The 2021 West Bengal Assembly Elections had everyone waiting with bated breath for the results. Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), All India Trinamool Congress (AITC), and the Left-Congress-Indian Secular Front (ISF) alliance, Sanjukta Morcha were the primary contending political parties. AITC has been the ruling dispensation for the last 10 years, while BJP emerged as one of the major players when they bagged 18 out of the 42 parliamentary seats in the last 2019 General Elections. Meanwhile the Left Front had been ruling the state for three decades before losing to AITC.
BJP with its promise of a ‘double engine ka sarkaar’ had left no stone unturned to rally and campaign for votes in the 2021 elections. However, all these efforts fell short as AITC got re-elected with a thumping majority. AITC managed to secure 213 seats with 48 percent vote share while BJP secured 77 seats with a 37 percent vote share, and the Sanjukta Morcha jointly managed to bag 1 seat.1 Ground reports and exit polls had failed to predict this massive victory for AITC.
This piece analyses the “incumbent” variable from the Lok Dhaba: Indian Elections Dataset (TCPD-IED) dataset2 for the state of West Bengal, ranging from the year 2001 to 2021. The ‘incumbent’ variable indicates whether a candidate is a sitting member of the House at the time of the election.3 The article then goes on to discuss the reason for such a high winning rate of incumbents in 2021.
High Proportion of Incumbents Elected in the Last 20 Years
The West Bengal 2021 election results left everyone dumbfounded since it categorically proved all exit polls wrong.4 The predictions had envisaged a tight win for AITC with BJP coming as a close second. However, AITC managed to retain power with almost two-third majority.5 This begs to question whether the opposition parties banked too much on anti-incumbency sentiments.
Experts suggest that anti-incumbency prevailed but against the ruling government at the Centre and not the state.6 The long drawn eight phases of the election in 2021, came at the backdrop of the migrant exodus, COVID-19 mishandling which had led to a bitter feeling towards the BJP.7
TCPD-IED data shows that the voters of Bengal are historically more tolerant and generally vote for the incumbent government. Figure 1 captures that from 2001 to 2021 the percentage of incumbents re-elected are quite high, except in 2011 where the re-elected incumbents stood at 22 percent of the total seats. However, that can be easily explained since that is the year when the Left Front rule in Bengal finally ended after 34 years, paving the way for AITC.
Incumbent Data Through the Ruling Party’s Lens
Now, looking at the party-wise incumbent data, it can be stated that the incumbents from the ruling government get a preference. West Bengal Assembly has a total of 294 seats where the magic number is 148. Figure 2 shows that between 2001 and 2021, the highest number of incumbents elected were in 2016 – 180 , of which 145 , i.e., 80 percent, were from the ruling party, AITC. This means that the magic number was almost reached with only AITC incumbents. Even during the Left rule in 2001 and 2006, 58 percent and 56 percent of the incumbents elected were from the Left Front. In 2021, 95 percent of incumbents elected were from AITC. So, not only do incumbents get re-elected, the ruling party incumbents are generally preferred.
In this it should be noted that the total percentage of incumbents elected in the last election had fallen from 61 percent in 2016 to 40 percent. This is clearly because of the 77 seats that the BJP have managed to win, which has been a significant increase from the mere 3 seats that they had managed to capture in 2016. Figure 1 also captures the trend which showed the decline in percentage of incumbents elected from 56 to 50 right before the Left Front lost in 2011. Looking at the declining trend does this then mean that we are at the fag end of the AITC rule in West Bengal? Will the welfare policies that AITC is banking on now be too little too late?
