After Mamata Banerjee's Trinamool Congress won a third term in Bengal with a two-thirds majority, a question has naturally come up: Has Mamata Banerjee provided an effective model for defeating the BJP?
No doubt, Banerjee's 'Khela Hobe' defence of her turf in Bengal is creditable, especially as she was faced with a well-funded, well-oiled BJP election machinery, armed with a battery of Central leaders, polarising tactics, and alleged backing of Central institutions.
But it would be simplistic to think that the Bengal 2021 formula can be replicated against Narendra Modi’s BJP in the 2024 national election.
However, there are some elements from Mamata's campaign that could be extremely crucial if used in the run-up to 2024. More on that later.
Despite the BJP's dominance in the last seven years, state elections have provided a few blueprints on how it can be challenged and even defeated. Though these aren't watertight categories, broadly five models can be seen with Bengal 2021 representing the sixth.
Models of Defeating the BJP
1. Delhi 2015 and 2020
The basic component of this model was a localised campaign focussed around Arvind Kejriwal's personality, welfare measures, such as free electricity, better education, and health facilities. Most importantly, it involved a relatively non-critical approach towards Prime Minister Narendra Modi based on the assumptions that not all "Modi voters" are "BJP voters".
This model has been followed in a few other state elections such as Telangana 2018, Odisha 2014, and 2019. To some extent, the Congress also followed it in Haryana in 2019 as its state leadership took a position in favour of the abrogation of Article 370, helping it win over a major chunk of Modi voters, especially from the Jat community.
2. Bihar 2015
Though centered around the personality of Nitish Kumar, the fundamental principle of this challenge to the BJP was the Mahagathbandhan concept — an effort to unite all anti-BJP forces in a coherent coalition with effective transfer of votes. The idea is also partly based on consolidating anti-BJP, especially minority, votes.
The SP, BSP and RLD tried to replicate this in the 2019 Lok Sabha election in Uttar Pradesh but failed. The JMM, Congress, RJD, and Left, however, succeded using a similar model in the 2019 Jharkhand election. The recent campaign of the Congress-led alliance in Assam was also based on a similar premise, but it couldn't end up defeating the BJP.
3. 2017-18 Congress Success
The one year period from the winter of 2017 to end-2018 was the best phase for the Congress in the recent past. It managed to give the BJP a scare in Gujarat, defeated it comprehensively in Chhattisgarh, slightly less comprehensively in Rajasthan and managed to cobble up an unstable majority in Karnataka and Madhya Pradesh.
If one sets aside Karnataka, where the focus was on Siddaramaiah's personal appeal and welfare schemes, the Congress had a common approach in all other states — trying to channelise state-level anti-incumbency against BJP, focussing on livelihood woes due to BJP's failures on the economic front, especially issues like agrarian distress, unemployment, and price rise. The disaffection due to demonetisation and GST also helped Congress keep the focus on economic issues and prevented BJP from invoking identity beyond a point. In all these states – Gujarat, Chhattisgarh, Rajasthan, and Madhya Pradesh – the Congress didn't project a chief miniterial face.
One part of this model was similar to Delhi as in most of these states, many Modi voters ended up voting for the Congress due to state level factors, which also explains the BJP sweep in these states in the 2019 Lok Sabha polls.
Buoyed by the success in these states, the Congress extended its economic focus to the 2019 Lok Sabha campaign but it failed due to the inability to take on Modi's popularity and increasing national security focus, especially after the Pulwama attack and Balakot strike.
4. Bihar 2020
Though this effort didn't end up succeeding, Tejashwi Yadav led a spirited campaign against the Nitish Kumar-led NDA in Bihar. In some ways, this is also similar to the 2019 Jharkhand campaign. Like the JMM, the RJD was decimated in the 2019 Lok Sabha elections and few expected it to give such a contest. But like Hemant Soren, Tejashwi Yadav managed to weave a strong coalition with the Congress and Left parties and led a sharp, issue-based campaign focussed on unemployment and the youth.
The RJD was also aided by BJP ally LJP, trying to play spoiler against Nitish Kumar.
The sharp, issue-based, single leader focused campaign led by Tejashwi has become an important model for parties challenging NDA governments at the state level.
5. Maharashtra 2019
This is of course a very different 'post-poll' model of defeating the BJP, by winning over its pre-poll ally, the Shiv Sena. In a sense, it was a reverse of what the BJP did with the Mahagathbandhan in Bihar in 2017.
