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Mainstream, VOL LIX No 21, New Delhi, May 8, 2021

West Bengal Assembly Election results: Mamata Banerjee reconquers Bengal | PS Jayaramu

Saturday 8 May 2021

by P S Jayaramu

The historic West Bengal Assembly results were out a few days ago. In the high octane elections, the Trinamool Congress under the leadership of Mamata Banerjee registered an emphatic win, surpassing its 2016 record. In a way Mamata Banerjee has reconquered Bengal . Her coming back to power for the third time will doubtless be the subject of analysis for sometime to come in academic and media circles. An attempt is made here to analyse the election results from the perspective of the two main contenders for power, the TMC and the BJP, with the Congress Party and the Left, which ruled West Bengal for six decades, drawing a blank for the first time in the elections.

By all accounts it was a high octane electoral contest with the BJP’s mission of capturing power in the State . The BJP campaign was led by Prime Minister Modi and Home Minister Amit Shah, both undertaking countless number of visits to Bengal, (not to mention the battery of ministers who were also involved in campaigning) with Mamata Banerjee describing them as daily passengers to the State. The BJP used its massive organisational strength, money power and its cadre which is steadily growing in the State. The BJP campaign was reported in a big way by the corporate media, specially the electronic media, which covered almost every election rally addressed by the Modi-Shah duo. In comparison, the TMC campaign was single handedly carried out by its supremo Ms. Banerjee. The resources available to the TMC were far less in comparison to that of the BJP.

Any analysis of the West Bengal polls has to cover the following issues. At a fundamental level, it needs to be recognised that the ‘Poribartan’ (Change) and ‘Sonar Bangla’ slogan of the BJP did not resonate with the voters. The discernible Bengali voter knows that the changes they want can be brought about by the TMC within the overarching framework of Bengali identity, embedded in its culture, language and the Bhadra Lok tradition which has manifested itself in the last decade. The BJP top leadership could not grasp this essential point, being carried away by the crowds which gathered for Modi’s election rallies. It is debatable whether the huge crowds were managed or the people in the rural side gathered on their own attracted by Modi’s oratorial skills. In any case the crowd presence did not translate itself into votes for the BJP.

The electoral battle was bipolar in character, going by the kind of polarisation that went with it, with the BJP appealing to the nearly 70 percent Hindu voters. It’s calculation was that the minority votes on which Mamata would depend would get divided with the Congress and the Left making it difficult for her to retain power. That of course did not work.

Additionally, the BJP leadership focussed on the issue of corruption at the rural level by the local chieftains, ‘cut money’ as they called it. But the election results have shown that corruption was a non issue in the elections, though many in the rural side feel that the benefits of welfare programmes did not reach them because of the corrupt practices of local leaders. This is an issue which Mamata Banerjee has to handle with a firm hand to ensure that the benefits of her welfare programmes reach the real beneficiaries.

Another factor which worked negatively for the BJP was its over dependence on the new entrants, described by some as political migrants to the Party from the TMC. The denial of tickets to many seniors and the sidelining of the State Party President Dilip Ghosh coupled with its refusal to name its chief ministerial candidate, a strategy which BJP normally follows, led to its voters moving away from the Party.

Factors leading to TMC’s resounding victory:

There are multiple factors which led to TMC’s extraordinary success at the polls. Firstly, Mamata Banerjee started her preparations for the election nearly an year ago ably assisted by her political strategist Prashant Kishor from ticket distribution to campaign strategy and slogans like ‘khela Hobe’. Mamata’s leadership and relentless campaign throughout the State in the wheel chair and the manner in which she struck her usual chord with the voters were important considerations in her success.

Secondly, Mamata Banerjee’s pragmatic approach to retain the minority votes in her favour capitalising on the religious polarisation unleashed by the BJP. Reports have it that a good percentage of the minority votes which were traditionally going to the Congress got transferred to the TMC this time round, born out of their apprehensions of BJP seizing power. It is worth noting that under Mamata’s rule, the minority community have benefitted in terms of education and employment. At the same time, Ms. Banerjee was conscious of the need for retaining the Hindu votes. She did it by reciting Chandi Paath, invoking Maa Durga and the fact of her being ‘Bengal ki Beti consummately. The Bengali identity factor and the support of the Bhadralok class went a long way in not only meeting the BJP challenge.

Thirdly the women voters stood by Mamata Banerjee for a variety of reasons. Firstly, they did not take kindly to the low level characterisation of Mamata Banerjee as ‘Didi O Didi’ by Prime Minister Modi. Didi, who enjoys the affection and support of women voters, rightly capitalised on it and projected it as an insult to the women of Bengal. Secondly and at a more substantial level, the women voters of Bengal are benefitted by Ms. Banerjee’s Kanya Shri programme which has contributed significantly to girls education.

Fourthly, towards the end of her electoral campaign, Mamata Banerjee skilfully used the situation emerging out of the rising Covid pandemic and its mismanagement by the Centre in the State in particular to her advantage. Her appeal to the Election Commission to club the last three phases of the elections were appreciated by the Bengali electorate, though the same was not accepted by the EC. It is now being reported that the additional phases actually benefitted the TMC in South Bengal. Mamata also used the lack of support by the Central Government in terms of vaccine delivery in its handling of the pandemic to her advantage.

Now that she has recaptured power for the third time, Mamata Banerjee would do well to focus her attention on the immediate task of managing the Covid pandemic on a war footing by not only utilising the internal resources but by appealing to the Central Government for the supply of vaccines, other crucial requirements and the requisite financial support. In the long run, she should focus her attention on introducing governance reforms to ensure optimum industrial development of the State as well as generate employment opportunities to the youth. Equally importantly, she should deal with a stern hand groups which have tarnished the image of the State by indulging in violence in the State at the earliest pretext.

Implications for national politics:

Mamata Banerjee’s reconquest of Bengal, will bring to the fore her appeal for a Third Front against the majoritarian one Party rule which the BJP is trying to foist on the nation. It would be unviable if such a Front were to ignore the Congress Party however decimated it is at this juncture. Many regional leaders like Sharad Pawar, Uddhav Thackeray, Arvind Kejriwal, have already responded positively to her call for Opposition Unity. Having emerged triumphant against the BJP, Mamata Banerjee should pursue the idea with political maturity and farsightedness. On their part, in the days to come, the Opposition leaders should set aside their egos and personal political ambitions and deliberate on how best to give shape to Mamata Banerjee’s proposal to take on the BJP juggernaut in 2024.

(Author: Dr. P. S. Jayaramu is former Professor of Political Science, Bangalore University.)

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