“What Bengal thinks today, India will think tomorrow” said Gopal Krishna Gokhale, India’s noted Independence leader. Mamata Banerjee has proved him right in 2021. Call it a trifecta or a hat trick, the resolute lady saw off a formidable Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) challenge to retain West Bengal for a record third term.
Banerjee is now India’s only woman chief minister and truly in a league of her own. And here we were — a lady with a fractured leg in a wheelchair — taking on the might of India’s ruling party. The Bengal win reflected the little guy winning against everything that was thrown at her.
Consider the stakes. Amit Shah, the chief strategist of the BJP, broke the All India Trinamool Congress (TMC) with near 40 defections. The BJP was armed with unlimited money power so much so that even veteran BJP leaders were shocked. Modi addressed nearly 20 public meetings and as I wrote in an earlier SWAT analysis, the BJP made it “Modi versus Mamata”.
Modi versus Mamata
This win, with the awnings of tomorrow, is huge. First because it was Modi versus Mamata, and the Prime Minister of India owns this defeat. Don’t let any BJP spin tell you otherwise.
Till date, with its spectacular run at the electoral box office, the BJP under Modi and Shah had divorced electoral wins from governance or the lack of it. That is over for good.
The central collapse on the vicious second wave of COVID-19 and the entirety avoidable deaths of people from the shortage of oxygen will come back to haunt the BJP.
Since the big two in the BJP only care about election victories, the next electoral contests are huge — Punjab and Uttar Pradesh — where the familiar tactics of polarisation won’t work as people are losing loved ones to lack of basic medical facilities and worse — having police reports filed if they dare to complain.
Today’s election results have shown that a strong rooted regional leadership is capable of taking on the BJP’s electoral juggernaut and besting it. See Kerala, where Pinarayi Vijayan — in a state which never re-elects parties twice — has won again. This win is for the way Vijayan tackled Covid-19. Even Tamil Nadu, which has finally given M K Stalin a chance — is a vote for rooted regional leadership.
Sadly for the Congress that is what they are currently not providing to India. Presently the Congress — in the grip of an endemic leadership crisis — is the predictable loser across states. Specially Kerala were Rahul Gandhi, former Congress president and currently member of Parliament from Wayanad, campaigned extensively. Gandhi makes all the right policy calls and is well-meaning but, needs an X factor to endear himself to voters.
Back to the Battle Royale
BJP followed its tried and trusted template for a win in West Bengal which Shah had announced was his dream. Banerjee was attacked as “Begum” and the BJP said it would remove the “minority veto” from Bengal. The BJP claimed that in Bengal, the majority was discriminated against in welfare schemes creating a sense of persecution among voters.
Banerjee took this attack headlong. She recited the “Chandi paath” at public meetings and emphasised Bengal was for all.
As a woman I have to place on record that the prime minister’s mocking “Didi oh Didi” at every public meeting made my skin crawl. The TMC said it was a cheap cat call and it really was — reminded you of every street corner paan shop in India where louts stand and harass women. I would like to believe that the support “didi” got — as Mamata is know universally — in Bengal was a repudiation of toxic masculinity.
The optics were certainly in place for the campaign. Banerjee, in a wheelchair, campaigning in every constituency and Modi with his flowing beard (a nod perhaps to Bengal’s most distinguished son Rabindranath Tagore). After 20 years as a journalist I have to say I have never seen a more hard fought election.
Banerjee pulled off a real victory. The eight phase election done to suit the BJP and all sorts of vile personal attacks did not deter her.
The political pendulum has swung. And, now BJP is likely to be judged by its much ballyhooed governance claims which currently include providing oxygen and the COVID-19 vaccines to all Indians.
And, that won’t be an issue you can manage the headlines on. Perform or perish. Meanwhile, in Bengal — Khela sesh.