Figure 2. Incumbents from the ruling party form a majority percentage of the winning incumbents
One of the major reasons for AITC’s victory can be attributed to the party gaining some lost ground over BJP in the state. The ruling party in the state appeared to have retrieved some of the Dalit and Adivasi vote share that they had lost in 2019, even though, the difference in vote share between AITC and BJP is the least within reserved categories. There are 68 reserved Scheduled Caste (SC) seats among which AITC won 36 and BJP 32. Among the 16 reserved Scheduled Tribe (ST) seats, AITC bagged 9 while BJP won 7. Other than this, 12 SC Members of Legislative Assembly (MLAs) had managed to win from unreserved seats and 8 out of the 12 are from AITC. Trinamool Congress had also emerged as a popular choice among women from poor and low income families. The only category of women that voted more for BJP than AITC were upper class women.8
The other question that emerged was despite the Opposition pushing the agenda for corruption and ‘cut-money’ to overthrow AITC, did this chord not strike well with the voters? The Lokniti CSDS post-poll survey indicates that development and unemployment were much larger issues than corruption, even though main stream media seemed to suggest otherwise.9 Only 2 percent of the 4200 respondents stated that corruption has been a motivating reason behind their vote while 33 percent quoted development as a primary reason. As a result, over 43 percent of the voters who considered AITC to be ‘somewhat corrupt’ voted for the incumbent irrespective.
It appears that the voters’ preference for the incumbent government in West Bengal in the latest Assembly election was mostly due to two reasons. Firstly, the voters’ anti-incumbency sentiment towards the Centre (BJP government) on the backdrop of mismanagement due to COVID and secondly the pro-development sentiment towards AITC. The pro-development sentiment was further fuelled when AITC during the end of their last term worked on a slew of developmental policies like Swasthya Sathi (subsidised health care), Lakshmir Bhandhar (conditional cash transfer for women), etc. As a result of this, 95 percent of AITC incumbents were re-elected, even though a lot of the voters considered AITC to be corrupt, they still voted for them.
About the Author
Poulomi has been working with TCPD since May 2022. She completed her post graduation in Economics from BHU and has previously worked in the pubic policy space in Rajasthan, Gujarat and West Bengal.
I would like to thank Maleeha Fatima for her suggestions and the entire team at TCPD for their sustained efforts in compiling comprehensive datasets on candidates and political parties.
- “West Bengal Election Results HIGHLIGHTS: Mamata Banerjee steamrolls BJP”, CNBC TV 18, accessible at https://www.cnbctv18.com/politics/west-bengal-assembly-election-results-2021-live-updates-vote-counting-mamata-tmc-bjp-congress-cpm-eci-covid-exit-polls-news-9154651.htm
- TCPD-IED, “TCPD Indian Elections Data v2.0″, Trivedi Centre for Political Data, Ashoka University.
- “TCPD Indian Election Data Codebook v2.0″, Trivedi Centre for Political Data, Ashoka University
- “West Bengal Exit Poll results: TMC walks tightrope; huge gain for BJP”, Business Standard, accessible at https://www.business-standard.com/article/elections/west-bengal-exit-poll-2021-live-updates-mamata-tmc-over-bjp-congress-cpim-bengal-election-result-highlights-modi-121042900115_1.html
- West Bengal General Legislative Election 2021 (Including AC 56 & 58) Results, Election Commission of India, accessible at https://eci.gov.in/files/file/14106-west-bengal-general-legislative-election-2021-including-ac-56-58/
- Varghese K. George, “The alchemy of anti-incumbency”, The Hindu, 2021 accessible at https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/lead/the-alchemy-of-anti-incumbency/article34247969.ece
- Prasenjit Bose, “West Bengal’s Verdict in 2021”, The India Forum, accessible at https://www.theindiaforum.in/article/west-bengals-verdict-2021
- Sanjay Kumar, “West Bengal Assembly Elections | Women rally behind Trinamool”, The Hindu CSDS- Lokniti Post-Poll Survey, 2021 accessible at https://www.thehindu.com/elections/west-bengal-assembly/women-rally-behind-trinamool-finds-csds-lokniti-survey/article34494083.ece
- Shreyas Sardesai, “West Bengal Assembly Elections | Development mattered most, not corruption”, The Hindu CSDS- Lokniti Post-Poll Survey, 2021 accessible at https://www.thehindu.com/elections/west-bengal-assembly/csds-lokniti-survey-development-mattered-most-not-corruption/article34493110.ece
This article belongs to the author and is independent of the views of the Centre.