Bengal’s election result is Narendra Modi’s personal failure

May 2 belonged to Mamata Banerjee. The BJP’s hubris did them in.

WrittenBy:Kishalay Bhattacharjee
Celebrations near Mamata's house in Kolkata on May 2. Photo: Arvind Kumar

It’s clear that the Bharatiya Janata Party continues to struggle beyond south of the Vindhyas, though in the east it has crossed the Ganga and the Brahmaputra. While the saffron party retained Assam, it claimed a significant slice of the West Bengal pie, winning 77 out of 294 constituencies from its tally of just three in 2016.

But the day clearly belonged to Mamata Banerjee, even though two more leaders in the south (MK Stalin, who waited in the wings for five decades, and Pinarayi Vijayan) registered historic wins. Never before was an eastern state so much in the imagination of the north or of the country. This time, however, the stakes were too high and the camps clearly divided. The TMC clocked 210 seats, going well past the two-thirds majority.

Mamata is the queen of epithets and this victory for her will be as sweet as 2011, when she decimated the invincible Left Front. That was a decade ago in the same month of May, when she entered Writers’ Building for the first time after having been thrown out by Jyoti Basu in 1993. Then a union minister, she had sworn she would enter the building again only as chief minister and her victory parade was a true spectacle.

Mamata has almost never missed a political opportunity. In 2016, she countered the Sharada chit fund scam allegations with a catchy parivartan (change) slogan and in 2021, she was mostly wheelchair-bound. Today, she walked. If Narendra Modi grooms himself to suit the occasion, Mamata pays attention to detail: her one-storey house in a congested Kalighat lane, her simple Hawai chappals, cotton sari, and jhola bags.

Though 2011 will be her greatest victory, 2021 is epic after most pollsters projected a close fight. Her strategist Prashant Kishor scored a perfect 10 though he curiously announced on live television that he’s now quitting “this space”. Ironically, Mamata lost her own seat in Nandigram – and the Election Commission rejected her party’s appeal for a recount – the place that made her go for the kill. It was in 2007 that 14 protesters against government land acquisition were killed in police firing in Nandigram. Mamata seized the moment and launched the agitation that propelled her to become one of India’s strongest political leaders.

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TMC supporters near Mamata Banerjee's home in Kolkata on May 2. Photos: Arvind Kumar

In many ways, the election result is Narendra Modi’s personal failure after he launched the most virulent attack in Bengal, addressing many rallies: a symbolic conquest for the Hindu Right in their aspirational Akhand Bharat.

But a bitter and significant story in West Bengal is the obituary of the Left Front that once ruled unchallenged. This time, they have been rendered homeless, unable to even open their account. The last brick has been laid at 31, Alimuddin Street, the headquarters of the CPIM.

What worked for the Trinamool Congress? Perhaps a consolidation of minority votes and government schemes and reaching out to angry voters after Cyclone Amphan. Maybe they were helped by the fact that they fielded new candidates to counter anti-incumbency. Clearly the BJP underestimated the TMC, just as political observers overestimated the BJP.

What failed for the BJP? Misfired propaganda, perhaps, or the TMC’s “Bengali versus outsider”campaign. Some say it was the party’s choice of candidates that tilted the votes. The politics of religious polarisation did not work as effectively as they hoped. Mamata also used religious and caste mobilisations and it worked for her. The BJP is a strong, cadre-based party, like the Left, but they missed reading the voter in Bengal. As a Bengali would tell you, Ram worshipped Durga!

But political analysis is largely speculation. We still haven’t been able to devise a methodology to determine how the Indian voter decides who they vote for.

It has been widely and internationally reported that India’s current Covid devastation was fuelled by the callous political rallies in the states and union territory that polled, unregulated public gatherings, mass protests, and religious carnivals. If the migrant exodus defined India 2020, then the drone shots of burning ghats is India’s 2021. These pictures and scenes of people gasping for breath while waiting for hospital beds fuelled public anger and sullied the carefully groomed image of India’s prime minister at home and abroad. This is Narendra Modi’s greatest crisis since he took charge in 2014. Did it also destroy his dream of conquering Bengal?

The government reportedly ignored warnings by their own advisors and scientists. They didn’t think it was important to discuss with other elected state governments, the opposition parties, and healthcare personnel. India reported over four lakh new cases on Saturday – a new global record. On Sunday, there were 3,689 deaths, the highest single-day statistic.

The death wave came just after polling was over in the four states, West Bengal being the only exception of a dangerous eight-phase polling. The Election Commission responsible for this curiously and suspiciously long drawn election refused to change the schedule despite protests and requests. The Madras High Court went as far to say the commission should be charged with “murder”. The impact of the surge in voting pattern may have partially impacted WB results.

What would this election mean for the BJP and the TMC?

As India’s only woman chief minister and the tallest opposition leader and street fighter, Mamata Banerjee fuels hope for a healthy democracy by halting the BJP juggernaut. It has been a day for regional forces posing a true challenge. From a toehold, the BJP has firmed its grip. But they could do with some introspection and probably a professional strategist to hold a mirror to the prime minister. Hubris, they must acknowledge, did them in.

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