Apart from a third straight term, Didi — who rose from her wheelchair on the day of her triumph — looked set to improve upon her very impressive 211-seat tally in 2016. This belied the dominant national narrative of either a BJP victory or a close contest, shaming pollsters. It at once bolstered her credentials as claimant to the leadership of the next anti-BJP alliance and exposed the limits of BJP in geographies defined by stubborn regional identities and demographies, hindering saffron dreams of countrywide dominance.
To be sure, Banerjee was not the only victor on Sunday. In Tamil Nadu, M K Stalin led DMK to victory, although smaller than expected, after a decade-long spell in the opposition. In Kerala, incumbent Pinarayi Vijayan defied the revolving-door rhythm of state politics to pull off a landslide for CPM — a feat that stood out also because of the rout fellow comrades suffered in Bengal.
BJP too made history of sorts by scoring, along with its allies, an emphatic win over a Congress-led opposition in Assam, thus becoming the only non-Congress grouping to have retained office in the state. It opened its account in Tamil Nadu and registered a decent vote share in the face of the gale blowing in CPM’s favour in Kerala.
In tiny Puducherry, N Rangaswamy, founder of NR Congress, accomplished a giant personal success. He pulled NDA, which has BJP and AIADMK as junior partners, to a comfortable victory at Congress’s cost and is set to begin his third term as CM.
The results were marked by slow counting, perhaps due to Covid protocols. As of 11.15pm on Sunday, the EC was yet to declare 163 of 234 results in Tamil Nadu, 36 of 126 results in Assam, three of 140 in Kerala, three of 30 in Puducherry and 39 of 292 in West Bengal. The slow pace of results being declared meant that TOI was unable to process the results for final vote shares, though the broad trends were unlikely to change very much in the final stages of counting.
From the trends that emerged, Banerjee clearly outshone all others. It had to do, in almost equal measure, with the scale of her victory, the nature of opposition, and the tactics she deployed. At midnight, TMC had either won or was leading in about 215 of the 294 seats up for grabs, leaving BJP far behind with 75. The score looked even more impressive considering that she posted it in the face of a ferocious saffron challenge. Encouraged by their success in the 2019 Lok Sabha elections when BJP stunned Banerjee by winning 18 of the 42 seats, BJP poured enormous amounts of energy and resources into the Bengal campaign in a determined bid to gain control of a state that remains a pocket of defiant resistance.
The PM led from the front, addressing large and enthusiastic throngs as he sought to wow the state by dangling promises of “ashol poriborton (genuine change)” and “Sonar Bangla (revival of Bengal’s old glory)”. His powerful oratory seemed to supplement a grassroots effort that weaponised the chant of Jai Shri Ram to polarise the electorate over Banerjee’s “appeasement” of minorities and sought to capitalise on allegations of corruption and high-handedness by Trinamool leaders.
However, the Trinamool boss, who paid a big price for underestimating Modi’s pull in the LS polls, was alive to the challenge this time. She blunted the Hindutva charge by flaunting her credentials as a Shandilya Brahmin who could recite the ‘Chandi Path’ and, perhaps more crucially, whipped up nativist sentiments by cautioning the electorate against “outsiders” and unleashing “Joy Bangla” as a counterweight to Jai Shri Ram.
West Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee visits Kalighat Temple (PTI photo)
The feisty leader, who burst into the limelight by taking on CPM cadres during the over three-decade-long ‘red’ hegemony, also turned the foot injury she suffered into attack ammo to punish BJP, which was hamstrung by the lack of an organisation and a face which could even remotely rival Banerjee — a weakness that helped the CM cast herself as Bengal’s own daughter. The dramatic collapse of CPM and Congress facilitated her task, with anti-BJP sections coalescing around her.
TMC supporters in Kolkata celebrate the party’s victory in the West Bengal legislative assembly elections on Sunday
The spectacular win has propelled Banerjee into contention for who should lead the opposition to BJP at the all-India level. Her claim looks stronger than it did at the time of her two previous victories. Congress seems to be in interminable decline and the field, once studded with formidable satraps, has few challengers left. Unlike Stalin, Banerjee prevailed in a direct contest with BJP, and this leaves her better placed, with the support of the ‘Left liberal’ intelligentsia who backed her because of their hostility to BJP, acting as a force multiplier – at least unless and until Akhilesh Yadav defies odds in UP early next year. She is also better connected and has raised her profile with her relentless opposition to BJP.
Congratulations poured in for Banerjee from all opponents of BJP who, uncomfortable with the saffron party’s strength and ambition, were apprehensive of the consequences of another satrap’s downfall for themselves. But Congress and others are unlikely to acquiesce to Banerjee’s claim for primacy easily.
