By Shibashis Chatterjee and Sumit Ganguly
The West Bengal election results have demonstrated that despite the battering rams that BJP brought to bear against the Trinamool Congress fortress, the edifice, though a bit pockmarked, still stands strong. Its ability to withstand the concerted attacks from BJP requires some explanation, because TMC under CM Mamata Banerjee had entered this election sandbagged with weighty problems.
At the outset, after a decade in office, it faced the threat of anti-incumbency. Under her watch the state hasn’t clocked significant economic growth. In fact, during her second term in office the state saw an average growth rate of 5.5% against a national average of 7.1%.
Despite lagging behind the higher national growth rate, TMC pursued a range of welfare schemes that offset the shortcomings of a less-than-stellar economic performance. Specifically, it targeted such sectors as the rural economy, agriculture and education. In 2019 it announced the Krishak Bandhu scheme which provided 7.2 million farmers and sharecroppers an annual subsidy of Rs 5,000. It also provided the state’s poor free electricity and under the Karma Sathi Prakalpa initiative it offered loans up to Rs 2,00,000 to promote entrepreneurship amongst unemployed youth. These measures, no doubt, redounded to TMC’s advantage, probably assuaging anti-incumbency sentiments.
A host of other factors also worked in its favour. Despite the Modi-Shah combine’s vigorous campaign rallies in the state, they couldn’t offer a viable CM candidate. On the other hand Mamata, her imperious manner notwithstanding, was seen as a reasonable prospect for the position. More to the point, in all likelihood, she commanded the trust of women voters who can identify with her.
It’s also reasonable to surmise she managed to corner the bulk of the Muslim vote in the state. To begin with, it’s known that 65% of the Muslim electorate had voted TMC in the 2019 Lok Sabha elections. Given that this indicated a predisposition of the community to support TMC, the highly polarised election campaign that BJP unleashed, without a doubt, alienated Muslim voters.
Muslim voters seeing few meaningful alternatives, in all probability, closed ranks behind TMC. The same cannot be said about their Hindu counterparts. BJP, in this campaign, unleashed a relentless effort to forge a Hindu monolith in Bengal. However, it failed to recognise that Hindus remain divided along lines of class, ideology and sect. BJP had sought to cobble a coalition of lower castes, high castes and tribals, relying on fanning anti-Muslim hysteria. This effort may have appealed to a segment of the Hindu population but didn’t have sufficient resonance with the entire community in the state.
In a related vein, Mamata also deftly played the regional, nativist card. Declaring Amit Shah to be a “bahari” (outsider) she successfully tapped into Bengali regional pride and the state’s distinctive identity. Shah, despite his attempts to counter this charge could not overcome the hurdles of language, cultural iconography and the suggestion that the BJP is really a north Indian party.
These issues, combined with the state’s long-standing unease with a range of central governments, give reason to believe that the allegation resonated with voters who have long believed that the state has been treated as a stepchild. Organisational muscle at the grassroots level, without question, also played a significant role in shaping the outcome of the election.
In this context, TMC’s decision to recruit Prashant Kishor and his Indian Political Action Committee proved to be a significant asset in this election. He not only helped ease out corrupt and haughty TMC notables but also helped to regenerate local governance programmes including “Duare Sarkar” (government at the doorstep). The success of these efforts undercut one of BJP’s key messages, which had sought to highlight TMC’s lacklustre economic performance and its failure to attract substantial new investment into the state.
Finally, because of its tragic consequences, the second wave of the Covid-19 pandemic worked to BJP’s disadvantage. For all its bluster, the state-level BJP leadership failed to proffer any credible explanations for the failure of the national government to stave off this calamity. For a party that had long touted its record of effective governance, its abject failure to cope with the effects of the pandemic severely dented its image.
Despite her loss in her home constituency of Nandigram, to Suvendu Adhikari, who had recently broken ranks with the TMC and had joined the BJP, Mamata has stopped the seemingly inexorable onward march of the BJP juggernaut in Bengal. She had asked for a recount. However, even if the Nandigram verdict stands, given her pivotal position in the party she will, no doubt, remain its éminence grise.
Consequently, the party will serve as a bulwark against BJP’s goal of extending its reach across eastern India. Given the material, organisational and other resources that BJP had poured into the state during the campaign, its loss, along with the adverse results in Kerala and Tamil Nadu, must give its leadership some pause. How it chooses – in the wake of its substantial electoral losses – to recalibrate its future electoral strategies, not to mention its grand ideological agenda, will bear watching.
Shibashis Chatterjee is Professor of International Relations and Governance, Shiv Nadar University. Sumit Ganguly is Distinguished Professor of Political Science at Indiana University, Bloomington
Views expressed above are the author’s own.
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