Bangla nijer meyer kachei thaaklo (Bengal has stayed with its own daughter). When Trinamool Congress (TMC) came out with the slogan "Bangla nijer meyekay chai" in February, it could not have been more prophetic.
Mamata Banerjee may have lost her own electoral battle in Nandigram constituency, but she won the war in Bengal for her party Trinamool Congress, single-handedly—a remarkable landslide victory to stop the mighty electoral machine of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Home Minister Amit Shah. The sweep and extent of TMC's win, which matched its performance in the previous assembly poll five years ago, was unexpected even to Mamata, who said as much in her first press conference post-victory. Although Mamata lost the poll in Nandigram to her former protege Suvendu Adhikari, it will not prevent her from returning to the Chief Minister's chair immediately. All she has to do is face fresh by-elections within six months of becoming the CM.
The elections were held in five states but the most watched-for election was, of course, West Bengal—considered by the BJP as the "final frontier" in its unending quest for expanding its footprint in all the states. Bengal remained elusive for the saffron party, although it has reasons to be satisfied with the substantial gains made in West Bengal, moving up from just three seats in the previous assembly poll in 2016 to 75 this time and claiming the space of the principal opposition force in the state's political landscape, dislodging the decimated Congress and the Left. Its hold on most parts of north Bengal remained intact; Modi's visit to the Matua's shrine in Orakandi, Bangladesh on March 27 helped the BJP win seats in Bangaon in North 24 Parganas district. However, it did not work in Barrackpore, nor in Barasat and neighbouring Kolkata. Another important reason why the BJP could not hold on to its 2019 general elections momentum was its failure this time to win a seat in Howrah, Hooghly and East and West Bardhaman districts, despite the party's top leadership's intensive electioneering there. Besides, the adivasis in Jhargram and parts of West Medinipur did not favour the saffron party in the assembly polls this time as much as they had done in the 2019 general elections.
The Bengal political landscape is set to don a new look with the demise of the Congress-Left alliance, which failed to win a single seat this time after winning 77 seats in 2016. This is the first time that the Bengal legislative assembly will not have a single representative of either the Congress or the Left, which had between them ruled the state for 64 years. What should be more worrying for the Left and the Congress is that the BJP made inroads into their traditional strongholds in Malda, Murshidabad, Baharampur and South 24 Parganas, toppling the former from numero uno or second positions.
How did Mamata pull off this feat? Despite the baggage of anti-incumbency set against her uninterrupted decade-long rule, she got certain things right from the get-go. With a blend of welfare schemes, promised doles and Bengali sub-nationalism and a catchy jingle "khela hobey", Mamata plunged into the electoral war to take on the BJP's Hindu nationalism narrative, which frequently flagged the issues of the Citizenship Amendment Act and illegal immigration into Bengal from Bangladesh. Moving in a wheel chair with a plastered leg for most part of the long-drawn polls (nearly 50 days) after being attacked in Nandigram, she has clearly landed on her feet on the day it mattered the most. Her Bengali sub-nationalism was also aimed at countering one of BJP's main weapons of attacking the Trinamool Congress on the issues of corruption and nepotism.
The BJP's appetite for capturing power in Bengal was fuelled by its impressive show in the parliamentary polls in 2019, when it stunned all by bagging 18 of the total of 42 Lok Sabha seats. The party wanted to build on that performance in the just-concluded assembly elections, but could not do it. The nearly two percent dip in the BJP's vote share of 40.6 percent (recorded in 2019) and the five percent rise in the Trinamool Congress' vote share this time (from 43.6 percent in 2019) was the decisive swing that saw the saffron party stop well short of the three-figure mark in seat tally and pushed it to the rank of a distant second. Two factors are behind this: the total consolidation of votes of Muslims, who make up 27 percent of Bengal's total electorate, and an overwhelming chunk of the anti-BJP votes in the Congress-Left camp going to Trinamool Congress. In fact, Mamata had during electioneering appealed to people in the traditional bastions of the Congress and the Left, in places like Malda and Murshidabad, not to waste their votes and instead back her party to stop the BJP.
The BJP projected the battle for Bengal as a battle between Modi and Mamata. The BJP's performance in Bengal exposed its failure to produce a credible chief ministerial candidate of its own to match Mamata's charisma, and the limitations of its policy of inorganic growth by engineering defections in other parties and swelling its own rank and file.
In the run up to the assembly polls, the BJP lured several leaders from the TMC and put them forward as its own candidates but all of them were defeated barring four, including high-profile Suvendu Adhikari who won against Mamata in Nandigram. The lack of a chief ministerial candidate stuck with the saffron outfit, despite Modi and Shah repeatedly stressing that a person born and brought up in Bengal would be the Chief Minister if BJP is voted to power. That there is no substitute to grooming its own local level leadership should be the big lesson for BJP in Bengal. The results in Bengal also drove home the view that BJP has failed to enter the psyche of the Bengali urban class. The party failed to win a single of the 16 assembly seats in Kolkata.
The victory of Mamata, India's only woman Chief Minister now, has established her in a league of her own and has major implications for India's national politics ahead of fresh general elections, due in 2024. By successfully resisting the surge of the BJP's election charge in Bengal and with the Congress in steady decline, Mamata can again reclaim her status as a glue around which anti-Modi forces can gather in the run-up to the 2024 elections. This was a role Mamata unsuccessfully tried to take on in the run-up to the 2019 general elections.
Mamata has proved that that the BJP is not an unstoppable force and can be defeated by a strong-rooted regional leader. A debilitated Congress and the victory of the Left in Kerala, of Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) in Tamil Nadu and of Trinamool Congress in Bengal, has thrown up the possibility of a clutch of powerful regional parties coalescing to counter the BJP. However, doubts remain as to the viability of such an anti-BJP coalition without the help of any party, other than the Congress, with a pan-India presence. The biggest drawback of the regional outfits is that none of them have an appeal to voters beyond the borders of their respective states, as was demonstrated by the BJP's improved show in the 2019 general elections.
However, having lost the assembly polls in Bengal, which elects 42 Lok Sabha members, the third highest after Uttar Pradesh (UP) and Maharashtra, pressure will grow on the BJP to retain its hold on Uttar Pradesh, where fresh assembly elections are due in April 2022. A good show in the 2017 UP assembly polls was at the heart of BJP's parliamentary elections in 2019.
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Pallab Bhattacharya is a special correspondent of The Daily Star. He writes from New Delhi, India.