Why predicting the Bengal outcome in Lok Sabha Polls 2024 is difficult

Equations change from constituency to constituency, depending on a range of factors. And then there is the silent voter. A look at how the odds are stacked across the state.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi and West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee. It is a no-holds barred fight this time around.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi and West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee. It is a no-holds barred fight this time around.(File Photo | PTI)

Amit Shah doesn't have an iota of a doubt. He believes the BJP will win 30 seats in the West Bengal Lok Sabha elections, an assertion he has made repeatedly including in his interview to The New Indian Express. Oh to have the certitude of India's home minister!

Of the 42 Lok Sabha seats in Bengal, the state with the third-highest number of parliamentary seats after Uttar Pradesh and Maharashtra, only a handful have remained out of public discussions in the 2024 Lok Sabha election with the contests there being perceived as "too one-sided".

They include Darjeeling and Alipurduar in the northern part of the state, in which Prime Minister Narendra Modi's Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is considered to have a clear edge over its rivals, and Jangipur in Murshidabad of central Bengal and Diamond Harbour and Kolkata South of southern Bengal, which are considered the strongholds of Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee's Trinamool Congress (TMC).

All other seats have drawn public interest in varying degrees, as a lot has changed in the Bengal political landscape since the last Lok Sabha election.

Northern equations

On paper, Cooch Behar appears to be a safe seat for the BJP.

In 2019, when many Cooch Behar residents were livid with frequent political clashes between warring factions of the TMC, expelled TMC youth wing leader Nishith Pramanik contested on a BJP ticket and defeated the TMC's incumbent by 54,231 votes.

The BJP strengthened its position in the 2021 assembly election when its lead over the TMC in the seven assembly segments forming the Lok Sabha seat stood at 76,880 votes. In July 2021, Pramanik was rewarded with a ministerial berth, that of a junior minister in the Amit Shah-led home ministry.

However, despite Pramanik's elevation, the BJP lost the November 2021 assembly by-election in Dinhata, Pramanik's home constituency, by a margin of 1.64 lakh votes. Since then, a cold tension has prevailed over the district, bursting out in political violence at intervals. The TMC, meanwhile, has checked its factional conflict.

The BJP won the Jalpaiguri seat with a big margin of 1.84 lakh votes in 2019 but the 2021 assembly election results put the BJP only 12,000 votes ahead of the TMC. Besides, the TMC wrested one of the assembly seats from the BJP in the 2023 by-election and hopes to draw more votes as they have kept their promise of elevating Dhupguri town into a sub-divisional headquarters.

In both these seats, the BJP in 2019 gained from a consolidation of the influential Rajbanshi community's votes in its favour. This time, the TMC believes a section of the community is disenchanted with the BJP.

In 2019, the BJP's political greenhorn Sukanta Majumdar wrested the Balurghat Lok Sabha from the TMC by 33,293 votes. However, in the 2021 assembly election, the TMC had a lead of 88,920 votes over the BJP.

If the TMC appeared to have regained ground, what seemed to be working in the BJP's favour is that Majumdar has since September 2021 become the president of the BJP's Bengal unit. It's a rare achievement for a leader from northern Bengal to head a major party's state unit.

The ‘Muslim Belt’

There are six Lok Sabha seats in the three Muslim-majority districts of northern-central Bengal – Uttar Dinajpur, Malda and Murshidabad. In 2019, the BJP won Raiganj and Malda Uttar in four-cornered contests, while the Congress won Malda Dakshin and Baharampur and the TMC won Jangipur and Murshidabad.

This time, except for Jangipur where the TMC is being seen as the favourite, five others are expected to see close three-cornered contests between the TMC, BJP and the Left-Congress alliance.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi and West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee. It is a no-holds barred fight this time around.
3 parties combine to make Bengal a bipolar contest

In Nadia district of south Bengal, expelled Lok Sabha MP Mahua Moitra's Krishnanagar has become a prestige seat with the TMC renominating her and the BJP going all guns blazing to defeat the outspoken TMC leader. Moitra won the seat by a margin of 63,218 votes but the TMC's lead over the BJP in the 2021 assembly election stood at nearly 1.4 lakh.

