Lok Sabha elections 2019: A new challenge for Mamata Banerjee on home turf
The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) dented her key bastions, gobbled up a mammoth chunk of the Left vote, and pitted itself as the key challenger to the state’s ruling Trinamool Congress (TMC) in the next assembly polls due in 2021.Updated: May 24, 2019 08:15 IST
She was tipped to be a kingmaker in 2019 by her party leaders, but on Thursday, West Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee faced her first major setback since she rode to power in the state eight years ago. The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) dented her key bastions, gobbled up a mammoth chunk of the Left vote, and pitted itself as the key challenger to the state’s ruling Trinamool Congress (TMC) in the next assembly polls due in 2021.
But even at a depleted strength, Banerjee’s party is set to be the fourth-largest in the new Lok Sabha — after the BJP, the Congress and the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam — and continues to have clout since the Congress (52 seats) failed again to emerge as an undisputed leader of the Opposition camp.
Banerjee took a guarded stand and quickly called for introspection as the trend became clear. “Congratulations to the winners. But all losers are not losers. We have to do a complete review and then we will share our views with you all,” she tweeted.
Her politics, however, may change forever. Till date, her prime adversary was the Communist Party of India (Marxist)-led Left. Banerjee shaped her politics as “Left of the Left”, taking an extreme stand against reforms measures such as the land bill, foreign direct investment, and even the now-aborted privatisation bid of Air India. In her initial days as an administrator, she was opposed to bus fare and power tariff hikes, while she built her image around the principle that her government would not acquire land for big industries.
She opposed several major policy decisions by the BJP. She criticised the demonetisation of high-value banknotes and questioned the Indian Air Force’s February strike targeting a terror camp in Pakistan’s Balakot. Emerging as a fierce Modi critic, she even refused to accept the Centre’s popular Ayushman Bharat health insurance scheme and rolled out her own version. Yet, the Trinamool’s dream of emerging as a key player in 2019 fizzled out within the first few hours of counting.
The Trinamool managed to increase its vote share from 39.79% in 2014 to 43.3% in 2019. The BJP, on the other hand, jumped to 40.2% from 17.02% in the 2014 elections, making it a two-way battle between the two parties in Bengal — an unthinkable situation even five years ago when the Left commanded around 30% of the popular vote.
With a large chunk of the Left vote rapidly shifting outside the leftist sphere, the TMC now faces a clear challenger: the BJP. The Left and the Congress appear to have been reduced to footnotes in the state’s political chapter.
“The Opposition votes have consolidated in favour of the BJP. In West Bengal, political protection is required to survive. People who didn’t get protection from the Trinamool, sought it from the BJP. With the Left and the Congress being weak forces, the BJP emerged as the preferred choice for these voters,” said economist Abhirup Sarkar.
But Banerjee is not a stranger to ups and downs. From being the lone Trinamool parliamentarian in 2004, she won 19 seats and got the railway ministry in 2009, when the first signs of discontent against the Left became visible. But this time the Trinamool’s trouble is deeper.
The 2019 results show that the ruling party has alienated a substantial share of the Bengali middle-class even as the BJP is fast consolidating Hindu voters.
Debashish Dasgupta, a Kolkata-based political analyst, said: “Mamata’s appeasement for Muslims has not been taken kindly by many. She had boasted of completing 99% of work for Muslims, but the reality is that even many Muslims have junked her claims.”
In one of his poll speeches, BJP chief Amit Shah alleged that Banerjee’s government allocated ~4,000 crore for madrasa education even as the entire higher education budget was lower than that. When social media was discussing last February that Saraswati Puja could not be performed in some schools, the BJP tried to reap benefits.
At another rally in Bengal last month, Shah said, “Mamata didi has made Urdu compulsory in an Islampur school. Our workers who tried to oppose were brutally murdered.”
While the appeasement issue was a part of the political discourse, extortion by miscreants allegedly backed by the Trinamool emerged as a real problem for many. “If you want to buy a property, open a shop or even renovate your house, you have to pay the Trinamool tax to local party leaders,” said Dasgupta.
The problem grew to such an extent that a local Bengali daily once reported that Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina had to complain to Banerjee about how one of her friends was being harassed in the posh Salt Lake locality near Kolkata for not paying money to a local Trinamool councillor.
The alarm bells have been sounded. Banerjee, a veteran of many wars, has two years to address the new challenges. Else, the BJP for the first time can seriously dream of ascending the Bengal throne in 2021.
First Published: May 24, 2019 03:40 IST