The loss in Bengal looks an even bigger setback for BJP both because of the investment it made into dislodging Banerjee and the timing. The defeat, which dwarfed its success in taking its tally from three to 75, comes just when the Centre is struggling to contain the fresh surge of Covid-19, which has raised questions and attracted criticism about its handling of the pandemic. The outcome on Sunday raises the party’s stakes in early containment and may energise sections of the liberal intelligentsia who have increasingly been playing combatants in the partisan arena.
It also renews questions about a strategy that relies on Modi’s appeal to prevail in territories where it has no organisation to speak of and its cupboard is empty of faces recognisable beyond a district or two — a takeaway that should gladden satraps like Assam deputy CM Himanta Biswa Sarma, former Rajasthan CM Vasundhara Raje or, for that matter, Karnataka CM B S Yediyurappa. In 2019, the party benefited because Modi himself was in the fray. The advantage was lost this time.
BJP tried to overcome the weakness by inducting leaders from Trinamool and other rivals but the jury is out on the effectiveness of imports with many believing that it may have ended up demotivating the faithful and blunting Trinamool’s ‘incumbency’.
It was never going to be an easy battle considering Bengal was a ‘tough terrain’, given the 27% share of Muslims in the electorate. Its emergence as the principal opposition at the cost of established players like the Left and Congress in such an adverse setting is no mean political feat. The state is likely to turn into a bipolar polity, at least in the near run.
BJP can take solace from its success in retaining office in Assam where it overpowered a seemingly formidable alliance of Congress and Muslim outfit AIUDF — an impressive achievement considering that its pre-eminence is of recent vintage and because Muslims account for one-third of the electorate.
The decision to remain aligned with AIADMK and keep it from unravelling turned out to be the right call. Not only did outgoing CM Edappadi Palaniswami defy popular wisdom to turn in a smart performance but also helped the party win four seats in the Tamil Nadu assembly. In Kerala, the party may have failed to win a seat but it held on to its vote share even in a landslide for LDF. It is, of course, part of the ruling NRC-led alliance in Puducherry.
The win in Assam and the fact that Banerjee was constrained to cast herself as a practising Hindu speaks to the strength of BJP’s campaign themes, which will again be unleashed in the Uttar Pradesh polls. While UP, with 80 Lok Sabha seats, has always been key to BJP’s prominence at the national level, the Bengal debacle will transform next year’s state polls into a must-win contest for the saffron side.
Congress seems to be in dire straits after the stinging reverses, with the piggybacking on DMK in TN unable to mask what seems to be an inexorable slide into decline and, in the case of Bengal, irrelevance. The huge loss to the incumbent CPM-led LDF in Kerala, where it was defeated in spite of being on the right side of the pattern where the state favours the two contestants by turns, represents a personal setback for Rahul Gandhi. He, rightly anticipating his defeat in UP’s Amethi in 2019 had embraced the southern state like his political home. The Wayanad MP was involved in selection of candidates and took charge of the campaign. In the event, Congress was routed across the state, suffering losses even in pockets dominated by its ally, Indian Union Muslim League. Surprise tie-ups with Badruddin Ajmal’s AIUDF and controversial rabble-rousing Muslim cleric Abbas Siddiqui achieved little except raising questions about the party’s claim to be ‘secular’. The success of Assam deputy CM Himanta Biswa Sarma and Rangaswamy in Puducherry also served as fresh reminders of the leadership’s inability to accommodate resourceful regional leaders.
The ignominy in Bengal and the defeats in Kerala, Assam and Puducherry are sure to escalate worries about the effectiveness of a leadership structure where Rahul, while professing aloofness, continues to call the shots. He and sibling Priyanka were directly involved in the Assam effort as well.
Congress has promised to hold elections for president and the results on Sunday have increased the likelihood that the contest may not be a token exercise – especially since the Gandhis are without the services of their chief troubleshooter Ahmed Patel and also because resourceful leaders like Kamal Nath could be eyeing their chances.
Leaders like Punjab CM Amarinder Singh, who has been resentful of the leadership’s attempt to promote his tormentor Navjot Singh Sidhu, are likely to show more boldness. In fact, the weakened Gandhis may find themselves dealing with an eruption of aspirations in other states – Chhattisgarh, for instance, as well.
CPM’s marginalisation in Bengal despite an opportunistic alliance with an Islamic cleric at the cost of its plank of ‘secularism’ is a blow to the party’s central leadership. The victory in Kerala may have spared the party the unwelcome prospect of not being in office in even one state, but the achievement there is ascribed by most to Vijayan. The CM, who was already asserting himself, is likely to seek and get more autonomy now. To add to the party’s worries, the Bengal result has also brought out the readiness of BJP-hating Left sympathisers to shift their allegiance if they find the comrades unequal to the Hindutva challenge.