However, the 2023 panchayat election indicated the CPI(M) regained some votes it had lost to the BJP and the TMC. A three-cornered fight with a prominent CPI(M) leader in the fray has turned the contest interesting.

Pulse of Polarisation

The BJP won the other seat of the district, Ranaghat Lok Sabha, with a massive margin of 2.33 lakh votes, riding an overwhelming consolidation of the Matuas, a Scheduled Caste refugee community from Bangladesh who hold the key in Ranaghat and its neighbouring Bangaon Lok Sabha. The BJP's winning margin in Bangaon, which is in North 24-Parganas district, was 1.11 lakh votes.

A majority of the Matuas support two of the BJP's major political planks – a citizenship screening exercise to "weed out" illegal infiltrators (read Muslims) and full-proof citizenship to Hindu refugees.

The BJP held both these bastions in the 2021 assembly election, winning 12 of the 14 assembly seats within these two Lok Sabha seats, though their lead over the TMC reduced to 1 lakh votes in Ranaghat and 14,468 votes in Bangaon.

This time, while the BJP is hopeful of a 2019-like consolidation of Matua votes in their favour, the TMC expects to eat into their Matua support base. In both seats, the TMC candidates are turncoat BJP MLAs from the Matua community.

TMC believes the complicated procedure of the recently notified Rules of the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) has upset many Matuas. The question is, is such disappointment cause enough for them to vote against the BJP?

Past electoral equations keep the TMC ahead of the others in Bangaon's neighbouring Basirhat Lok Sabha, where Muslims form 46% of the population. TMC won the seat by a margin of 3.5 lakh votes in 2019 and its lead in 2021 was 3.71 lakh votes.

The constituency shot to prominence recently as Sandeshkhali, which hogged the headlines due to anti-TMC mass agitation, is a part of it.

While the BJP tried to polarise voters by citing alleged TMC atrocities in Sandeshkhali, especially on women, a string of sting operation video and audio recordings released by the TMC have created confusion among a section of voters about the veracity of the BJP's claims.

Meanwhile, the Left-Congress alliance candidate, CPI(M)'s former Sandeshkhali MLA, is trying hard to cash in on anti-TMC sentiments over local corruption and high-handedness.

Heartland Vibes

Barasat in North 24-Parganas is a Lok Sabha seat less talked about, as it is considered a safe seat for the TMC. In 2019, the TMC won it by a margin of 1.1 lakh votes and its 2021 assembly election lead was 1.96 lakh votes.

While the opposition appears organisationally weak, the BJP believes the incumbent's three consecutive terms spanning 15 years have developed a certain level of anti-incumbency.

Barrackpore in the same district is one of the most keenly watched seats.

In 2019, TMC MLA Arjun Singh contested on a BJP ticket and wrested the Lok Sabha from the TMC by 14,857 votes. However, TMC in 2021 had a lead of 97,800 votes, having won six of seven assembly seats.

Singh switched back to the TMC in 2021 but rejoined the BJP ahead of the 2024 Lok Sabha election after the TMC refused him the ticket. He got the BJP ticket again to fight TMC minister Partha Bhowmik and political observers are curious to see if Singh holds the same clout as he held five years ago.

In Kolkata and its neighbourhood, the Kolkata Uttar seat has drawn everybody's attention, as disgruntled TMC veteran and former minister Tapas Roy is contesting on a BJP ticket against the TMC incumbent Sudip Bandyopadhyay, another TMC veteran who served as the party's leader in the outgoing Lok Sabha. Even TMC leaders privately agree that Roy is a formidable candidate who can give Bandyopadhyay a run for his money.

In Howrah district, where the BJP does not have a single MLA, the TMC appears to have an edge in both the seats they currently hold – Howrah and Uluberia – though the BJP is confident that the Howrah contest would be close.

Of the four seats in the South 24-Parganas district – all held by the TMC – the ruling party is seen as a clear favourite in party general secretary Abhishek Banerjee's Diamond Harbour.

Of the two seats covering the Sundarbans region, the TMC appears to have an edge in Jaynagar.

