On 26 February, the Election Commission of India (EC), declared the polling dates for assembly elections in the states of West Bengal, Assam, Kerala, Tamil Nadu and the union territory of Puducherry.
The EC announced that while Kerala, Tamil Nadu and Puducherry will see their polling get over in a day or in one phase, Assam and West Bengal will have three and eight phases of elections, respectively.
The multi-phased elections in these two states have started a debate with some like West Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee insinuating that it may be "motivated". While that might always remain a conjecture, let’s see what impact the schedule could have on parties’ prospects in West Bengal and Assam.
Bengal: Districts Divided; 70% Polling After All Other State Elections
The eight-phased election in West Bengal immediately came under criticism by the ruling Trinamool Congress dispensation in the state which alleged that the multiple phases were instituted to make “gains” for “certain people”.
"Somewhere a question arises. Bihar has 240 seats. It had elections in 3 phases. Assam will have it in three phases. Tamil Nadu has 234 seats, one day election. Kerala, one day election. Bengal has 294 seats, why are elections here in eight phases? To make gains for whom?”, asked West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee.
Of the 23 districts in the state, 10 districts are voting in two separate phases, while one district- the South 24 Parganas, with 31 Assembly constituencies, is voting in three phases.
The first two phases of the elections, to be held on 27 March and 1 April respectively, start the poll battle in the Jangalmahal area, in the districts of Jhargram, Bankura, Purulia, East, Midnapore and West Midnapore. The BJP won big in these districts in the 2019 Lok Sabha elections.
Of the 7 Parliamentary constituencies in these districts, the BJP won five.
Of the 30 assemblies going to polls in the first phase, the BJP had a lead in 16, while the Trinamool had a lead in 10 in the Lok Sabha elections. However in 4 of the assemblies, it was Sisir Adhikari, the father of Suvendu Adhikari, who was on the ballot for Trinamool. After Suvendu defected to the BJP from the TMC, talks are on that Sisir might too. This might possibly change the Trinamool’s fate in these seats. If the senior Adhikari defects to the BJP now, the TMC will have little time to make amends.
In the second phase, there are also four assemblies of the south 24 Parganas that are voting, apart from the Jangalmahal area. These are areas like Gosaba, Kakdwip, Sagar and Patharpratima, which saw massive destruction during Cyclone Amphan in May 2020, and subsequently also complained of relief reaching late, or not at all. However, the Trinamool was ahead in all four assemblies in 2019.
Also one among the 30 assemblies going to polls in this phase in Nandigram, the seat which Trinamool supremo and incumbent Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee has said she will contest. Pollsters say that Mamata getting done with her election in the second phase may help the BJP as the “buzz” of her seat and nomination will die down.
The third and fourth phases will see the battleground districts of Hooghly and Howrah go to polls. Of the seven assemblies in Howrah that are going to polls in the third phase, on 6 April, all seven had TMC leading in 2019. Out of the eight seats going to polls in Hooghly, the TMC had leads in six.
The third phase of the West Bengal polls – 6 April – is also when polls in all other states end. At this time, West Bengal, however, would have only polled in only 91 out of its 294 seats. There would still be 23 days left for the last phase in the state to end.
Critics in the state have pointed out that this will give “national” leaders of the BJP the opportunity to camp in Bengal till the end of the elections, with no other election to worry about. It is also important to note that all the assemblies where the Matua vote is important – in South 24 Parganas, North 24 Parganas, and Nadia, polling takes place after the Assam elections are over. For the BJP, this allows the opportunity to remain silent on the Citizenship Amendement Bill (CAA) in Assam while also using it as a poll plank in Bengal.
The districts of North Bengal go to polls from the fourth phase onwards. Here too, Alipurduar and Coochbehar, strongholds of the Rajbongshi group, vote in the fourth phase, while Darjeeling, Jalpaiguri and Kalimpong, vote in the subsequent fifth phase. The varying demographics and also electoral issues in these two parts of North Bengal is said to have been the reason behind this decision.
The fifth phase and sixth phase will see the North 24 Paraganas, Nadia and East Burdwan polling – areas where the BJP did not make much gains in 2019.
The last two phases – phases seven and eight – will see polls in districts where there’s a closely fought contest between the BJP and the TMC, with the TMC having a slight edge. The districts polling in these phases are Kolkata, Murshidabad and Birbhum. However, Malda, Dakshin Dinajpur and West Bardhaman are also polling in these two phases and the BJP did significantly well here in 2019. While the party won one out of two Parliamentary seats in Malda (losing the other in a close fight to the Congress), it won Dinajpur and West Bardhaman almost entirely.
Assam: BJP Strongholds In Early Phases; Weaker Seats In Latter
The election in Assam will take place in three phases - the first on 27 March, the second phase on 1 April and the third phase on 6 April.
Though the number of phases are less than the eight-phase Bengal election, there is a clear similarity between the two states.
Even in Assam, the BJP is the strongest in the areas voting in the first phase and the weakest in the areas that will vote in the last phase.
As many as 47 seats will vote in the first phase of polling, with the main focus being on Upper Assam.
In the 2019 Lok Sabha elections, the BJP and its allies were leading in 40 out of these 47 seats, which is about 85 percent.
Interestingly almost all of Prime Minister Narendra Modi's rallies in Assam in the past few months have been in this belt, in places like Dhekiajuli, Sibasagar and Dhemaji.
The second phase of polling will be in 39 seats, mainly concentrated in the Barak Valley in the southern part of Assam.
In the 2019 Lok Sabha polls, BJP and allies had led in 27 of these 39 segments, which is about 68 percent.
The third phase of polling - on 6 April - is in the Lower Assam region where BJP is at its weakest. In the 2019 Lok Sabha polls, the BJP and its present allies had led in 18 out of 40 segments, which is 45 percent.
Since then, there has been a change in alliances with the BJP breaking its ties with the Bodoland People's Front. It has now formed an alliance with the UPPL and the Gana Suraksha Party of Kokrajhar MP Naba Kumar Sarania, while the BPF has joined the Congress-led alliance.
These 18 seats discussed above don't include the seats BPF led in but include the segments where Sarania was in the lead.
The areas going to the polls in the second and third phases - Barak Valley and Lower Assam - is also where the influence of the Congress-AIUDF alliance is the maximum and they are likely to gain due to the consolidation of votes.
The election schedule may end up inadvertently helping the BJP. Upper Assam is where the party expects to get the highest number of seats and so far it is facing less of a challenge here compared to Lower Assam, Barak Valley and the Bodoland Territorial Council areas.
As elections there are barely in a months time, the Congress will get less time to close the gap with the BJP in Upper Assam. In the other two areas it has already made significant progress due to its alliance with AIUDF.
The schedule is even more harmful for the new political outfits like the Assam Jatiya Parishad and Raijor Dal whose main area of influence is Upper Assam.
In a very short period of time, they would have to establish their presence, raise funds, get a symbol and propagate it, figure out candidates, and so on.
With just about a month to go, they will have their task cut out.
Opinion is divided among pollsters on whether the scheduling of elections can work in favour of or against a particular political party.
One argument that has often been made, especially in the case of states like Uttar Pradesh, is that the party that's winning gains momentum as the phases progress.
On the other hand, there's another viewpoint that scheduling isn't of much importance as the base of competing parties and their respective narratives remain the same, irrespective of the schedule.
We'll know on 2 May.
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