The Bengal model to counter the BJP
The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) brought all of its political, financial and institutional might to bear in a bid to win the election in West Bengal. Virtually every other party in India would have folded under the pressure, but not the Trinamool Congress (TMC).
Things looked grim for the TMC after the BJP surged to win 18 out of 42 seats in West Bengal during the 2019 Lok Sabha election. For many analysts, the BJP takeover of West Bengal in the 2021 state election was a fait accompli. The BJP had made its presence felt, its brand of Hindu-Muslim polarisation had proven effective in getting votes, and the backing of the Centre and its various instruments made it almost unbeatable.
But the TMC turned the tables in the 2021 election, winning a massive 214 seats (out of a total of 292 contested seats) in the state to 76 seats for the BJP (with a 10 percentage point victory margin).
How did the TMC do it? Fundamentally, the BJP knew it would have to win 60-65% of the Hindu vote in a state in which about 30% of the electorate is from the Muslim community. The TMC had to develop a narrative to counter the extraordinary Hindu-Muslim polarisation that was coming its way. With a campaign built around the popularity of Mamata Banerjee, the TMC sought to reduce the polarisation through the politics of gender and welfare.
Banerjee’s TMC has assiduously built a base of support through a series of welfare schemes around educating girls and making sure there is no underage marriage, in addition to other targeted schemes on issues such as health care. In most of these schemes, the daughter or female head of household is a key beneficiary — which has built a strong base of support for the TMC among the state’s women voters.
Furthermore, the quantum of targeted benefits has made Banerjee widely seen as the primary provider for the poor. This solid base of support among the poor and among women largely neutralised the BJP’s attempts at Hindu-Muslim polarisation.
This is similar to the pattern of political support that many analysts believe Prime Minister (PM) Narendra Modi has benefited from. Highly popular targeted schemes, such as those around gas cylinders, and the advertising around them, have been a key electoral tool for the BJP — in building an aura around the PM. This has been crucial for the BJP to develop a broad coalition of support from female voters and the poor. What the West Bengal election shows is that charismatic regional leaders, who have the capacity to deliver significant targeted benefits, may plausibly use a similar strategy to win over voters.
More worrying for the BJP is the fact that TMC’s strategy did not seem to be a case of “Bengali exceptionalism”. With a growing farmers’ movement in north India, and seething anger at the government’s feckless handling of the second wave of the coronavirus pandemic, there is growing frustration at the Centre’s ability to care for the needy.
Even in Bengal, we heard complaints about the BJP being a party built around crony capitalism that is out of touch with the common person. The BJP has shown that its brand of politics is almost unassailable when competing against caste-based parties or other parties that indulge in a certain kind of identity-based politics. But the TMC’s triumph shows the BJP is susceptible to a politics built around economic class and gender.
The politics of gender observed in this election is more important. It was about more than targeted benefits. It was also about the visuals of women displaying political power, from all-women’s rallies to making explicit demands on the system. This generated a political cost to the hyper-masculine and misogynistic comments attributed to some senior BJP leaders.
When political interest is often caricatured by religion and caste, the politics of gender brings to the fore new demands and expectations that must be met by political actors. And it can plausibly change the ugly rhetoric that has characterised Indian politics over the past few years.
Banerjee, with this landslide victory, immediately becomes the most important Opposition leader in India. She has shown that it is possible to construct an alternative “progressive” narrative that can take the BJP’s politics of Hindu nationalism head-on. Moreover, her reputation as a fearless street fighter will no doubt win her a large share of admirers.
As our polity returns from election mode to the ugly realities of an India suffering a humanitarian tragedy of epic proportions, our national politics is being remade. While the BJP still has to be seen as the favourite to win the national election in 2024, make no mistake, this victory shows that the BJP can be beaten even when it unleashes its full might.
Will the West Bengal state election serve as the launch pad for a credible challenge to the BJP? As they say, khela hobe (the game is on).
Neelanjan Sircar is an assistant professor at Ashoka University and senior visiting fellow, Centre for Policy Research
The views expressed are personal