In Mathurapur, the equations on paper place the TMC as the favourite but the BJP hopes to gain from communal polarisation that they say has quietly developed over the past couple of years.

Jadavpur in South 24-Parganas, Sreerampur in Hooghly and Dumdum in North 24 Parganas districts – all in Kolkata's outskirts - are expected to see three-cornered contests between the TMC, BJP and the Left-Congress alliance, though the TMC is perceived to have a slight edge.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi and West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee. It is a no-holds barred fight this time around.
Jadavpur joust is on a razor’s edge

The Rice Belt

However, in BJP-held Hooghly and TMC-held Arambag, the equations on the ground have significantly changed in the last five years, which is why many are considering the TMC to be a favourite in Hooghly this time and the BJP in Arambag. Locals are expecting close contests in both seats.

Contests in both seats in Purba Bardhaman district – the BJP-held Bardhaman-Durgapur and the TMC-held Bardhaman Purba – are expected to be close, in which the vote share of the Left-Congress alliance candidate can play a crucial role.

The Left-Congress combined vote in the 2023 panchayat election was higher than the BJP's in both these seats.

The BJP, though, hopes that their Lok Sabha candidates are stronger than the Left's in these seats and most of those who voted for the Left in the panchayat election will switch back to the BJP.

Western Winds

Asansol Lok Sabha in Paschim Bardhaman district is also a hot topic of discussions. The BJP won it in 2014 and 2019 but the TMC gained a lead over the BJP in seats here in the 2021 assembly election.

After the BJP's incumbent, Babul Supriyo, resigned and joined the TMC, Mamata Banerjee's party wrested the Lok Sabha in a by-election. Now, it's a battle of two heavyweights, the TMC's incumbent, Shatrughan Sinha and the BJP's Surinder Singh Ahluwalia.

Of the two seats in the Birbhum district – the TMC-held Birbhum and Bolpur – the TMC appears to be in an advantageous position in both due to the organisational weakness of the opposition.

The Birbhum contest, however, can get closer due to communal polarisation on the one hand and the presence of the Left-Congress alliance candidate on the other.

In the state's southwestern region called Jangalmahal, the TMC appears to have gained some ground in Jhargram and Bankura Lok Sabha, which it lost to the BJP in 2019.

On paper, the BJP remains favourite in Bishnupur and Purulia Lok Sabhas, which they won by margins of 78,000 votes and 2 lakh votes, respectively. In the assembly election, the TMC narrowed the gap.

Now, in Bishnupur, the TMC has fielded the BJP incumbent's estranged wife, Sujata Mandal, who had in fact led her husband's campaign in 2019. At that time, Khan's entry into most of his Lok Sabha constituency was restrained by a high court order related to a criminal case and Mandal took charge of the campaign.

In Purulia, a four-cornered contest has turned the election into a likely close one. The TMC's candidate is a former minister, the Left-Congress alliance candidate is a veteran Congress leader, and in the fray is an independent candidate who enjoys some popularity for his fight for Scheduled Tribe status for the Kudmi-Mahato community, which dominates Purulia's demography.

Prestige Fights

The contest in the BJP-held Kanthi, Tamluk and Medinipur and the TMC-held Ghatal seats in East and West Midnapore districts are expected to be sharp bipolar ones between the TMC and the BJP, in which the Left-Congress alliance candidates may not have much of a role to play.

Kanthi and Tamluk are prestige seats for both parties, as they have been held by the Adhikari family since 2009 but the family changed allegiance from the TMC to the BJP in 2020. The family's Suvendu Adhikari is the current Leader of the Opposition in the state assembly.

Going by the assembly election trends, the TMC was ahead of the BJP by 21 votes in Tamluk and the BJP had a lead of 29,154 votes in Kanthi.

What makes guessing Bengal electoral outcomes more difficult is that the perceptions of electoral possibilities are based on the opinions of voters who spoke their minds. But this time, there are a huge number of silent voters. So, we can only wait for June 4 to get the exact picture.

Snigdhendu Bhattacharya is an independent reporter based in Kolkata and author of Mission Bengal: A Saffron Experiment and Lalgarh and the Legend of Kishanji.

(Views are personal.)

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