Assembly Elections: West Bengal

Bengal returns Mamata to power

Print edition : May 21, 2021

Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee at Kolkata’s Kalighat temple after trends show her party’s win in the Assembly election. Photo: PTI

Prime Minister Narendra Modi at a BJP election rally in Howrah district on April 6. (Right) Union Home Minister at a rally in Kolkata on April 13. Modi and Shah campaigned repeatedly in West Bengal promising “real change” and “Sonar Bangla”. Photo: Swapan Mahapatra/PTI

Trinamool Congres activists celebrate in Kolkata on May 2 as trends start pointing to a huge win. Photo: Swapan Mahapatra/PTI

The Trinamool Congress beats anti-incumbency to win its third consecutive Assembly election as the people of West Bengal vote to keep out the Bharatiya Janata Party.

Mamata Banerjee’s victory over the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is one of the most dramatic and historic wins in recent electoral history. Facing a strong anti-incumbency wave and the entire might of the BJP’s central organisation, Mamata Banerjee handed out the saffron party a most savage drubbing, winning 213 out of 292 seats and securing a whopping 47.94 per cent of the votes as she roared back to power for the third consecutive term. (Elections to two seats were postponed because of the death of two candidates.)

The enormity of the victory, surpassing the Trinamool Congress’ score of 211 seats in 2016, exceeded all expectations. The BJP, for all its talk of bringing in “Asol Paribartan” (real change) could manage to win only 77 seats and pull 38.13 per cent of the votes. What made the defeat particularly humiliating for the BJP was that the 2021 Assembly election in Bengal had been projected as a battle between Mamata Banerjee and Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who himself led the campaign and presented himself as the harbinger of change. It was an overwhelming rejection of the Modi-Amit Shah brand of divisive politics as Bengal voted on political issues rather than on communal lines. Even though Mamata Banerjee lost in Nandigram, she did single-handedly win the war. The Sanyukta Morcha (the alliance between the Left, the Congress and the Indian Secular Front) could win only one seat—Bhangor, which went to ISF candidate Nawsad Siddiqui—and secured around 8.3 per cent of the votes.

The brash claims by Modi and Union Home Minister Amit Shah that the BJP would get more than 200 seats and their general attitude that winning Bengal was a foregone conclusion long before the first vote was cast echoed back as a cruel mockery as the results began to unfold. Modi and Shah had tried to sell a dream of “Sonar Bangla” (golden Bengal) but failed to establish their own credibility among the people of the State. They were committed to winning Bengal, coming to the State practically every other day and conducting massive rallies, with all the powers of the Union government at their disposal. Yet the BJP could not even manage to secure the percentage of votes (40 per cent) it had in the 2019 Lok Sabha election. It had a lead in 121 Assembly segments in 2019. But in the Assembly election it won only 77 seats, notwithstanding all the Prime Minister’s promises and all his rhetoric. Mamata Banerjee said: “This landslide victory was achieved after overcoming so many hurdles—the entire Central government, Central agencies, the Election Commission, which behaved so badly with us. In spite of everything the people of Bengal have saved not just Bengal, but humanity, humaneness.”
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Right from the start the odds were stacked heavily against Mamata Banerjee and the Trinamool. With a strong anti-incumbency factor working against her party, she began to lose one influential leader after another to the BJP. Much as she tried, she was not able to stop the erosion. Consequently, it was left to Mamata Banerjee herself to try and salvage the situation. On top of all this, her party was reeling on the ropes under allegations of rampant corruption and high-handedness of the local leadership. Yet, with an injured foot and bound to a wheelchair for the entire duration of the election, Mamata Banerjee showed she was still the top draw in Bengal politics. Ten years in power had robbed her of neither her resilience nor her street-fighting abilities. Alone, she took on the party in power at the Centre and registered a sensational victory when many thought she would fall.

THE TURNING POINT

Her triumph over the combined might of Modi and Shah has once again resurrected her stature as the most formidable opponent of the BJP at the national level. Just as the BJP had projected the 2019 Lok Sabha election as a precursor to defeating the Trinamool in the State, Mamata Banerjee projected the Assembly election as the first step to defeating the BJP at the Centre. “This is the fight to restore democracy in the country. The beginning of the end of the BJP at the Centre will begin from Bengal,” she said at her election rallies. When the results were out, she said: “Bengal has saved the whole country.” She added that it was a victory for democracy and heralded the fall of the BJP at the Centre. It was, she said, a “turning point” in Indian politics.

