Bengal 2021: Why Mamata Still Rules the Roost Despite a Strong BJP
A major reason for Mamata maintaining an edge over her opponents is the huge success of her pro-poor schemes.
Election campaigns throw up sudden, unanticipated, and potentially game-changing events. The image of West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee lying prone on a hospital bed with her left foot in plaster and her face scrunched in pain, is one such.
No matter what the facts of the case are — whether she was assaulted on Wednesday in Nandigram soon after filing her nomination papers, or whether she is amping up a simple accident to garner sympathy votes, as the BJP claims — the image carries a powerful emotional charge in the midst of this bitter and fractious poll season in West Bengal.
It is also symbolic in a sense, for the Trinamool Congress (TMC) chief and two-time chief minister of Bengal is facing the biggest attack yet on her political career.
The BJP, the party at the Centre, has pulled out all the stops to wrest the state from her, and has kept up a steady drumbeat of the charges of nepotism, corruption, and minority appeasement against her government.
Mamata’s Nandigram Move is a Calculated Gambit
But Mamata, the grassroots leader who took on the might of the long-ruling Left Front in West Bengal, and eventually toppled them in 2011, knows all about fighting fierce — and astute — political battles. If any leader in Bengal truly has a finger on the pulse of the people on the ground, it is her.
If the BJP’s electoral Machiavelli is Amit Shah, Mamata (with a little help from poll strategist Prashant Kishor) is her party’s own intuitive, inventive and tireless electoral battering ram, adept at deploying all the weapons in her armoury to vanquish those who challenge her.
Take her decision to contest from Nandigram, the crucible of the massive anti-land acquisition protests of 2007, which turned out to be the beginning of the end of the Left Front, and ultimately catapulted her to power. Nandigram is also the stronghold of her former acolyte and comrade-in-arms, Suvendu Adhikari, who ditched her and joined the BJP in December 2020.
Clearly, Mamata’s move is a calculated gambit, aimed at once to rekindle memories of her gallant leadership of the farmers’ protests in Nandigram, her championing of the cause of the voiceless, and to take the fight straight into the enemy camp.
It makes her look like a fearless leader — it is, in fact, a brave move — and is bound to energise her cadre.
Mamata’s Decision to Take On Suvendu Adhikari On His Turf May Inspire Demoralised TMC Workers
The BJP has mocked the decision, saying that Mamata has fled her usual constituency, Bhowanipore in Kolkata, fearing that she would lose there. They have also said that she opted for Nandigram because Muslims constitute 30 percent of its electorate, thereby reiterating the charge that the minorities are with her because she has been showering them with state largesse.
It is true that Mamata has suffered an erosion in her vote share in Bhowanipore. The Muslim vote, too, will certainly go in her favour in Nandigram.
However, there’s no doubt that her decision to take on the ‘traitor’ Adhikari on his own turf, when she could have easily opted for any safe seat, will inspire her party workers who have been left somewhat demoralised by the exodus of several TMC leaders to the BJP.
BJP’s Stunning Inroads Into Bengal
The BJP has, of course, made stunning inroads into West Bengal.
In the 2019 Lok Sabha elections, it won 18 out of 42 seats in the state while the Trinamool Congress won 22. This was a staggering feat, considering that the party had managed to get only 2 seats in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections. The BJP’s vote share also shot up — from 10.16 percent in the 2016 Assembly polls to 40.64 percent in 2019.
Though the TMC did not see a significant decline in its vote share — it garnered 43.69 percent of votes in 2019 as against 44.91 percent in 2016 — Mamata knows only too well that she needs to stem the slide and halt the BJP’s advance. Else, come 27 March, when the state goes to the polls, the fight could become too close for comfort.
Mamata’s Poll Planks & Sloganeering — And BJP’s Weak Attempts at Thwarting Them
The lynchpin of Mamata’s battle plan against the BJP is the nativistic ‘insider versus outsider’ narrative. Since the BJP is essentially a party of the Hindi heartland, in rally after rally, she has raised the cry of “aamra” (us) under threat from “ora” (them) — those who are people of the soil (like herself and her party) and those who are external forces — invaders, if you will.
