West Bengal has put Mamata on notice
The Trinamool Congress’s future will depend on how the CM conducts herself in the coming monthsUpdated: Jun 10, 2019 20:43 IST
The election of 2019 threw up many dramatic outcomes — the decimation of the mahaghathbandhan in Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, the total failure of the Congress in the three states it had won barely six months earlier and, of course, the defeat of Rahul Gandhi in Amethi. However, apart from Smriti Irani’s spectacular feat, the other triumphs were repeats of the 2014 election. The real surprise of this election was the outcome in West Bengal – a state where the campaign was exceptionally bitter and marred by violence and even vote rigging. In the end, the BJP – hitherto a fringe player – won 18 of the 42 seats and polled 40% of the popular vote – a sharp 23% increase from 2014; the Trinamool Congress won 22 seats with 43% of the popular vote.
The West Bengal outcome was a big setback to Chief Minister and Trinamool Congress (TMC) chief Mamata Banerjee. Having positioned herself as a player in national politics – even a possible prime minister in the event of Modi losing his majority – Banerjee found herself on the backfoot in her home turf. The disaggregated results showed the BJP in the lead in 120 of the state’s 294 Assembly segments – a big leap forward from the seven Assembly seats it won in 2016. The CSDS-Lokniti post-poll survey suggested that the TMC secured the support of only 32% of Hindu voters – down from 40% in 2014 – against 57% for the BJP. The TMC managed to salvage its reputation by winning 70% of the Muslim vote.
The 2019 outcome demolished many myths about West Bengal’s political behaviour.
First, it punctured the notion that Bengal invariably detached itself from the national trend. Since 1980, Bengal had reposed faith in either the Left or the TMC and both were, in effect, regional outfits. The Bengali intelligentsia loved to sneer at the BJP which it viewed as a party of the Hindi belt, detached from the ethos of West Bengal. The BJP made inroads among bhadralok voters in this election but its electoral muscle was provided by the 65% support among Other Backward Castes, 61% among Dalits and 58% among adivasis.
In the past, both the Left and the TMC emerged from the towns and then penetrated rural Bengal. The BJP’s road to political acceptability has begun from the villages.
Second, the belief that sectarian mobilisation had been made redundant in this island of communal amity stood disproved. There was a silent but significant Hindu consolidation behind the BJP and an equally sizable Muslim consolidation in favour of the TMC. This has profound implications. It suggests that if this trend continues and Hindu voters rally behind the BJP in even greater numbers, the TMC will be very vulnerable in the Assembly polls of 2021. In this context, by flying off the handle over taunts of Jai Shri Ram and following it up with a visible show of solidarity with Muslims at an Id gathering in Kolkata, Banerjee may have deepened communal faultlines. Today, the TMC stands in real danger of resembling the Congress in Assam and becoming equated exclusively with minority interests.
Finally, despite the outward show of irritation, Banerjee may not be displeased that Jai Shri Ram has become the symbol of protest. In a recent TV interview, senior TMC parliamentarian Sougata Roy argued that this quasi-religious invocation is “un-Bengali.” Highlighting the Bengali-Hindi divide has become a facet of the TMC’s fightback ever since the incident involving the destruction of Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar’s bust just prior to the final round of polling. The vandalism was blamed on the BJP and gave Banerjee an opening to invoke Bengali sub-nationalism and project the BJP as a party of non-Bengali cretins. The state BJP’s over-dependence on central leaders for tactical direction helped Banerjee’s finger-pointing.
Bengali pride is a powerful plank that was subtly used by the Left in earlier decades. However, in the case of Banerjee, the culture war would have stood a greater chance of success had the state not borne silent witness to the TMC’s crude high-handedness. A reason why hundreds of villages voted collectively for the BJP was to protest against the throttling of democracy during the panchayat polls of 2018. In urban Bengal, a vote for the BJP was a protest against the organised extortion rackets – popularly known as Syndicates – run by TMC leaders.
While dashing her national ambitions, West Bengal hasn’t entirely repudiated Banerjee as yet. However, it has put her on notice. The future will depend on how she conducts herself in the coming months.
Swapan Dasgupta is a member of Parliament (Rajya Sabha)The views expressed are personal
First Published: Jun 10, 2019 20:16 IST