According to Surajit C. Mukhopadhyay, political analyst and professor of sociology at Amity University, Chhattisgarh, this election was more about the BJP losing than about the Trinamool winning. “There needed to be an instance where the narrative of invincibility built up by Amit Shah and Narendra Modi was punctured. It has now been proved that they can be defeated, and this has made the BJP quite edgy in other States, particularly with the COVID mismanagement drawing criticism all across the country,” he told Frontline.

REVERSAL OF FORTUNE

In just two years, the Trinamool managed to reverse the gains that the BJP made in the 2019 Lok Sabha election, in which the saffron party won 18 out of 42 seats. In the Jangalmahal region (the contiguous forest areas of Bankura, Purulia, Paschim Medinipur and Jhargram), the BJP was ahead in 30 of the 40 Assembly segments in 2019. But in the Assembly election, the Trinamool won 26 seats, wresting 16 seats away from the BJP’s grasp. According to the local people, the BJP began to lose support mainly because of the arrogance of the local leaders. “Even before coming to power, they are behaving as though they have won the election,” a local resident of Jhargram told Frontline during the election. Thinly attended election rallies of top BJP leaders in Jhargram were enough indication that the saffron party was losing its support. Amit Shah had to apparently cancel a rally in Jhargram because not enough people had gathered for the occasion.
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In north Bengal, where the BJP was ahead in 37 out of the 54 Assembly seats in 2019 and was expected to retain its position of advantage, it could only win in 26 seats. In south Bengal, too, the BJP could not hold on to its gains. In Birbhum district, where it was ahead in five Assembly segments in 2019, it could win only one seat. In Hooghly, where it had been ahead in eight segments, it managed to win just one seat. In Nadia, it had been ahead in 11 but won eight. In North 24 Parganas, where it had wrested the lead from the Trinamool in 12 Assembly segments, it could manage to win only five seats. The Trinamool, on the other hand, not only managed to capture the BJP’s strong seats, but also retained its own strongholds in North and South 24 Parganas and Howrah. It won all 16 seats in Howrah, 30 out of 31 seats in South 24 Parganas, and 28 out of 33 seats in North 24 Parganas.

BENEFICIARIES’ DIVIDEND

It was clear that the alleged corruption during the distribution of relief after the Amphan cyclone in 2020 and mismanagement during the COVID pandemic were not decisive factors in the election. The chain of beneficiaries that Mamata Banerjee had created with her innumerable outreach programmes such as Kanyashree, Sabooj Saathi, Khadya Saathi, Sabujshree and Sikhyashree paid electoral dividend when she needed it the most. It ensured the support of voters, particularly women, from economically backward sections and in rural areas. To counter the allegations of rampant corruption by her party leaders at the grassroots and stave off the growing anti-incumbency sentiment, the Trinamool introduced several new outreach programmes—Duare Sarkar (Government at the Doorstep), Paray Paray Samadhan (Redressal in the Neighbourhood) and Swastha Sathi—which became enormously popular. Launched in December 2020, Duare Sarkar reached over two crore people within just two months.

Mamata Banerjee used the success of these schemes as an effective tool in her campaign. Trinamool leaders referred to them repeatedly in their political speeches to remind voters of what the State government had done for them. They also warned the people that all these benefits would be taken away should the BJP come to power.

NANDIGRAM LOSS

The only dark spot in this otherwise fairy-tale ending for the Trinamool supremo was that though she won the war she lost her battle in Nandigram to Suvendu Adhikari, once considered the most powerful leader in the Trinamool after Mamata Banerjee herself. It was by far the most high-profile electoral battle among all the Assembly elections taking place in the country as the two giants of Bengal politics locked horns, with nothing but pride at stake. Suvendu Adhikari’s defection to the lotus camp came as a huge blow to Mamata Banerjee at a time when she was losing one top leader after another to the saffron party. In a clearly calculated move, aimed perhaps at bolstering the flagging morale of her workers, she decided to leave her safe seat of Bhowanipore and take on the might of Suvendu Adhikari in his own domain.