The TMC’s poll slogan, ‘Bangla Nijer Meyekei Chay (Bangla wants none other than her own daughter), raises this emotional narrative a notch higher.
Attributed to Prashant Kishor, it’s a smart ploy, as it not only holds up Mamata as Bengal’s own, but also subtly alters her image from the protective older sister (Didi) to the daughter (meye) who needs protection from outsiders.
Unfortunately for the BJP, the attempt to turn the slogan around to its own advantage has largely backfired.
The party came out with a counter slogan — “Bangla Tar Meyekei Chay, Pishi Ke Noi” (Bangla wants her own daughter, not an aunt), which is a reference to Mamata’s relationship with her allegedly corrupt nephew Abhishek Banerjee. However, this sounds tasteless and ageist, and merely seems to re-emphasise her identity as Bengal’s daughter.
Mamata’s Secular Credentials Have Never Been in Question; BJP Can’t Continue Portraying Her as ‘Anti-Hindu’
One of the biggest accusations against Mamata’s 10-year rule in Bengal is that she has indulged in blatant appeasement of the minority community in an effort to shore up their votes. The charge is not entirely without reason — she has given stipends to Muslim clerics, famously stopped Durga Puja immersions in favour of Muharram processions, and so on.
However, Mamata is politician enough to play both sides if needed. Last year, she started giving stipends to Hindu priests and promised to build houses for them. This week on the campaign trail she visited several temples and also recited the Chandipaath — mantras for the worship of the goddess Chandi.
It made the BJP go quite apoplectic with rage, as Mamata indulging in temple-hopping and reciting Chandi mantras does not fit the party’s narrative that she is ‘anti-Hindu’ by virtue of her alleged ‘appeasement’ of Muslims.
However, the fact is, Mamata’s secular credentials have never been in doubt. Nor is her Hindu identity something that she has excavated out of nowhere. She is known to regularly worship the goddess Kali and has done Chandipaath on stage earlier, too. Come election time, and especially if her opponents are portraying her as anti-Hindu, it is more realpolitik and less opportunism if she has decided to wax eloquent about her Hindu identity.
What Explains Mamata’s Popularity?
So, how exactly is Mamata faring when it comes to countering the BJP’s star-studded electoral challenge in Bengal?
Though only the foolhardy would dare to predict the outcome of an election, those who have been closely following the mood on the ground say that there is no discernible ‘wave’ for the BJP in the state.
There may be some anger against Mamata’s inability to stop the corruption by her party people, but on the whole, she continues to have a significant edge over her opponents.
One of the reasons for that is the stupendous success and popularity of her welfare schemes for the poor.
Whether it is free rations, free medicines, entitlements for the girl child, widows, the elderly, the disabled and so on, Mamata has been able to almost universalise many of the social security schemes.
For example, though the Centre’s Food Security Act specifies 6.1 crore beneficiaries in West Bengal, the state government provides rations to another 4 crore people. At the duare sarkaar (government at your doorstep) programme, launched in December 2020 with the aim of providing easy delivery of government schemes such as Khadya Shathi, Swasthya Shathi, Kanyashree and so on, over two crore people were able to get themselves registered for various entitlements.
Is There Really a ‘BJP Wave’?
In the face of Mamata’s massive welfare outreach, all that the BJP has been able to throw is the accusation that she has prevented the implementation of certain central schemes such as Ayushman Bharat. (The state’s Swasthya Shathi scheme is similar to Ayushman Bharat).
Moreover, beyond the generic promise of jobs and development, the party has not been able to articulate what exactly it will give to the people of Bengal should it come to power.
There is a sense amongst observers that many BJP voters in the state are not quite happy with the party embracing tainted politicians from the TMC. The BJP’s major TMC conquests — Mukul Roy, Suvendu Adhikari and Sovon Chatterjee — were all named in the Saradha chit fund scam.
Still, Mamata knows that the fight with the BJP is closer than she would have liked. One will have to wait and see if her current status as the ‘injured’, ‘assaulted’ daughter of Bengal shifts the electoral dynamics in the state in any significant way.
(Shuma Raha is a journalist and author. He 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.)
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