The exit polls made it seem touch and go for Mamata Banerjee. The BJP, led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Home Minister Amit Shah, behaved as though the game was well and truly up for her and her party, the Trinamool Congress (TMC).
Yet, now that the votes are getting counted, it’s clear that the 66-year-old two-time chief minister of Bengal has not only fought the good fight, but has also won big against the BJP, which had pulled out all the stops to unseat her.
At the time of writing, the TMC was leading in 214 out of the 294 Assembly seats in the state, three more than the 211 seats that it had won in the 2016 elections. And even though she has lost in her own seat, Nandigram — defeated by defector and one-time faithful Suvendu Adhikari of the BJP — that bit of personal humiliation will be eclipsed by her party’s phenomenal victory.
Why TMC’s Win is Spectacular
There are several reasons why the TMC’s electoral feat is so spectacular this time. Apart from battling anti-incumbency sentiments, Mamata was also battling the gigantic electoral machinery of the BJP. Sensing a breach in her armour owing to the general disaffection against the TMC, the BJP had thrown its formidable resources into defeating her.
Many of her party members deserted her and flocked to the BJP, not least her one-time right-hand man, Suvendu Adhikari.
And Modi, whose charisma and vote-catching power is legion, held multiple rallies throughout the interminable eight-phase elections, raining down a barrage of taunts and jibes against ‘Didi’ and the charges against her party — corruption, misgovernance and minority appeasement.
The pandemic forgotten, almost the entire top brass of the BJP camped in Bengal to keep up the pressure. If you went by optics alone, it seemed that Mamata was about to be shown the door.
However, the election results show that it is never a good idea to underestimate Mamata and her ability to survive — and triumph over her opponents. In the evolutionary jungle of politics, she is one of the fittest, one of those who can fight the fiercest.
Mamata’s Fighting Spirit & Leadership Qualities
Mamata’s fighting spirit was forged in the smithy of a hardscrabble political career. The virtually unknown youth Congress leader from Kalighat in Kolkata shot into prominence when she defeated CPI(M) stalwart Somnath Chatterjee in the Jadavpur parliamentary seat in 1984. It was a shocker for the CPI(M), West Bengal’s powerful ruling party at the time, and the beginning of a series of confrontations between her and the Left parties in the state.
But each of these battles — the ones that stand out include when she was physically assaulted by a CPM goon on a Kolkata street (1990), and when the police fired upon a rally she had organised in the city (1993) — seemed to make her stronger and cemented her identity as a mass leader.
Mamata Banerjee’s leadership qualities and mass following soon brought her to the national stage. As a Congress MP, and later, as MP and chief of the TMC — a party she launched in 1998 after quitting the Congress — Mamata headed multiple ministries in the Union government, including Railways, Woman and Child Development, and so on.
But perhaps Mamata’s heart was always set on ousting the Left from Bengal, even though they seemed invincible after so many years in power. Despite all her efforts, her party was trounced in the 2006 Assembly polls. Undaunted, the very next year, Mamata Banerjee turned the agitation over land acquisitions in Singur and Nandigram into a battering ram of a relentless mass movement.
The Left never recovered from that onslaught. After 34 years of ruling Bengal, the once invincible CPI(M) fell to Mamata in 2011.
By Stopping BJP Juggernaut, Mamata Has Dealt a Severe Blow to BJP’s Brand of Politics
It has often been said that Mamata is at her best when she is fighting as the underdog. With the BJP bearing down on her with all its money and might, this time, the two-time chief minister did seem like something of an underdog, something of a David to the BJP’s Goliath. But as is her wont, she deployed every weapon in her armoury to take the enemy on.
There were appeals to her ‘Ma-Maati-Manush' credo, appeals to women and girls on whom she has showered multiple welfare schemes; there were rabble-rousing speeches, matching the BJP’s low-blow campaign discourse with her own brand of name-calling; there was the spectacle of her campaigning in a wheelchair — a lone, frail, yet feisty woman with an injured foot battling ‘outsiders’ who were trying to supplant “Banglar nijer meye” (Bengal’s own daughter).
One does not know to what extent Mamata’s resounding victory is a vote of confidence for her, and to what extent it is Bengal’s collective revulsion against the BJP’s hate-filled politics and naked greed for power at the expense of public health at a time when the country is in the grip of the deadly second wave of the pandemic.
What is clear, though, is the fact that by stopping the BJP in Bengal, Mamata has dealt a severe blow to the party’s, and indeed, the prime minister’s carefully-crafted image as a supreme entity whose writ must run throughout the country.
What Does TMC’s Victory Mean for Bengal?
It is a blow to the idea of politics as enunciated by the BJP, and a heartening shout out to the populace that there are other alternatives to that idea — that able and charismatic regional leaders could well be the alternatives that many are looking for.
But in the short term, the question to be asked is: what will this victory mean for West Bengal? Will it bring good governance, the perceived lack of which had, in large part, made Mamata open to such a powerful challenge from the BJP? Will she root out corruption and misrule in her party now that the electorate has given her such a generous third stint in power?
Mamata could well have an impact on the national stage at some point in the future. But first, she needs to set things right at home.
(Shuma Raha is a journalist and author. She tweets @ShumaRaha. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses, nor is responsible for them.)