Nandigram was the most prestigious seat in the election, particularly because of its symbolic value in Mamata Banerjee’s political history. It was here that she came out of the wilderness with a long-drawn violent mass movement following the death of 14 villagers in police firing in 2007. The Left Front was in power then. While Mamata Banerjee led that movement, Suvendu Adhikari was its main architect and organiser.

TURNCOATS FAIL

Suvendu Adhikari is in fact one of the few defectors from the Trinamool who managed to win on the BJP ticket. The BJP’s chief strategy had been to weaken the Trinamool organisation by facilitating the defection of its top leaders. However, almost all the defectors lost, shattering the BJP’s plans of winning on the strength of the former generals of the enemy camp. On the list were heavyweights like Rajib Bandopadhyay, Rabindranath Bhattacharjee, Sabyasachi Dutta, Jitendra Tiwari, Rathin Chakraborty and Vaishali Dalmiya.

It had appeared as if the defections would destroy the Trinamool. Yet, they eventually worked against the BJP as the voters did not seem to take kindly to such opportunistic behaviour. Mamata Banerjee would repeatedly refer to the defectors as “Mirzafars” (traitors). In some way the defections contributed to a sympathy factor for the country’s only woman Chief Minister who appeared to be fighting a lone battle against the might of the Union government even as her trusted aides were betraying her. Moreover, the constant defections created the impression that the BJP’s State unit was nothing more than a breakaway group of the Trinamool itself.

Indeed, the large-scale defections caused major problems for the BJP as party old-timers resented the importance given to turncoats from the Trinamool. Violent factional clashes began to break out ahead of the election, further hampering the saffron party’s prospects. This internal rancour cost the BJP the prestigious Singur seat in Hooghly—another constituency of great symbolic value for Mamata Banerjee. Rabindranath Bhattacharjee, who was the Trinamool’s MLA from Singur in the outgoing Assembly, joined the BJP after being denied the party ticket for this election. He was immediately given the BJP ticket, much to the chagrin of old-timers of the party. “People perhaps could not take my defection well,” Bhattacharya said after losing.

OUTSIDER ISSUE

If the BJP managed to polarise a section of the Hindu votes in its favour, the Trinamool’s strategy of portraying the BJP as “Bahiragata” (outsiders) and dividing the Hindu vote on ethnic lines may have successfully neutralised the communal card played by the saffron party. The election was projected as a battle to protect the identity and culture of Bengalis from “outsiders” who had little knowledge of the State’s history and heritage. “We will not allow them to make Bengal into another Gujarat or Uttar Pradesh” was the battle cry, and the official political slogan was “Bangla Nijer Meyekei Chai” (Bengal wants its own daughter only). The BJP’s battle cry of “Jai Shri Ram”, which gained popularity over the last four years in Bengal, was successfully countered by “Jai Bangla”. The saffron party’s promise of “Asol Paribartan” was neutralised by the Trinamool’s call of “Khela Hobe” (the game will be played).
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With no credible home-grown leaders, the BJP’s overt dependence on leaders from the Centre and other States during campaigning also served to sow seeds of doubt among voters, particularly in rural regions and among the urban poor. “They will just come to take our votes and go back to Delhi. At least the Trinamool is here,” said Kalpana, a domestic worker who lives in North 24 Parganas.

NO HINDU POLARISATION

It was also clear that all Hindus did not buy the BJP’s bogey of Muslims taking over the State and West Bengal being made a part of Bangladesh because of the Trinamool’s alleged policy of appeasement. There has undoubtedly been some polarisation on communal lines, reflected in the BJP’s winning as many as 77 seats. Yet the ground reality is not as fraught with religious tension as the BJP may have wanted voters to believe.

The kind of consolidation of Hindu votes that the BJP expected clearly did not take place. One reason was the Trinamool’s effective use of the Bengali ethnic identity as a political tool in its campaign. The psephologist Biswanath Chakraborty pointed to how Mamata Banerjee set up development boards for different communities such Matuas, Bagdis and Adivasis, effectively pre-empting a pan-Hindu polarisation. “We have also seen that the consolidation of non-Bengali votes in favour of the BJP—which was expected after the ‘outsider’ campaign—did not take place completely. This was mainly because of the BJP’s lack of local-level organisational strength.”

