Bengal rural polls: TMC, BJP set to slug it out again early next year
Opposition parties failed to field candidates for 34% of the seats in the last panchayat polls in 2018 due to alleged intimidation and around 20 people died in the violence during the elections
Panchayat polls are due to be held in West Bengal early next year with identity politics likely to be a factor in some places as the ruling Trinamool Congress (TMC) and Opposition Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) are set to slug it out again following a bitter electoral battle in the 2021 assembly polls.
Opposition parties failed to field candidates for 34% of the seats in the last panchayat polls in 2018 due to alleged intimidation and around 20 people died in the violence during the elections. A year later, the BJP registered its best electoral performance in the state, winning 18 of the state’s 42 seats in the national polls. It won just two seats in the 2014 national polls in West Bengal.
The TMC returned to power in 2021 for the third consecutive time, winning 215 of the 294 seats. The BJP also improved its tally of seats by winning 75 seats compared to just three in 2016. The party is hoping to maintain the momentum ahead of the 2024 national polls.
In the civic polls this year, the TMC won 1,871 of the 2171 seats across 108 municipalities. The BJP ended third with only 63 seats. The BJP leaders alleged TMC helped the Left parties get the second-highest tally of seats. They insisted the results did not indicate a revival of the Left parties, which ruled the state for 34 years before the TMC came to power in 2011.
Dalit and Other Backward Classes (OBC) have been vocal in raising their issues ahead of the 2023 rural polls and they are expected to influence their outcome.
The OBC factor
In the run-up to the rural polls, the OBC Kurmi community has renewed its demand for inclusion in the Scheduled Tribe (ST) category. ST communities account for a bulk of the population in Bengal’s districts bordering Jharkhand.
Railway services were disrupted in September as Kurmi protesters blocked tracks for five days in Bengal’s Jhargram, Purulia, West Midnapore, and Bankura districts as well as parts of Jharkhand and Odisha to press for their demand.
Tribals accounted for 5.29 million or about 5.8% of Bengal’s population as per the 2011 census. Chief minister Mamata Banerjee’s government has created separate welfare boards for the tribal Santhals and Lodhas as well as the Kurmis.
The Kurmi population in Bengal is estimated to be around 500,000 and is spread across Jangalmahal and Malda, Murshidabad, and South Dinajpur.
The BJP won five Lok Sabha and over a dozen assembly seats last year in Jangalmahal, a region spread across four districts. In this year’s civic polls, TMC improved its performance there. In Jhargram, the TMC secured 16 of the 18 seats. TMC won 97 of the 120 seats while the BJP eight in West Midnapore.
Banerjee created the Jhargram district in the region in 2017 by splitting West Midnapore for better governance.
Two Kurmi leaders unsuccessfully contested the 2021 assembly elections to promote the community’s political identity. Ashok Mahata, one of the two, said by supporting the candidature of Droupadi Murmu as the President, the BJP has managed to regain some lost ground among tribals, especially Santhals.
“The Kurmis relaunched their movement [for the ST status] after that. It was spontaneous because all Kurmis took part in it.” He added till 1931, the Kurmis were recognised as a primitive tribe. “But we were excluded when the ST list was published in 1950. The state government earlier said it will forward our demand to the Centre. The TMC included this in its electoral promises in 2021.”
Bengal BJP’s OBC wing chief Ajit Das said they hope to get the support of the community in the panchayat polls even as their leadership has not yet taken any stand on the Kurmi demand.
Joyel Murmu, the head of Bengal BJP’s ST wing, said only the government can take a decision on the Kurmi demand. “Many with the surname Mahata are tribal while the rest [of Kurmis] come under the OBC category. The Bengal government created a problem for OBCs because it included many Muslims in this category.”
Mahata said the issue will take a new turn for the worse if the tribals oppose their demand.
Dalit Matua voters
The Centre’s move in October to empower collectors in two districts of Gujarat to grant citizenship certificates to non-Muslim from neighboruing countries prompted the Matuas of Bengal to renew their demand for the implementation of the 2019 Citizenship (Amendment) Act (CAA).
The Matuas are part of the Dalit Namasudra community, which migrated from East Pakistan (Now Bangladesh) in 1947 and during the 1971 India-Pakistan war. They form a sizeable chunk of voters in the north and south Bengal districts bordering Bangladesh. The Matua support is believed to have helped the BJP win Lok Sabha and assembly seats in 2019 and 2021.
The Centre said the citizen certificates will be issued in Gujarat under Citizenship Act, 1955. But BJP leaders in Bengal have claimed this is the first step towards implementing CAA, which seeks to fast-tracked citizenship to non-Muslims, who entered India from Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Bangladesh before 2015.
The TMC has called CAA unconstitutional as it links citizenship to faith in a secular country.
BJP leader Suvendu Adhikari said CAA is a reality. “It is only a matter of time before it will be implemented. The process started in Gujarat,” Adhikari said.
Union minister and All India Matua Mahasangha chief Shantanu Thakur won Bengal’s Bongaon Lok Sabha seat in 2019.
A Bengal BJP leader, who did not want to be named, said the Matua votes shifted towards the Left and TMC in the civic polls this year.
In North 24 Parganas district, which has the highest Matua population, TMC won 591 of 629 municipal seats. The Communist Party of India (Marxist) or CPI (M) secured 13 seats and the BJP just four.
The CPI (M) also won the Taherpur municipality in Nadia district, where refugees from Bangladesh and Dalits play a major role in every election.
TMC leader Sukhendu Sekhar Roy called identity politics heinous and said the people of Bengal have discarded it. “The politics of the cow belt [north India] cannot be imported here.”
CPI (M) leader Md Salim said they have been focusing on unemployment, agrarian crisis, price rise, and other burning issues. “The government and the panchayats have failed to keep their promises. There is a rise in the number of children dropping out of school. Health care is becoming more expensive.”
Salim said nobody is talking about real issues and reforms. “The focus on micro identity increases when things related to larger interests go out of focus.”
Udayan Bandopadhyay, a political science professor, said identity politics is unlikely to become a major issue as long as the TMC government ensures free and peaceful elections. “Voters only see whether candidates seeking re-election sincerely worked for them or indulged in corruption.”