The 2021 West Bengal assembly polls have been a tussle for power between the centre and the state government. The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the Trinamool Congress (TMC) has had to fight it out till the last second for power in the state, and in the end it was the matriarch—the incumbent chief minister of the state, Mamata Banerjee—who emerged victorious by a landslide.
While the BJP had injected money and political and financial muscle in the election campaign, drawing massive media and PR coverage, the efforts seemed to have fallen short before the popularity of the incumbent among the grassroots population, including minorities.
And there are reasons why grassroots communities and minorities have given such strong backing to Mamata Banerjee. Her welfare schemes have played a major role in supporting the economic upliftment of the people of West Bengal. From schemes targeting women empowerment such as, Rupashree and Kanyashree that support them with grants for education and marriage, to allowances for elderly people and social security measures for the unemployed youth, Didi has a financial solution for every segment.
Even for the religious groups, the TMC government has allowances, despite facing backlash on occasions. They had been heavily criticised after announcing Rs 2,500 monthly allowance for Imams and Muazzins back in 2012, including from some of the Imams themselves, who said they cannot take money from other sources except for religious endowments. Thousands of Imams did, however, register for the allowance. Although the Kolkata High Court rejected the idea, the funds are now being channelled through the State Waqf Board.
Eight years down the line, in 2020, when the TMC-led government announced a similar allowance of Rs 1,000 for Hindu priests, the government had to face another round of criticism because the amount was lower than what the Muslim Imams are being given. The State Welfare Scheme for Purohits also supports some priests from other communities, including Christian, Buddhist, Parsi and Jain communities.
Despite occasional criticism, these welfare schemes seem to have boosted public support for the TMC government. Muslim votes and women votes in specific have significantly helped TMC's win in the assembly polls.
West Bengal has a population of around 30 percent Muslims, the majority of whom have cast their polls in favour of TMC. The Furfura Sharif shrine based-Indian Secular Front (ISF) and All India Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen (AIMIM) had joined hands with the Congress and CPI(M), but could not distract the Muslim vote bank of TMC.
And the state's strong pool of 3.7 crore women voters—forming about 49 percent of the votes—have also strongly backed Mamata Banerjee. And why not? Ever since coming to power in 2011, her party has taken up more than 200 female-centric social welfare projects, including employment and entrepreneurship opportunities, which have helped to empower women.
The ultra-Hindu nationalist narratives of the BJP have also failed to resonate with the secular Bengali nationalist spirit of the people of West Bengal. The state is historically known for its pluralistic characteristics, where the majority and minorities have coalesced together. BJP's ploy of "othering" and xenophobia certainly did not give the people the confidence to vote for the party, especially in the light of the party's strong intent to implement the controversial National Register of Citizens (NRC) if elected to power.
Even the hard-line communists—including their senior most leadership—and TMC's arch nemesis until recently, warned the people against voting for the BJP. "There is no use in leaping from a TMC frying pan into the BJP's fire. In some places, the danger is already present. Our task is to bring back the people from this self-destructive mode," said former West Bengal Chief Minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharya, while talking to Ganasakti newspaper.
And there are also conspiracy theories that suggest the Congress and CPI(M) have sacrificed their votes to prevent BJP from winning over this last bastion of secularism in the country. Kailash Vijavaygiya, BJP general secretary in charge, suggested in frustration that "The Left and Congress surrendered to help the TMC win." The laidback campaigning from Congress had been apparent from the beginning. Even CPI(M) could not, or perhaps did not, push the limelight during the election campaigning. It was a tooth-and-nail fight between BJP and TMC, and in the end, it was TMC that prevailed.
The lack of leadership in BJP at the state level has been another major factor behind their loss. This void had been so apparent that Amit Shah had to say it out, loud and clear, that no one from Gujarat will hold the reins of power in West Bengal if BJP is voted to power. But who could that person have been? Most of the BJP leadership in West Bengal are turncoats from TMC, CPI(M) or the Congress, with the baggage of corruption allegations hung around their neck like the albatross of Coleridge, including Suvendu Adhikari, Mamata's former protege who managed to defeat her in Nandigram by a narrow margin of 1,956 votes.
However, the rise of BJP in the state has been consistent: during the 2016 assembly polls, BJP had only three seats while the Congress grabbed 44 seats, CPI(M) had 26, and TMC won the elections with a landslide 211 seats. This time around, while the TMC has retained its hold over the state, the BJP alone has gained more than 77 seats at the time of writing. Although the party could not cross the magical three-digit threshold, the remarkable progress made by it is noticeable and certainly should be a concern for the TMC in the long run. Even during the 2019 Lok Sabha polls, the BJP won 18 seats, while the TMC edged a little ahead with 22.
In the context of CPI(M) and Congress losing their ground in West Bengal and the steadily growing strength of BJP, the party has become the main challenger to the strength of the TMC. Mamata's party must know this is no time for complacency. In the short-run, she has to win the by-elections in six months time to retain her seat as the Chief Minister of the state. Knowing BJP's ruthless drive to gain hold of West Bengal, they will leave no stone unturned to influence the by-polls against Mamata Banerjee, because dethroning her will put the TMC in a difficult position.
In the long run, BJP will turn into a Medusa with fangs everywhere, if allowed to grow. All BJP needs to do is build a face the people can trust in the next election. With TMC embroiled in accusations of "cut-money" and other forms of corruption and irregularities, a solid opposition can easily wipe the party away, as TMC did to the once mighty CPI(M).
With BJP's position set in the centre, it will have ample resources to devote to strengthening its grip over West Bengal. The only way TMC can hold BJP at bay is by cleaning up its corrupt, minority-pleasing image. If not, then they might just as well set the sand-clock for the countdown.
Tasneem Tayeb is a columnist for The Daily Star. Her Twitter handle is: @TayebTasneem.