India’s prime minister Narendra Modi can breathe a sigh of relief about this spring’s state elections: in none of the three biggest prizes (Kerala, Tamil Nadu and West Bengal) is his Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (the BJP, भारतीय जनता पार्टी) a local presence.
That means, if nothing else, Modi and his allies will not be blamed for yet another state-level electoral setback of the kinds that his party suffered in Delhi and in Bihar last year (though elections in Assam are expected to be fiercely contested by the BJP).
Since mid-April, elections have been underway in five states, the results of which will be announced Thursday, though exit polls are already giving Indians an idea of who might triumph.
In West Bengal, the biggest state-level prize of India’s spring elections, a popular chief minister, Mamata Banerjee, is attempting to hold onto power just five years after ending 34 consecutive years of communist rule. Voting took place in six phases between April 4 and May 5.
Between 1977 and 2011, the Communist Party of India (Marxist) (CPI(M)), a left-wing splinter group from what was then India’s main communist party, governed the state as part of the Left Front (বাম ফ্রন্ট) coalition. By most accounts, communist rule in West Bengal wasn’t incredibly successful in boosting growth, despite a sweeping land reform and other efforts to boost nutrition and anti-poverty measures.
In the 2011 election, Banerjee (pictured above), known simply as ‘didi‘ (‘sister’ in Bengali), won power in a lopsided victory. Banerjee, who began her career in the Congress Party, formed the All India Trinamool Congress (AITMC, সর্বভারতীয় তৃণমূল কংগ্রেস) in 1997. Going into the elections, she and her allies controlled 227 of the 294 sets in the legislative assembly as a result of the last election’s rout.
In the current election, the Left Front formed a rare electoral alliance with the Indian National Congress (Congress, भारतीय राष्ट्रीय कांग्रेस), struggling for relevance after its national defeat in the 2014 elections and the erosion of its power at the state level both to Modi’s BJP and to regional parties like Banerjee’s AITMC. Despite the fact that Congress and the West Bengal communists appeal to very different constituencies, the alliance has worked out better than perhaps expected.
Ironically, exit polls also show that Congress is set to lose power to communists when the results are announced for the May 16 elections in Kerala, the far southwestern state where Congress and the communists, with wildly different views on economic and social policy (in Kerala as well as in West Bengal), have vied for power for decades.
Like most politicians who ride to power on the promise of sweeping change, Banerjee’s record after five years isn’t necessarily great, compared to the campaign rhetoric of five years ago. Bihar’s chief minister Nitish Kumar, for example, has a far stronger record in boosting development and economic growth, and that’s one of the reasons he held back a strong BJP challenge in the state’s elections last year. Moreover, the Left Front-Congress coalition throughout the campaign made credible charges of corruption against the Trinamool government, which has done little to stop the routine graft of state-level governance. A Narada News sting operation purportedly revealed that several top party members were perfectly willing to accept bribes. It follows a scandal in which the Saradha Group, a private company consortium based in Kolkata, ran a Ponzi scheme that ultimately took in up to $6 billion before its collapse in 2013.
The leader of the Congress, Rahul Gandhi, has also slammed both Banerjee as well as Modi for their inaction. Nevertheless, Banerjee has implemented more fiscal discipline in West Bengal, she has stood up to unions in favor of the private market, and she has pursued some privatizations and regulatory liberalization while devoting more resources to development, particularly for rural areas. For example, each girl to complete secondary school gets ₹25,000 (around $375), and poor families are entitled to rice at just ₹2 (3 cents) per kilogram. A surge of construction went from campaign talking point to campaign tragedy in April when an overhead highway pass under construction killed 13 people.
Polls show that while Banerjee’s AITMC is likely to have won a majority, it will not perhaps be as large as the majority that she won in the 2011 elections, giving both Banerjee and the leftist opposition credible reasons to be thrilled with the results.
West Bengal is India’s fourth-most populous state with over 91 million residents — for comparison’s sake, that’s more than 10 million more people than Germany, Europe’s most populous country. West Bengal is part of a historical region that shares a common Bengali language and culture, though plenty of the state’s residents speak English, Hindi and even Urdu or Santhali. Home to empires before the British ever set foot on the Indian subcontinent, the Bengali city of Kolkata (previously Calcutta) was the capital of the British empire in India.
Bengal, like the rest of India, was divided as a result of Partition in 1947. The eastern half became East Pakistan and, after a bloody war for independence, in 1971, the sovereign nation of Bangladesh. Both halves of the region have suffered economically in the post-independence era and West Bengal, in particular, has dealt with the influx of migrants from Bangladesh. For decades, the two countries share a complicated system of enclaves and counter-enclaves and even, in one case, a counter-counter enclave (an Indian area within a Bengladeshi subenclave within an Indian enclave within the borders of Bangladesh). A land-swap agreement signed between the Indian and Bangladeshi governments in May 2015, however, attempted a deal that could, for the first time, reduce the difficulties of everyday life for the 50,000 or so Indians and Bangladeshis formerly living in the enclaves.
Economically, West Bengal is chiefly in line with the rest of India — with just slightly below-average income — and state per-capita GDP is higher than in neighboring Uttar Pradesh and Bihar. That doesn’t mean that West Bengal doesn’t have its own problems with development.
Demographically, West Bengal has a much higher proportion of Muslims than the rest of India (around 27%), and it’s a bloc of voters that Banerjee has tried to rally with some success, despite their historical preference for the Left Front’s communists. Banerjee’s supporters also include a large (and poor) rural population, which explains part of her focus on rural development and health programs, but also why she’s portrayed herself consistently as a champion of the poor.
If, as predicted, Banerjee holds onto power, she might become the only chief minister to win reelection, with polls showing not only that India’s communists will oust Congress in Kerala, but that the BJP will win in Assam and the surprise of a tighter-than-expected race in Tamil Nadu between two regional parties. That means Banerjee will be a key player in the run-up to the next national election, which must be held before 2019 and, possibly, one of the top opposition figures to Modi’s BJP, among a plethora of regional leaders who have in recent years won power at the state level.