6. West Bengal 2021
Mamata Banerjee and her advisor Prashant Kishor have now given another model of defeating the BJP. But what exactly is the Bengal model? Besides a strong focus on Mamata Banerjee's personality, a narrative of regional pride and a near complete consolidation of Muslim votes, this model is based on a few critical aspects. Ashoka University scholar Nilanjan Sircar stressed on two of these aspects in a column: Welfare and gender.
Sircar writes, "With a campaign built around the popularity of Mamata Banerjee, the TMC sought to reduce the polarisation through the politics of gender and welfare."
Asim Ali, a scholar with the Centre for Policy Research, writes that the key element in the Mamata model is regional pride.
"In fact, she has sought to make the defence of ‘Bengali identity’ and ‘Bengali pride’ in the face of an authoritarian Centre the fulcrum of her campaign."
According to Ali, leaders like Naveen Patnaik, K Chandrashekhar Rao and Naveen Patnaik could in future focus more on "Odia, Telangana, and Andhra pride" rather than just their welfare schemes, when faced with an increasingly beligerent BJP.
So, summarising Sircar and Ali, gender card, welfare, and regional pride maybe said to be main components of the Mamata model of defeating the BJP.
Can the Mamata Model Work Against the BJP in 2024?
To answer this question, it is important to differentiate between Mamata Banerjee and her formula of defeating the BJP employed in the Bengal election. This means that Banerjee can potentially lead an anti-BJP coalition nationally but she may have to deploy a different formula than what worked for her at the state level.
The Mamata model, though proven to be an extremely effective one, judging by the election results, is still one of a state-level incumbent against a strong BJP challenge.
It still may not provide an answer to challenging Modi in 2024. Now let's look at the three individual elements of this model — welfare, gender, and regional pride.
Regional pride could emerge as a counter narrative to Modi if expressed as a common aim of fighting for federalism. This could potentially provide a platform for the coming together of regional leaders like Banerjee, Uddhav Thackeray, MK Stalin, Arvind Kejriwal, K Chandrashekhar Rao, YS Jaganmohan Reddy etc.
However, it may not help defeat BJP in its strongest territories like UP, Bihar, MP, Rajasthan, Chhattisgarh, and Gujarat.
Welfare schemes as a tool for winning elections are more doable for incumbent governments rather than challengers. Therefore a strong economy focussed campaign, like what was led by the Congress between 2017 and 2018, might be a more workable model for any challenger.
The women vote factor may have to be tweaked a bit if it has to be used nationally. At the state level, incumbent governments are better placed to use this as they can bring women-oriented welfare schemes, bringing tangible benefits to this demographic. This cannot be done by challengers — Congress' failure to move the women vote in Assam despite the promise of an allowance for housewives, is a case in point.
Therefore, nationally, winning the women vote may require projecting a strong female leader as the PM candidate, whether it is Banerjee, Mayawati, or Priyanka Gandhi may be debated.
Another factor is that Banerjee had a very clear cushion in the form of Muslim votes, which account for 27 percent of West Bengal’s population. She may have won over 80 percent of these votes, so about 40-45 percent Hindu votes were enough for her to win Bengal. In the Hindi heartland, Western India and Karnataka, a much larger chunk of Hindu votes would be needed to defeat the BJP.
Which Model Can Work?
None of the models discussed above are easy to scale up at the national level, as most of them are customised for state level battles. Some elements can be taken such as:
1. Targetting BJP on economic and other policy oriented issues, especially healthcare in the era of the pandemic
2. Focus on women votes
3. Plank of federalism to unite regional forces
4. Sharp campaign focused on a limited number of issues
5. Projecting a clear leader to take on Modi
However, even these factors may not be enough to dislodge a regime as entrenched as the present Modi government. A social movement on the ground may be required, such as what the India Against Corruption movement did to the UPA. Modi's second tenure has witnessed two protest movements much larger than the IAC movement in terms of scale — the anti-Citizenship Amendment Act protest and the farmers' protest against the new agricultural laws.
Though it is still early, the recent Panchayat poll results from Uttar Pradesh and earlier civic polls in Haryana do indicate that the farmers' movement may harm the BJP in certain pockets.
These two movements may have laid the ground for more future movements against the government and the pandemic's second wave may have added to the dissatisfaction. Which political entity uses this space and under what cause remains to be seen.