Didi braves BJP storm to pull off a win for the ages
When the West Bengal polls were announced on February 26, Mamata Banerjee faced one of the toughest battles of her political life.
Her party, the Trinamool Congress, had been bruised by a surging Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in the Lok Sabha polls two years ago, and public anger over grassroots corruption, especially over relief after cyclone Amphan in 2020, was simmering. The BJP engineered some high-profile defections and looked poised to consolidate its gains.
But on Sunday, the 66-year-old political maverick, who began her career as a youth leader and clawed her way up the ranks, pulled off an extraordinary victory that was as significant, if not more hard-fought, than her watershed 2011 ouster of the 34-year-old communist rule.
The remarkable turnaround strategy that Banerjee effected, along with her trusted lieutenants and strategist Prashant Kishor, was built on five prongs: Build on the goodwill of the state government’s welfare schemes, cultivate Banerjee’s strong connect with the state’s women voters who historically vote in high numbers, consolidate the party’s appeal with Muslims who form 27% of the state but not allow a similar consolidation of Hindus behind the BJP, focus on the BJP’s weak local leadership and lack of a credible face to take on Banerjee, and weave in a strong element of sub-nationalism and Bengali sentiment to contrast her campaign from that of the “non-Bengalis”.
The result: The TMC had won or was leading on 214 seats, poll body data at 11.40pm showed. “This is Bengal’s victory. Only Bengal can do it,” Banerjee told supporters on Sunday evening. The fact that Banerjee herself lost narrowly to her former-protege-turned-foe Suvendu Adhikari -- her party is seeking a recount -- only adds to the near-mythical quality of her win.
The first element of the strategy was the government’s focus on welfare. Since 2019, the state government launched major outreach campaigns such as Duare Sarkar (government at your doorstep) and Didi ke Bolo (Tell didi helpine) that built on the base of Banerjee’s signature schemes such as Kanyashree (cash incentives to girl children for their education), Rupasree (cash incentives for weddings), Khadya Sathi (food security) and Swasthya Sathi (health insurance card).
In all, the government launched 64 such welfare schemes, whose beneficiaries could be found even in the remotest parts of the state. The outreach campaigns reached at least nine million people, and the helpline logged 500,000 complaints. It helped mitigate some of the anger around grassroots corruption.
“People have given a fitting reply to the outsiders. Mamata Banerjee won because of her development projects, the Duare Sarkar (government at the doorstep) project for instance,” said education minister and TMC secretary general Partha Chatterjee.
This tied into the second reason behind the results: women. Historically, the state’s high turnout numbers are propelled by women voters, who are also the main beneficiaries of the welfare schemes such as Swasthya Sathi, where the health insurance card is issued to the seniormost woman voter in the family.
Since her early political years, Banerjee — the country’s only sitting woman CM — has had a strong connect with women voters whom she separately addresses at every rally as ‘mothers and sisters’. TMC built on this connect by projecting Banerjee as Bengal’s daughter in their campaign tagline -- Bengal wants its daughter.
“The trend indicates that women voters supported the TMC in large numbers. The fact that almost all BJP leaders made personal remarks against Banerjee did not go down well with the masses. BJP state president Dilip Ghosh even suggested that the chief minister should wear shorts,” said Udayan Bandopadhyay, a political analyst.
The third element was religious polarisation and counter-polarisation. In the face of a communally charged campaign, where BJP leaders repeatedly accused Banerjee of minority appeasement, the Muslim community consolidated behind TMC. This helped the party win in traditional Congress bastions in Malda, where it picked up eight out of 12 seats and Murshidabad, where it was leading in 18 of the 22 seats.
At the same time, Banerjee played up her Hindu identity, challenged the BJP publicly to chant scriptures and increased the number of Hindu candidates -- especially from lower castes — to ensure that the Hindu vote didn’t consolidate behind the BJP, a factor that was responsible for the party’s wins in several national and state elections. At rally after rally, she recounted how she helped many Hindus, didn’t favour any community. This lack of counter polarisation — the Hindu community appeared to have voted on traditional lines of region, caste and local concerns — helped TMC secure its bastion in south Bengal, where the BJP was nearly routed.
The fourth element was the TMC’s concerted efforts to tamp down on factional fights at a time when dissidence erupted in the BJP over the entry of several turncoats from Banerjee’s party. The BJP ended up fielding several turncoats, sparking intense discontent within its ranks, especially among the old guard. This was evident when BJP supporters in Singur vandalised the party office after local aspirants were overlooked in favour of Rabindranath Bhattarcharya, a TMC defector. Bhattacharya, despite being a four-time MLA, lost the seat on Sunday.
“Fielding so many turncoats turned the tide against the BJP because the people did not accept these candidates,” said Bandopadhyay.
“We have to analyse whether there was something wrong with our campaign strategy and decisions taken by the central leadership,” said BJP state general secretary Sayantan Basu.
The final factor was Banerjee herself, the tallest political leader in the state who was able to build a narrative of Bengali vs outsider (bohiragato) and positioned herself as the protector of Bengali culture and language. Even as TMC appeared behind for the initial part of the campaign — a fact acknowledged by party leaders — Banerjee was able to rebuild the narrative around herself.
“The BJP initially managed to raise an anti-establishment wave but it died down as polling progressed,” said Bengal’s deputy parliamentary affairs minister Tapas Roy.
Banerjee’s own clean image and record of personal integrity was able to deflect the allegations of corruption and scandal flung at her by the BJP and her image in a wheelchair dominated airwaves. The BJP simply found no local face of equal standing to take her on.