'The BJP will get the lion's share of the Opposition vote. I would give the Congress-Left around 15 per cent.'
The electoral fate of four states and one Union territory will be announced on Sunday, May 2.
It has been a bitterly fought election campaign for West Bengal's 294 assembly seats. At play have been polarisation, communal politics, poetry and prose, perception politics, outsider-insider rhetoric, and even an injured West Bengal chief minister -- a riveting collage unlike any other Vidhan Sabha election.
And then, of course, the soul scarring second wave of the pandemic has finally put paid to election rallies in the state.
Will the incumbent Mamata Banerjee's Trinamool Congress score a hat-trick?
Or, will Narendra Damodardas Modi's Bharatiya Janata Party make history in Bengal?
Udayan Bandopadhyay, columnist, author, political scientist and an associate professor of political science at the Bangabasi College in Kolkata, in an interview with Swarupa Dutt/Rediff.com, forecasts the winners, the losers, the also-rans and demystifies the factors that make Bengal elections so unique.
The concluding segment of a two-part interview:
With the devastating second wave of the pandemic making it apparent that the Centre's priorities were the polls and not healthcare, will it affect voter decision in the final few phases?
Issues have changed dramatically since the second wave became apparent. Now, the primary issue is healthcare and the government in power (the TMC) will get mileage in the last few phases because it is the state that is fulfilling the people's demands, not the Centre.
The people are aware that the Centre has failed them.
Demand for beds, oxygen and medication is what is needed now and it is Mamata Banerjee's government that is stepping in, not the Centre.
Only one issue is left in this 'game' -- healthcare -- and the people are seeing that Mamata is delivering -- at least for now.
So, hypothetically, if the second wave had hit India with a terrifying 3 lakh COVID-19 cases per day and over 25,000 COVID-19 deaths a day in early April, would the khela have been shesh for the BJP long ago?
Has the Centre's handling of the pandemic made space for other parties at the Centre?
Has it germinated the idea that other parties can run the country better than the BJP?
In Bengal? Absolutely! The BJP would have been routed without a doubt had the second wave happened earlier. But it will still be routed.
As far as national politics is concerned, the Opposition at the Centre should be able to articulate the demands of the populace. Can they step in and help and do what the government at the Centre is not doing?
Narendra Modi has failed, but so has Uddhav Thackeray (the Maharashtra chief minister).
Modi's failure doesn't mean a defeat for the BJP at the general election or assembly elections.
Policy failure will not topple the (Modi) government.
If you can prove to be a strong Opposition by fielding a leader of mettle, if you can articulate the people's needs, then you can succeed.
As of now, the answer is, no. Modi will stay on.
But there is no denying that Modi and the BJP are popular in Bengal if you go by the huge crowds at the rallies or the road shows of Amit Shah and BJP President J P Nadda.
Would you say Modi is as popular as Indira Gandhi? Will these people at the rallies vote for BJP?
Modi is a popular leader, there is no denying that. He is popular all over India. But the crowds at his rallies don't mean anything.
There is always an anti-incumbency factor in democracy, so when a party, say the BJP in this case, which is in power at the Centre becomes the main contender apart from the TMC in West Bengal, there will be huge crowds at the rallies.
But crowds don't mean the BJP will be come to power in the state. The people are gathering at Modi's rallies because they want to hear what the main Opposition party in West Bengal has to offer.
In fact, the Trinamool Congress will capture at least 50 per cent of the votes, and the BJP will get the lion's share of the Opposition vote. I would give the Congress-Left around 15 per cent.
The BJP's vote comes mainly from former Left voters, disgruntled TMC voters, the Hindi-speaking population and long-time BJP voters in Bengal.
Indira Gandhi cannot be compared with Narendra Modi. She was far more popular in Bengal, especially after the Bangladesh war.
Anti-incumbency is unlikely to affect the TMC, and with her populist welfare schemes, Mamata Banerjee, you feel, is a shoo-in to win a third term. So what are the factors that will lead to the BJP losing in Bengal?
Mamata has done well on her welfare schemes. But remember, there is always an anti-incumbency in democracy; there is always anguish and anger against the government; there is always the voice of the opposition against the government in any democratic set up.
But the Opposition has to politically articulate that dissatisfaction and that is where I think the BJP has failed.
Secondly, and more importantly, the BJP does not have an important regional Bengali leader.
We have only seen rallies, road shows of Modi, Amit Shah and J P Nadda. In fact the crowds that you speak of are limited to Modi's rallies and to a certain extent the home minister's, but we haven't seen such crowds in favour of any regional BJP leader in Bengal because there simply aren't any such leaders.
They have regional leaders in Assam, in Uttar Pradesh, in Bihar, but in West Bengal there is nobody to counter Mamata Banerjee's mass appeal.
