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The lesson from West Bengal assembly election: Never undermine a street fighting, regional satrap

10 years on, Mamata Banerjee, who knocked out the well-entrenched Left from its bastion in 2011, delivers the Right a blow of epic proportions. 

May 03, 2021 / 05:17 PM IST
Mamata Banerjee

Mamata Banerjee

The underlying story of Mamata Banerjee’s unqualified success in West Bengal is the Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) failure to impose a new order—more specifically, a non-Bengali new order—which the voters saw as sacrilege.

On May 2, a day full of political twists and turns, Banerjee was the presiding deity—albeit with an ironic twist. She swept West Bengal but lost her seat from Nandigram to defector-in-chief Suvendu Adhikari.

In the process, the Chief Minister proved—if proof was indeed needed—that no adversary is big enough for her.

During the campaign, often vicious and below-the-belt, which invited, among other things, a chain of unstoppable coronavirus infections and a new, jeering tone of sloganeering, the feisty Trinamool Congress (TMC) leader had the last laugh.

By midday, it was abundantly clear that not only was she headed for her biggest-ever victory but her principal adversary, the BJP, had been put in its place, despite the saffron party making significant gains in a Bengal assembly election for the first time.


Also read: In Bengal, it is all about BJP’s loss and BJP’s shame

The Bengali card

In a state long dominated by Bhadralok politics —of the Bengal elite that has for long espoused the greatness of Rabindranath Tagore, Satyajit Ray and Ravishankar— BJP’s was the first attempt to make inroads with the help of the Hindi-speaking migrants who throng the state from Bihar, Jharkhand and Uttar Pradesh.

The tenor of the BJP campaign moved away from the lingua franca Bengali to Hindi and that didn’t seem to have gone down well with the electorate.

Around 15 percent of the population—13 million—in Bengal are non-Bengalis. A large number of them are from Bihar, Rajasthan, UP and Punjab and are settled in Kolkata.

Most people from Bihar work as labourers, while Marwaris are businessmen and control the Burrabazar area — the largest business hub in Kolkata. Non-Bengalis are also spread in other parts, including Siliguri, Asansol, Durgapur, Purulia and Kharagpur districts, in significant numbers.

Playing the Bengali card after the Trinamool received a jolt in the 2019 Lok Sabha elections, Banerjee, while addressing a rally in Barrackpore, said, “When I go to Bihar, Uttar Pradesh or Punjab, I speak in their language. If someone is living in Bengal, he or she has to learn Bengali,” pouring scorn on the non-Bengali residents’ who seemed like natural allies of the BJP.

In the event, the serious gains that the BJP has made in the state —from three to about 77 seats— can largely be attributed to the non-Bengali segment to the population.

Also read: ‘Cruel lady’ back to power: BJP’s Babul Supriyo

The big vote transfer 

Barring three, all former Trinamool Congress leaders and legislators fielded by the BJP lost. Psephologists and political commentators said at least 140 TMC leaders, including around 37 legislators, had joined the BJP since 2017. Many who had joined even at the last minute, including early this year, were given tickets by the BJP and nearly all of them had to bite the dust.

In contrast, Banerjee has always been a more acceptable face as a chief ministerial candidate, even though her party faced criticism for allegedly indulging in corruption in rural areas.

Also read: Mamata Banerjee can still become CM despite losing Nandigram - here is how

Her sub-regional politics and her campaign calling the Narendra Modi-Amit Shah duo “outsiders” paid off. Her Bengali nationalism pitch—“outsiders” do not understand Bengal’s culture of inclusivity—worked in her favour.

Her cash schemes particularly for women paid her electoral dividends. Under the Kanyashree scheme, a girl child gets Rs 25,000 once she is in Class 8. The Rupashree scheme promises Rs 25,000 to a girl’s family when she turns 18. Her welfare programmes like providing free rice and ration also went in her favour.

In an important shift, the CPM-Congress vote bank, which played an important role in helping the BJP secure 18 seats and a 40 percent vote share in the 2019 Lok Sabha elections, seems to have transferred to TMC.

The TMC’s vote share has risen from 44.9 percent in the 2016 assembly elections to 47.94 percent in 2021, while that of the BJP shot up from 10.2 percent in 2016 to 38.13 percent.

The Muslims, who earlier reposed faith in the CPM-Congress combine, have now clearly rallied behind the Chief Minister. This seems to be primarily because of her strong and aggressive campaign against the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA).

The politics of polarisation brought some gains for the BJP but it worked much more for the TMC. Polarisation helped the BJP get many Hindu votes, which consolidated in some areas in south Bengal, but it also pushed a majority of the 27 percent Muslims to vote en masse for Banerjee.

As for the Left, which ruled the state for more than three decades, and the Congress, which preceded the Left in West Bengal, the story is all but over, bar the shouting.
Ranjit Bhushan is an independent journalist and former Nehru Fellow at Jamia Millia University. In a career spanning more than three decades, he has worked with Outlook, The Times of India, The Indian Express, the Press Trust of India, Associated Press, Financial Chronicle, and DNA.
first published: May 3, 2021 04:47 pm
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