Barely six months after its record success in West Bengal in the Lok Sabha elections where it won 18 seats, has the BJP been trounced by the Trinamool Congress (TMC) in the recent Assembly by-elections. The by-elections were held in Kharagpur Sadar, Kaliaganj and Karimpur Assembly constituencies. TMC bagged all three seats. Trinamool had not so far won Kaliaganj and Kharagpur Sadar. In 2016, the BJP had won Kharagpur Sadar and Congress the Kaliaganj several factors contributed to the BJP’s defeat in the by-polls, but it was chiefly the BJP leadership’s constant harping on conducting the NRC exercise in Bengal. Home Minister Amit Shah’s announcement that NRC will be conducted across the country has put the Bengal BJP in a spot. The state BJP explained away the by-poll results as due to the TMC’s “misleading campaign” over NRC. The party’s Kaliaganj candidate Kamal Chandra Sarkar admitted that it was confusion over NRC that had led to the party’s Karimpur and Kaliaganj have substantial numbers of minority and refugee Hindu voters. The BJP’s lack of proper leadership in the state played a key role in its defeat. The by-polls were a test for the state BJP leadership as this was the first major election they had to handle without the presence of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Home Minister Amit Shah. The Bengal BJP leaders proved to be no match for the TMC supremo in terms of political stature, leadership skill and electoral strategy. Despite the earlier setbacks in Assembly elections in other states, it seems that the Bengal BJP leadership fails to understand that Assembly elections are contested on state-specific issues and cannot always be won by heaping praise on Modi. The state BJP leadership is yet to produce a credible face of the party who can match the TMC supremo.
Another reason for the BJP’s performance seems to be that unlike in the Lok Sabha elections, large portions of the Left Front’s votes, and to some extent Congress’ votes, did not go to the saffron party. Instead, they went to TMC. A comparison between the performance of the Left-Congress alliance in the by-elections and in the 2016 Assembly elections in the three constituencies makes it evident. Compared to the 2016 Assembly elections, Congress’ vote share in Kharagpur Sadar fell from 35.80 per cent to 14.8 per cent in the by-elections. As for Kaliaganj, Congress’ vote share fell from 53.46 per cent in 2016 to 8.64 per cent in the by-elections. Congress candidates in these two constituencies were supported by the Left Front. In Karimpur, where CPI(M) contested with Congress’ support in the last Assembly elections, the CPI(M)’s vote share came down from 37.56 per cent to 9.09 per cent.
The TMC’s vote share in Kharagpur Sadar increased from 22.13 per cent in the 2016 Assembly elections to 47.66 per cent in the by-elections. In Kaliaganj, it shot up from 31.39 per cent in 2016 to 44.65 per cent now. The TMC also recorded an increase in vote share in Karimpur in the by-elections. When TMC won the seat in the last Assembly elections, it had a vote share of 45.57 per cent. It went up to 50.43 per cent in the by-elections.