Mamata Banerjee will be Chief Minister of West Bengal again – for a historic third time – after defeating the BJP in a thriller of an election.
The BJP had made it Mamata vs Modi; not only has she trumped the Prime Minister but she is the only woman Chief Minister in the country and very much in a league of her own.
To understand the enormity of Banerjee’s audacious win, consider what was at stake. The Election Commission ordered a never-ending eight-phase election which seemed designed to help the BJP. Union Home Minister Amit Shah was the election strategist for the BJP and had virtually opened offices of the central BJP in Kolkata. Two five-star hotels were commandeered and the entire IT cell under Amit Malviya moved base to Kolkata.
The BJP office was opened to Trinamool defectors (more than 40) with office-bearers including Shah providing a personal welcome to all comers. Even BJP leaders talk in hushed tones of the lavish supply of funds made available to Kailash Vijayvargiya, Shah’s trusted lieutenant in the elections.
Amit Shah in West Bengal
Modi held a record number of public meetings (20) and so did Shah (50 ); BJP chief J P Nadda held 40. Every top BJP leader including Smriti Irani, Piyush Goyal and Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath campaigned in West Bengal.
Modi issued a toxic cat call against Banerjee hissing “Didi-o-Didi” at every meeting and upping the ante of polarisation by asking why “Banerjee was allergic to Jai Shree Ram“.
I am a political analyst by profession but as a woman, the Prime Ministerial cat-call made my skin crawl. It certainly did not befit a leader who is PM of India.
Banerjee was positioned by her election advisor Prashant Kishor as the little guy/didi or “Bengal ki Beti” against mighty outsiders. The sub-regionalism worked.
In the early stages of the campaign, Banerjee was attacked and fractured her foot. In what became an indelible image from the campaign she addressed public meetings across Bengal in a wheelchair – truly the little guy in her crumpled blue bordered saree and trusty rubber chappals.
Mamata Banerjee campaigning in a wheelchair
Banerjee took on the BJP’s polarisation full on, reciting the “Chandi Path” on stage with aplomb and visiting temples in every constituency after campaigning.
The BJP, which won 18 of 42 seats in the 2019 Lok Sabha elections, ran with its usual campaign template. This comprised of making the Dalits in Bengal feel that they had been discriminated against in welfare measures by leaders like Banerjee in favour of Muslims, who make up 27 percent of Bengal’s population and have a majority presence in the three districts of Murshidabad, Malda and Utter Dinajpur. The BJP’s war cry was to call Banerjee “Begum”, a shrill dog whistle, and say that they would remove the “Muslim veto” in Bengal politics.
The BJP ensured that the optics were memorable. Modi with his new flowing beard seemed to be a visual nod to Bengal’s favourite son, the revered Rabindranath Tagore. Shah also coopted actor Mithun Chakraborty (who had earlier worked with the Trinamool and the Congress) after an unsuccessful attempt to get former cricket captain of India, Sourav Ganguly, as his presumptive Chief Minister.
Now, the big takeways. The most important: the BJP is not an unstoppable force and can be defeated by a strong-rooted regional leader. The shock-and-awe Shah tactics only work with a weak opponent. Uddhav Thackeray, Sharad Pawar and Banerjee have proved Shah can be defeated even with the centre’s full might unleashed upon political opponents.
Second: the political pendulum is now swinging away from the BJP. The awful central handling of the vicious second wave of covid and its tragic oxygen shortage will cost Modi. So far, the BJP had created a self-serving ecosystem that separated governance from election wins. This will now end as voter anger is sweeping BJP-ruled states like Madhya Pradesh and Uttar Pradesh.
Three: the opposition to the BJP is regional as established by the results from Bengal, Kerala and Tamil Nadu. The return of Pinarayi Vijayan as Chief Minister of Kerala, a state that has never re-elected an incumbent, and the win of M K Stalin prove that. The Congress and its leadership crisis are leaving it ever-weaker.
Finally, West Bengal has given Modi and Shah a reality check. Prashant Kishor does not have to give up his job (as he had promised he would if the Trinamool lost). Now, over to Punjab and Uttar Pradesh for the next big fight.