The timetable for when and how Mamata Banerjee launches the counter-offensive is unclear, but it will happen
It’s a landslide. It’s a hat trick. With a two-thirds majority in her grasp, Trinamul Congress leader and incumbent chief minister Mamata Banerjee has defeated the communally divisive, reactionary, undemocratic, patriarchal and authoritarian assault of the BJP for the conquest of West Bengal in a spectacular victory.
Slim as the margin is, Mamata Banerjee’s own defeat from Nandigram is not a catastrophe. With around 214 wins out of 294, West Bengal is open to her to find an alternative, sure seat. In 2011, Ms Banerjee did not fight the Assembly polls; she did so later after coming to power in the state.
She chose to switch from Bhowanipore in Kolkata to Nandigram in East Midnapore to signal that West Bengal was her turf and a defector, even of the size of Suvendu Adhikari, backed by the aura and resources of the Adhikari clan, all of whom are in politics, offered no challenge to her popularity. The choice infused new energy into her party where the defection of mega leaders like Suvendu Adhikari and those who followed was a shock of a magnitude that was seriously demoralising.
The Trinamul Congress’ third term victory has established Ms Banerjee as a political force to reckon with. She was challenged by the much-touted invincible vote-winning machine of Narendra Modi and Amit Shah and turned it into a dysfunctional apparatus. The BJP’s ambition of conquering West Bengal and winning 200 of the state’s 294 Assembly seats has turned into a misadventure, conceived in reckless ambition and unfolded as limitless greed, for more power and territory.
With West Bengal safely secured, it’s entirely likely that she will move forward in her declared objective of waging war against the BJP in national politics. The timetable for when and how she launches the counter-offensive is unclear, but it will happen.
Four states and one Union territory went to the polls. In Kerala, the Pinarayi Vijayan-led government of the CPI(M) and Left Democratic Front, in Tamil Nadu the DMK led by M.K. Stalin and in West Bengal, the Trinamul Congress led by Ms Banerjee have won. It was a victory for multi-party politics and the democratic space to nurture diversity, and in West Bengal it was a blow the idea of a “double engine sarkar” that the BJP had sold to voters as the acme of efficiency and good governance. By rejecting it, West Bengal’s voters have signalled that too much of the same thing does not cut ice.
West Bengal was the most crucial theatre of the war in which the BJP launched its most determined and resource-intensive effort to install itself in power. Supremely confident of its ability to bamboozle its way to a victory, BJP’s unchallenged strategist Amit Shah admitted the party was organisationally weak, and was dependent on defections to meet the deficit in terms of its actual size and strength in the state. It had factored in that it wouldn’t appeal to at least 27 per cent of the state’s voters who are Muslims.
West Bengal’s verdict has made it abundantly clear that without roots, the BJP is a superstructure without a foundation, regardless of the number of seats that it won this time. The basics of politics everywhere is a connection with the masses that is not limited to playing mind games, feeding on intangible anxieties and rabble-rousing by making a noise. In West Bengal, the BJP made the mistake in believing its own spiel and imagining that its narrative of a Hindu majority in danger of being swamped by an expanding Muslim minority, however contrary that is to the facts, the unifying power of an alien slogan “Jai Shri Ram” and the lure of a basket of goodies from citizenship for refugees, especially Hindu Matuas, employment and freedom to organise religious festivals, as though there had ever been an impediment, was sufficient to add the heft necessary to give it the votes it needed.
The political landscape of West Bengal has undergone a metamorphosis in this election. The Trinamul Congress now has a single Opposition party in the BJP. It is a warning that politics henceforth will be fought on dangerously polarising lines where religion and identity will be deployed to wreck the consensus, arrived at in 1946-47 by all major political parties, of keeping communalism out of politics in the state.
It will be Ms Banerjee’s responsibility to contain the BJP’s provocatively divisive politics and then work to defeat it. There is no way in which the Trinamul Congress can achieve this on its own. The tacit support the BJP has garnered since 2016 from voters who earlier chose the Congress or the Left parties is a part of the problem that she must tackle to prevent West Bengal from turning communally volatile and erupting in violence. How she will do this, when the current Congress and CPI(M) leadership is as hostile to her as it is to the BJP, is the difficulty. Not finding a solution endangers the sometimes tense social and religious equations in West Bengal.
This election is an affirmation that India’s multi-party democracy, however weakened by the brutalising idea of homogeneity — “one party, one nation” — of the BJP, is alive and well, and able to successfully defend itself. The next step is to take back the political discourse and repair the deep wounds inflicted by the BJP’s ambition to dominate by using institutions created by the Constitution for its own purposes.
In this larger fight, Mamata Banerjee will be a key player. How she does so is unknowable at this stage. The imperative to upgrade the fight is the catastrophic mismanagement of the Covid-19 pandemic’s surge that is killing thousands of Indians, mainly as the Narendra Modi government failed to create the resources in anticipation of this inevitability. And she has promises to fulfil to voters in West Bengal, as she needs the support of her base to tackle the BJP and its destructive politics on home ground as well as on the national level.
There is an urgency to revamping her government and her party to make it less corrupt and improve delivery to beneficiaries, which was one of the grouses against her and created the space for the BJP to grow by focusing on her shortcomings as chief minister and party leader. With so much to do and an appalling pandemic surge to contain, Ms Banerjee must work at speed and with an efficiency that disarms her critics.