BJP secured its position as the dominant political force in the country. 

West Bengal was previously thought to be impervious, or at least less susceptible, to Hindu nationalist politics. But the BJP has had a “sudden rise in influence” in the state, Bhattacharyya said. The party made significant inroads in the state in the 2019 parliamentary election, and is now, per Bhattacharyya, the “principal opposition party in West Bengal”.

West Bengal, India
West Bengal goes to the polls between 27 March and 29 April to elect its Legislative Assembly
“In this way, if the BJP wins Bengal and wins decisively”, it will have an “emphatic effect on 2024 parliamentary elections, because then the narrative of BJP’s invincibility, that will get reinforced”, Bhattacharyya said. 

“The BJP is not just any political party. It has an ideological agenda whose core ideas and functioning violate the principles of the constitution of India,” said Mukulika Banerjee, whose forthcoming book is based on 15 years of research of West Bengal’s politics.

That agenda has not yet taken over Bengal. Mamata Banerjee, who, by all accounts, was always more mass politician than ideologue, has in this election made Bengal her ideology. She is presenting herself as the person “fighting for the distinctiveness, the language, the region of Bengal and what it stands for”, Mukulika Banerjee said.

The BJP has tried to attack Mamata Banerjee on the grounds that she does not provide for the people of her state. Modi, for instance, said that the BJP runs on “schemes”, while TMC runs on “scams”.

But though there is a focus on development, the Hindu nationalist rhetoric is still present in the BJP's campaign. The BJP state president Dilip Ghosh, for instance, accused Mamata Banerjee of wanting to turn Bengal into “Greater Bangladesh”. Suvendu Adhikari, who was once a TMC member and Banerjee ally, is now running against her for her seat. On 29 March he accused her of “minority appeasement” and warned that the state would turn into a “mini Pakistan” if she wins. 

The BJP may well lose in West Bengal. As the Indian outlet Scroll reported, it does not have the local organisation – or the potential for intimidation of voters, even in parts of the state where it performed well two years ago – that TMC has. And voting in parliamentary elections for Modi is different from turning the day-to-day operations of a state over to the BJP.

Yet if the BJP does win, said Adil Hossain, a political anthropologist – who is, he noted, a Muslim originally from rural West Bengal – it will “take over not only state, but also society”. There is the threat of denationalisation of Bengali Muslims. The politics of West Bengal could be dictated by religious identity to an extent they were not before. 

[See also: How a farmers' protest in India evolved into a mass movement]

Emily Tamkin is the New Statesman’s US editor. 

She co-hosts our weekly global affairs podcast, World Review

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