Mamata Banerjee also made desperate attempts to win back Hindus alienated by the perception that her government followed a policy of appeasing Muslims. She granted stipends to Hindu priests, extended generous donations to clubs across the State to fund community Durga Puja events, and countered the BJP’s overt Hindutva with her own brand of “soft Hindutva”. She began chanting Hindu slokas, referred to Hindu religious practices that she followed in her daily life, and even flaunted her Brahmin identity. These overtures may have won her back some of the votes she had earlier lost.

MUSLIM CONSOLIDATION

At the beginning of the election, with influential Islamist leader Abbas Siddiqui’s newly formed Indian Secular Front (ISF) joining forces with the Left and the Congress, there was concern in Trinamool circles about the prospect of Muslim votes getting split and the BJP benefiting from it. The Muslim population, which accounts for more than 30 per cent in West Bengal, has always been a key factor in the State’s politics. The Trinamool always had the support of Muslim voters. Even when the BJP won 18 seats in the 2019 Lok Sabha election, Mamata Banerjee could rely on the Muslim vote. Hence Siddiqui’s influence, particularly in south Bengal, was a matter of concern for the ruling party. At one of her election rallies, Mamata Banerjee appealed to the Muslims of the State to not divide the votes.

There were signs of a growing disenchantment with the Trinamool among a section of the Muslim population in the past couple of years and a perceived need for a distinct political identity. However, the threat of the BJP coming to power served to consolidate the Muslim vote once again. In the face of high-pitched, communally loaded election speeches by BJP leaders and their threat to implement the Citizenship (Amendment) Act in the State once they came to power, Muslim voters were forced to make a choice not necessarily based on personal preference. As a result, the traditional Muslim-dominated Congress bastions of Malda, Murshidabad, Uttar Dinajpur and Dakshin Dinajpur overwhelmingly voted for the Trinamool. Out of the 22 seats that went to the polls in Murshidabad, the Trinamool won 18 and the BJP two. (Elections in two seats in the district were postponed because of the death of two candidates.) In Malda, once the fortress of the Congress legend Ghani Khan Choudhuri’s family, the Trinamool won eight of the 12 seats, while the BJP won four. In Dakshin Dinajpur, the Trinamool and the BJP each won three of the six seats; in Uttar Dinajpur, the Trinamool won seven out of nine seats, and the BJP two.

LEFT, CONGRESS DECIMATED

This election saw the complete decimation of the Left Front and the Congress in Bengal. The Left and the Congress did not win any seat, and their vote share plunged to a meagre 4.73 per cent and 2.93 per cent respectively, from 19.75 per cent and 12.25 per cent in 2016. In 2019, the BJP’s increase in votes was concomitant with the decrease in the Left’s numbers. This time, according to highly placed sources in the BJP, the Left and the Congress votes went predominantly to the Trinamool. “Primary analysis tells us that the committed anti-BJP voters who were still with the Left and the Congress also voted for the Trinamool just to keep the BJP out,” a senior BJP leader told Frontline. Many Left supporters were unhappy with the tie-up with Abbas Siddiqui, who is known for his radical Islamist views. Congress State president Adhir Ranjan Chowdhury, who is also Leader of the Congress Party in the Lok Sabha, said: “The Hindus voted for the BJP, and the Muslims voted for the Trinamool. We wanted to protect our vote banks, but we could not do it. People did not vote for us.” It is unlikely that the Left and the Congress will be able to recover from this setback any time soon. This means a new phase in the electoral politics of Bengal, with the Trinamool and the BJP as the main contenders.
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BJP THE MAIN OPPOSITION

Though the election turned out to be a huge embarrassment for Narendra Modi and Amit Shah, the BJP emerged as the main opposition in the State for the first time in Bengal’s history. Party vice president Joy Prakash Majumdar said: “Even though we wanted to come to power, it is still a milestone for our party to become the main opposition in the West Bengal Assembly.” The BJP was always only a fringe player as long as the Communist Party of India (Marxist) was in power. After the Trinamool came to power in 2011, however, it began a steady but inexorable rise in the State. Mamata Banerjee’s constant playing of the religious card and her perceived bias in favour of Muslims alienated a sizeable section of Hindu voters. With the Left and the Congress foundering in the political doldrums, the BJP quickly filled the vacuum. Mamata Banerjee’s pursuit of “opposition-free” politics also practically destroyed established parties like the Left and the Congress and facilitated the BJP’s rise.

