In the run-up to the 2016 assembly elections in West Bengal, while addressing an election rally, Chief Minister and Trinamool Congress (TMC) supremo Mamata Banerjee, without mincing her words, had said: “Forget about who the Trinamool candidate is. In all the 294 constituencies of the state, I am the candidate.”
A rather pompous claim, it may seem at first glance. But what Mamata had said then was of immense political significance and it holds true even now, as the state heads to yet another assembly election in barely 12 weeks’ time.
Forget the anti-incumbency, forget what the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) claims to be a ‘wave’ for BJP, forget the steady stream of defections from ruling TMC to BJP ... the one factor that is still weighing heavily in favour of TMC and what continues to be the biggest worrying factor for BJP’s big push for power in Bengal is Mamata’s appeal as a mass leader.
So much so, that BJP may well be forced to fight these elections without promoting any particular face as a prospective chief ministerial candidate.
This is part of a very conscious and well-thought-out strategy on the part of the saffron brigade, knowing full well that the moment a chief ministerial face is brought to the fore, comparisons with Mamata will follow inevitably and that could actually help TMC score a few crucial points over BJP in a political debate, given Mamata’s reach in the hinterlands of Bengal – both, as the administrative head of the state and also as the conceptual-construct of a leader who speaks the language and walks the talk of a commoner.
The chemistry of elections
Mind you, elections are not all about arithmetic. They are also a fair bit about chemistry. And no one in Bengal’s current political milieu understands this better than Mamata. Had it only been about numbers then Mamata could have never managed the kind of political ‘tsunami’ that catapulted her to power, unseating a 34-year-old behemoth called the Left Front (read CPM) in 2011.
Back then, in terms of booth-level presence of party workers, in terms of funding, in terms of an experienced cadre base, TMC couldn’t even hold a candle to the ruling Communist Party of India-Marxist (CPM). So even in 2011, when Mamata came to power, TMC had neither the political nor the logistical wherewithal to overthrow an entrenched CPM and the Left.
And yet, Mamata managed to do precisely that, primarily because she had the chemistry of the electorate working overwhelmingly in her favour. There were constituencies in 2011 where TMC candidates weren’t even allowed a decent campaign owing to the CPM’s muscle-power and political clout. And yet, in several of those constituencies, TMC candidates won by handsome margins, leaving CPM and the Left flummoxed.
In 2021, Mamata knows it only too well that the stakes are higher than ever before, since she came to power — and that in spite of the fact that the numbers are still stacked heavily in her party’s favour. In terms of cadre-strength, in terms of logistics and hands on the deck, she still has an advantage over the BJP.
But political perception is something that runs way beyond the numbers game and in terms of perception, Mamata faces an uphill task – not because of her own image, but that of her party. After being in power for two decades, a perception has gained ground among a sizeable section of the electorate in Bengal that TMC in 2021 is crippled by the same afflictions that had proved to be the CPM and the Left’s undoing in 2011: Nepotism, corruption and factionalism.
The 2019 general elections, in which BJP came up with an astounding success, winning 18 out of the 42 seats in the state, was an alarm bell for Mamata. It was a clear indication that a vast section of voters — and interestingly, the rural and semi-urban voters – had turned away from Mamata.
BJP sweeping North Bengal and large swathes of Midnapore, Bankura, Purulia districts was a clear indication of mass disenchantment setting in — particularly among the rural poor, tribals and backward castes.
Mamata knows it for sure that the 2019 Lok Sabha election results, though a national election, were a very definitive reflection of growing resentment and a show of no-confidence against the discordant clutter in a divided house that was TMC and the stench of nepotism and corruption that her party had come to be identified with in the eyes of a sizeable section of Bengal voters.
Mandate for Mamata’s popularity
And here lies Mamata’s biggest challenge: She has to fight this perception of a party in decadence with the magic wand of her own charm and appeal of a mass leader. She knows it now, perhaps more than ever before, that in all the 294 constituencies, she indeed is ‘the candidate’.
The more she tries to convert these elections into a mandate for her popularity, the more difficult it will get for BJP to cut through that pitch and present a counter-narrative. Her minimalist approach to life and ability to connect with the people, often cutting through protocol, her language, that often verges on being pedestrian to the core … are all part and parcel of an image quotient with tremendous brand recall.
She continues to be Bengal’s highest public servant with the lowest common denominator in terms of her ability to strike a chord with the man on the street. For many people in Bengal, Mamata herself is still the panacea for the jaundice that has set into her party.
BJP’s last frontier
Bengal continues to be the ‘last frontier’ for BJP in more ways than one and if they manage to wrest the state from TMC and Mamata, they will have killed two birds with one stone: Firstly, it will help them further establish the fact that a major state election can be won without a chief ministerial face – something they have done successfully elsewhere before.
And secondly, they will also be able to slay the demon of a popular regional mass leader and a powerful regional party and cement the idea of a strong, right-wing nationalist party holding sway in a state that had for seven decades since independence showed its abhorrence for religious orthodoxy while making a political choice.