One hundred and ninety-nine years after his birth, Bengal’s Renaissance icon Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar has become a poll plank in the eastern state. And the ruling Trinamool Congress (TMC) has quickly used the vandalism in a Kolkata college named after him to reach out to unusual quarters: the Left’s educated, middle-class vote bank.
The internal reports and feedback of TMC suggest that the Left’s vote — as much as 30% in the 2014 general election — is shifting to some extent to the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) as the latter is recognised as a key challenger to the Trinamool.
Lok Sabha elections 2019: EC orders campaign ban in West Bengal
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“Our prospects now hinge on the level of shift of the Left vote. We hope to get more than 30 seats but if the Left loses more than 10% of its share, we may even go down to 25,” said a Trinamool leader on condition of anonymity. The party leaders also fear that in at least 15 seats where the minority concentration is low, the BJP has garnered considerable strength to take on the Trinamool. And any addition, particularly from the Left’s vote base, will give the BJP further recognition among the Bengali middle class.
Trinamool’s chief spokesperson Derek O’Brien, however, maintains that “our party under the leadership of Mamata Banerjee will improve its tally. After what happened on Tuesday, we will not allow the BJP to gain ground in West Bengal.” In the 2014 election, Trinamool got 34 seats while the BJP won just 2 out of the 42 parliamentary constituencies. Trinamool has been in power in Bengal since 2011.
The Left’s vote share stood at 30% in the 2014 polls while the BJP bagged 16% of the popular votes. The popular narrative about Bengal is that the BJP is trying to consolidate Hindu votes and in the remaining nine seats, the vast Hindi-speaking population in the state is supportive of the BJP. The Left, struggling to retain its relevance, sees the BJP as a lesser enemy than the mighty Trinamool that dislodged it from power and ate into its erstwhile minority vote base.
The BJP, hoping to drastically improve its tally, is enjoying the political mood swing in Bengal. Recently, in an interview to HT, Assam minister Himanta Biswa Sarma said, “The right-thinking people [who] belong to CPM, belong to Congress and even belong to TMC… are voting for BJP… In a political sense, you can say that CPM votes are being transferred to the BJP; this is one part of the story. But I believe that CPM, Congress and TMC – the right-thinking people of all these three parties, they are voting for PM Modi this time.”
The CPI(M), or Communist Party of India (Marxist), leadership is also aware of the ground situation. CPI(M) politburo member Nilotpal Basu said on Wednesday, “Both Trinamool and BJP are publicizing the crack in the Left’s vote. But why is Trinamool crying over this theory? Even Mamata said why Left vote is shifting to the BJP. You should ask Trinamool how both their leaders and voters are also shifting to the BJP.” Another CPI(M) leader said “in the highly polarized Bengal election, the binary is Trinamool versus BJP and so we have some disadvantage.”
The vandalism in Vidyasagar College and the destruction of Vidyasagar’s bust have led to a barrage of protests on social media, mostly by educated Bengalis for whom Vidyasagar remains a Bengali icon. His book, ‘Barnaparichay’, still remains the most popular primer for beginners to learn the Bengali language. The Trinamool held protests both in Kolkata and elsewhere, while the BJP quickly called a press conference to blame Trinamool for the vandalism. And the Left marched on the streets of Kolkata blaming both the Trinamool and the BJP.