For argument's sake, if you are saying the people of Bengal like Modi, the point is, will he become the chief minister of West Bengal? Will Amit Shah or J P Nadda become CM if the BJP wins?
The BJP has singularly and remarkably failed in creating a strong regional leader who can lead the party in West Bengal.
There is an apprehension that the traditional values so dear to the Bengali bhadralok will be cast aside by the BJP's North Indian values.
Is this apprehension enough to counter the TMC's disdain for democracy and the allegations of corruption against its local leaders?
Yes, there are charges of corruption and extortion and the allegations are true.
But like I said, the biggest contributory factor for the BJP's loss will be the lack of a regional leader. The TMC will win despite charges of graft and extortion.
You have to be able to reach out to the common people, develop a cadre that can match the TMC, make them politically aware about the BJP. The BJP has been able to do only some of this.
To channelise the people's anger against the government and make them vote against the incumbent, you have to first know the local language. If you speak in Hindi and English in Bengal, you simply cannot aspire to win the populace and make them vote for you.
So then, Mamata's oft-repeated argument during the campaign of bohiragato (outsiders) camping in the state is true?
To a certain extent, yes and at least in this context, it is true. Had they been able to find and nurture a Bengali-speaking regional leader, the bohiragato argument wouldn't work.
Has the BJP reopened the scars of Partition by reaching out to the Matua community?
The Matuas have been trying to become Indian citizens since Partition. There was another influx of Matuas after the creation of Bangladesh. So, yes, when you are reaching out to the Matuas, Partition is the backdrop.
The BJP has promised that if the CAA (Citizenship [Amendment] Act) is implemented in Bengal, the Matuas will get unconditional citizenship. Matuas are being harassed when they apply for passports, etc.
But in these elections they will not vote en masse for the BJP as they did in the 2019 Lok Sabha elections because they feel cheated as the CAA is yet to be implemented.
Still, the Matuas are a very minor faction of the Namasudra (Dalit) community. The Matua vote is 3.5 to 4 per cent of the entire Namasdusra community so it is not important in the bigger picture, even though they are a deciding factor in 10 assembly constituencies.
What is important is the Namasudra vote.
For the Namasudra community at large, it is the NRC (National Register of Citizens) that is feared.
You cannot win over the entire Namasudra community by saying that if we (BJP) come to power we will enforce CAA.
These are absolutely juvenile politics.
How does the NRC affect the Namasudra vote?
The fear of NRC among the Namasudra is very large. The Namasudra community in Bengal came, if you look at it chronologically, from East Pakistan, then Bangladesh, and then in 2001 to 2004, when Khalida Zia was in power in Bangladesh.
Namasudras are panicked by NRC.
If you follow the chronology of the BJP, they have said, first we will implement CAA, then NRC.
NRC is a dangerous issue in West Bengal politics.
After 2019, in the three by-elections, the BJP's defeat was on the issue of NRC. NRC will be a huge contributory factor in votes against the BJP in this election.
So how did the BJP make such big inroads in the 2019 Lok Sabha election in Bengal?
The NRC was introduced in Assam after the 2019 election. People did not know what effect it would have till they saw what was happening in Assam.
While on caste, would it be true to say that 34 years of Left rule has left caste politics by the wayside and thereafter with Mamata's focus on minorities, caste has not been a consideration while pressing the EVM button?
However, with the BJP, there has been a rise of nascent Hindutva politics in the state?
What politics does the RSS do? The politics of the RSS is based on the unification of Hindus across India. Hindutvavadi politics says there is no conflict among Hindus.
The politics of the BJP and RSS is diminishing the Dalit identity.
But Namasudra or Dalit politics is based upon the politics and the teachings of Bhimrao Ambedkar which believes there is a fundamental conflict between upper castes and Dalits.
The conflict lies in the roots of exploitation (of the Dalits) by upper caste Hindus.
In West Bengal, the BJP has not been able to create an environment wherein the Namasudra community will get advantages in terms of Hindutvavadi politics.
Mamata Banerjee gave priority to the minority community, but I disagree that she did not consider caste in terms of representation in politics.
She created a leader like Anubrata Mandal, a Namasudra.
During the Left regime, you would never find a district secretary who was not a caste Hindu.
Mamata appointed Mandal as the district president of Birhbhum. He is not a small fry. He is a big leader of the Trinamool Congress and despite some pitfalls (allegations of cattle smuggling, remarks of murdering opponents) he is a representative of the Namasudra community.
Mamata may be a Brahmin, but the Trinamool Congress is not seen as an anti-Dalit party.
The BJP, on the other hand, is perceived as an anti-Dalit party.