What is quite unique is that the BJP has no history of coming up through any kind of mass movement in Bengal. Until 2014, it was a marginal force in the State with just around 4 per cent of the votes. In 2014 the BJP caused a flutter as it secured an unprecedented 17 per cent of the votes in Bengal, riding on the Modi wave then sweeping through the country. In the next parliamentary election in 2019, it secured over 40 per cent of the votes. Buoyed by this success, the BJP felt it had a winning chance in the 2021 Assembly election.

However, the party had neither the organisational strength nor leaders strong enough to lead it to victory. Its dependence on central leaders like Modi, Shah and J.P. Nadda and high-profile Chief Ministers from BJP-ruled States such as Yogi Adityanath and on turncoat leaders from the Trinamool made the inherent weaknesses of its State unit obvious. It failed to win voters’ confidence.

Apart from the promise of building “Sonar Bangla”, BJP leaders in their campaigns relentlessly attacked the prevalent culture of corruption and nepotism in the Trinamool. While Modi, Shah and other top leaders spoke of the practice of taking “cut money”, the syndicate raj and the autocratic rule of “Pishi-Bhaipo” (aunt and nephew, a reference to Mamata Banerjee and her nephew Abhishek Banerjee), the people of the State groaned under the ever-increasing cost of petrol, diesel, cooking gas, and the constant reduction of interest rates in banks. BJP leaders had no answer to the frustrations of the unemployed and the despair of thousands who lost their jobs because of the economic downturn in the country. As the second wave of the COVID-19 pandemic wreaked havoc across India and people died in hundreds, the Prime Minister was seen as trying to win the election in Bengal instead of dealing with the crisis. It was clear that voters were not to be swayed by election promises alone.
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According to Joy Prakash Majumdar, the results were a genuine reflection of the people’s will and the saffron party’s reversals were caused by wrong strategy in its campaigns. “The BJP’s narrative was to create a Sonar Bangla, while the Trinamool’s narrative was Bengal’s pride. The Trinamool started with projecting the BJP as an outsiders’ party and ended with the slogan that Bengal wanted its own daughter. Due to the inherent rebellious nature of the Bengali people, they were more attracted to the concept of Bengali pride than the ‘rebuilding Bengal’ theory. The perception created by the BJP was that it was coming to power, but the ground reality had changed in the past three months and the people were more and more in favour of Mamata Banerjee’s concept of Bengali pride,” he told Frontline. It is surprising that the BJP with its formidable “think tank” and huge resources could miss this shift of perception.

THE PRASHANT KISHOR FACTOR

The role of the political strategist Prashant Kishor in this historic win of the Trinamool cannot be overlooked. In December 2020, Kishor put his reputation and job on the line with a social media message: “For all the hype amplified by a section of supportive media, in reality BJP will struggle to cross double digits in #WestBengal. PS: Please save this tweet and if BJP does any better I must quit this space!” Many felt this was a political gimmick to try and take the wind out of the BJP’s sails. However, Kishor stuck to his guns and reiterated his claim when the election dates were announced in February. Even then, many were sceptical. Finally, it was Kishor who had the last laugh.

Not only was he responsible for strategising the campaigns and coming up with slogans, he was also believed to have been active in restructuring the party and even choosing candidates. There were quite a few within the Trinamool rank and file who resented his interference in party affairs. Many even spoke out publicly against him. Kishor, however, ultimately turned out to be a crucial player behind the Trinamool’s victory. Hired soon after the ruling party’s debacle in the 2019 Lok Sabha election, Kishor quickly managed to change the public perception towards the Trinamool even when it was facing its worst crisis during the COVID outbreak and in the aftermath of Amphan amid widespread allegations of corruption.

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