BJP gains in Bengal rural polls, but losses in strongholds call for relook at strategy ahead of 2024


New Delhi: The West Bengal rural polls saw the Trinamool Congress (TMC) record a big win, giving it a boost ahead of the 2024 Lok Sabha elections. The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which came a distant second, has blamed poll violence and the Mamata Banerjee-led party’s “street politics” for the results.

Various party leaders in the state also blamed “fear” among party workers due to central forces not being deployed at polling booths, “lack of strategy to counter the TMC’s attack”, and “low cadre confidence”.

The panchayat elections, whose results started coming in Tuesday, were marred by violence and have seen at least 18 deaths. The results come as a breather to the TMC which made allocation of central funds to the state a poll issue, while the BJP played up the alleged involvement of TMC leaders in scams.

According to Election Commission (EC) data, the TMC has won 42,299 of the 63,229 seats in 3,317 gram panchayats. The BJP has won in 9,370 seats and was leading in 180 Wednesday morning. 

The Communist Party of India (Marxist) or CPI(M) has won 2,935 seats, while the Congress won 2,540 in gram panchayats. 

In the elections for 20 zilla parishads, the TMC has secured 563 of 928 seats while the BJP won 24. In 341 panchayat samitis with 9,730 seats, TMC has secured 5,433 and the BJP 601. Counting was on at the time of filing of this report.

The BJP still improved on its 2018 rural polls performance where it won 5,700-odd seats against the TMC’s 38,000 in the gram panchayat. But it has lost support in its stronghold of north Bengal and tribal seats in the Jangal Mahal area (comprising Purulia, Bankura, and Jhargram), a closer look at the results reveals, which could be a matter of concern for the party.

A senior BJP functionary told ThePrint Tuesday, “In 2018, we had only three MLAs and two MPs (in West Bengal). Today, we have 70 MLAs and 16 MPs.”

Attributing the poor showing partly to violence, he said, “In 2018, we could not even file nominations (in a lot of places). This time, the party managed that within two days…but once targeted violence started, we failed to provide security to our cadre. Central forces were not deployed at polling booths which created fear among the workers.”

Though satisfied with the party’s performance, BJP national general secretary B.L. Santhosh claimed that the state Election Commission did not act on a single complaint.

State unit leader Rahul Sinha attributed the TMC’s win to their strategy. “They (TMC) filed nominations at the last minute to keep disgruntled leaders engaged and prevent them from switching sides. After nomination, they started violence to create fear.”

He also said that local body elections and Lok Sabha polls should not be compared. “In Lok Sabha elections, central forces will be deployed by the chief election commissioner and that will change the entire game. It will be fought in Modi’s name and Mamata cannot control that…the BJP will do much better.”

Also read: Violence & corruption are Bengal’s enemies, says Guv as Trinamool headed for big panchayat win

What worked for TMC

According to BJP state chief Sinha, the TMC “has shown they’re smarter in street politics”.

“…(In 2018) the single phase election was well calculated to dodge the central forces, yet, despite only 30 per cent nomination, we got more seats,” he said. 

The party’s general secretary in the state Agnimitra Paul meanwhile said that Chief Minister “Mamata Banerjee’s goons forcefully got the poll (process) completed”.

“Central forces were not allowed inside booths, there were no CCTV cameras in place…no state police and central police were deployed,” he told ThePrint.

Another state leader said on condition of anonymity, “Only Suvendu Adhikari (who switched sides from the TMC in 2020 and is the current Leader of Opposition) can’t ensure a win in every district. Candidates in his Nandigram district won but many of them did so on Modi’s name…they did not create a strategy to counter the TMC attack. This, coupled with lack of cadre confidence, and fear among them marred our performance.”

Calling the local elections a huge challenge, a central BJP leader said, “We got a court order to deploy central forces. The forces were brought in but the SEC did not provide a list of sensitive booths to them…there was huge confusion…force deployment should have been better for a three-phase poll.”

Requesting anonymity, an upbeat party general secretary said, “Unlike 2018 (elections) where the TMC won 34 seats unopposed, this time they faced resistance from our cadre. We have strengthened our ground cadre who will work for the Lok Sabha…cadres built for local body elections will fight on the ground in 2024.”

Bengal & rural elections

Rural elections in Bengal are usually held just a year before the Lok Sabha elections, often setting the tone for the latter. Hence, a landslide victory in the rural polls, which involve 65 per cent of the state population, is likely to give a major boost to the winning party ahead of the Lok Sabha election next year. 

Mamata Banerjee reduced the then ruling Left Front tally to half when her party contested the 2008 panchayat elections in a tie-up with the Congress. A year later, she registered a massive win with 19 seats in Lok Sabha elections. 

The 2018 panchayat polls saw the BJP surge against the TMC, replacing the Left as the main opposition party, with 19 per cent votes and 5,900 seats. The TMC repeated its performance, winning 34 per cent seats uncontested. The party followed it up with a win in 22 of the 42 Lok Sabha seats in 2019.

(Edited by Smriti Sinha)

Also read: Central govt questions West Bengal over ‘misuse’ of mid-day meal funds for panchayat polls, seeks report



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