The campaigning for Phase 2 of Bengal elections ended on March 30. Polling will be held for 30 seats on April 1. With this phase, 20% of the seats of Bengal would have been done with their voting and the fate of the candidates sealed in ballot boxes.
The Congress’s big guns, the Gandhis, have, however, been conspicuous by their absence in Bengal. They have not yet campaigned. While Priyanka has been holding fort in Assam, Rahul has been spearheading the campaign in Kerala.
Rahul has also conducted rallies in Tamil Nadu but they have given Bengal a skip.
The Congress party is contesting 91 seats, in alliance with the Left parties and the Indian Secular Front. The front, called Sanyukta Morcha, is headed by the CPM. The Congress party’s campaign in the state is being handled by Member of Parliament and ex-leader of Opposition in Lok Sabha, Adhir Ranjan Chowdhury.
So what are the reasons for which the Gandhi siblings have not campaigned in Bengal yet?
1. No real chance in Bengal
The Congress party is contesting less than one-third of the Assembly seats in Bengal. It is the junior partner in the alliance with the Left. The contest in Bengal has largely turned bipolar, with the Trinamool Congress and the Bharatiya Janata Party emerging as the main contenders, with the Sanyukta Morcha being relegated to third place.
Considering all this, the Gandhis feel they need to focus their efforts in Kerala (which displays a strong trend of voting out incumbent governments) and Assam (where it has formed a formidable alliance with the AIUDF and the Left parties). The BJP doesn’t have as great a record in defending state governments and the Congress hopes it has a chance given the anger against CAA in the state. Strategy-wise not a bad decision at all.
2. Giving Mamata a free run
The party doesn’t want to hurt the prospects of Mamata Banerjee’s TMC government. Mamata is facing a stiff contest from the BJP. At the national level, the BJP is a bigger enemy for the Congress than the TMC. It doesn’t want to be seen as helping BJP to win.
Anti-BJP regional forces are already miffed with the high-handedness of the Congress and Gandhis may not want to disturb their working relationships with regional satraps further.
The TMC had even called for all opposition parties to unite in Bengal to defeat communal forces which Congress state leadership had ridiculed. The Gandhis are essentially shying away from attacking Mamata whom they see as a future partner of grand alliance against the saffron party.
3. TMC and Congress have complementary vote blocks
Both TMC and Congress are competing for the Muslim vote in Bengal. Muslims account for 27% of the state population and can influence the outcome of as many as 102 seats. Congress had won 30 of these seats, two-third of its tally in 2016. 60% of Congress party voters and 40% of TMC voters come from the community.
In the 2019 general elections, the TMC had received 65% of community support, while the Congress had garnered 22% of support, as per India Today-Axis My India exit poll. The better the Congress does, the worse it could be for the TMC and consequently will help the BJP.
A split of votes in some of the seats could benefit BJP as we have seen in the minority dominated seats in the Hindi belt.
A case in point is the Maldah Uttar seat in Bengal. In 2019, split of Muslim votes helped BJP win this Muslim majority seat.
4. Seats where Congress has good prospects haven’t voted yet
The Congress party has traditionally been strong in the districts of Murshidabad, Malda, Dinajpur and some other regions of central and north Bengal. These seats have not voted yet. They are scheduled to go for polling in later phases, fourth phase onwards.
The Gandhis who would by then be free from Assam, Kerala and Tamil Nadu, as they would have concluded their voting on April 6. They would then be available for campaigning in Bengal. Strategy-wise not a bad decision to focus on strong areas.
5. Avoid embarrassment of alliance with Left
The party has teamed up with the Left Front in Bengal, However, in Kerala, the party is competing against the same Left front. Rahul Gandhi is constantly attacking Kerala’s Left Democratic Front Chief Minister, Pinayari Vijayan, for being involved in corruption cases, lack of development in the state and not fulfilment of promises.
He can’t be seen on stage with CPM leaders in Bengal and opposing the same CPM government in Kerala. This could dilute Congress party’s chances in Kerala where it has the best chance to win. The voters could be confused and the cadre demotivated. This would expose the party's double standards and give ammunition to the BJP to target the party.
The eight-phase polls in Bengal have come as a boon for the Congress as it helps the party to hide its doublespeak and avoid embarrassment.
The party’s alliance with a Muslim cleric’s party, India Secular Front, also puts the national leadership in a tight spot. The G-23 leaders have opposed this partnership.
Gandhis who claim to be the torch bearers of secularism can’t risk being branded as advocating communalism.
To sum up, a host of factors ranging from strategic to tactical to operational are responsible for the Gandhis skipping campaigning in Bengal till date.
We could see them in action from the fourth phase onwards.