The Long Game

How the BJP is using its Hindi-belt playbook in West Bengal and succeeding

Twenty percent of the Trinamool Congress vote share came from Muslims in the West Bengal elections. Jit Chattopadhyay / SOPA Images / LightRocket / Getty Images
31 May, 2021

The Mamata Banerjee-led Trinamool Congress delivered an unexpectedly comprehensive victory in the West Bengal assembly election. In the lead up to it, almost all articles had spoken of a close contest with the Bharatiya Janata Party, which led a high-decibel campaign in the state. The TMC’s victory, in turn, led to various think pieces on the exceptionalism and pride of Bengalis that halted the Hindutva juggernaut. And yet, the electoral campaigns and a breakdown of the results show that the state is increasingly subject to the same forces that shape the politics of the Hindi belt. Rather than confining ourselves to the political history of the state, it makes sense to consider these election results in light of what is happening in the rest of the country.

The BJP’s basic strategy in the state has been similar to what it has followed elsewhere: the consolidation of upper-caste power. The party deploys the rhetoric of Hindu nationalism while its parent body, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, works to gather Adivasis, Dalits and Other Backward Classes into its fold. If, despite this, the results in Bengal have ended up differing from those in the Hindi belt, this has largely to do with the one fact that does make Bengal exceptional: its demographics, with a significantly higher proportion of Muslims compared to other states.

This population make-up of West Bengal magnified a phenomenon now common to much of the country: there is a significant difference in how Muslims and non-Muslims vote. The majority of the Muslim vote, which is almost thirty percent of the total vote in the state, went to the TMC. A close contest among non-Muslims meant a virtual guarantee that the TMC would win, and win comfortably. And so, despite the party lagging behind the BJP when it came to the non-Muslim vote, this is exactly what happened. If West Bengal’s demographic share of Muslims was closer to that of of Uttar Pradesh or Bihar—where Muslims form 19 and 16 percent of the population, respectively—the result would likely have been very different.

Overall, the TMC led the BJP by around ten percentage points, 47.9 to 38.1. But this large margin does not reveal the real story about the non-Muslim vote. Since more than twenty percent of the TMC vote share came from Muslims, and the polls placed the level of support for the BJP among Muslims at less than two percent of the total vote, it would suggest that the BJP led the TMC among non-Muslim voters by over eight percentage points. Indeed, post-poll data indicates the BJP was ahead of the TMC among all non-Muslim caste categories.