In our last write-up just before the election result was declared, we argued that the West Bengal State Assembly Election of 2021 had the potential to present itself as yet another historic moment of departure in the state’s political culture. After a marathon eight rounds of polling, lasting one month, as the verdict came out on Sunday 2 May 2021, there can be no doubt that this indeed was a historic election. This was the most audacious political heist attempted in recent times. Bengal was the final frontier that the Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP) needed to cross to consolidate its hegemony. It threw everything into it: money, media, organizational machine and, of course, the top leadership, spearheaded by Prime Minister Narendra Modi and the Home Minister Amit Shah. In the end, to use the metaphor from the Hindu Vedic tradition in ancient India, the Ashvamedha juggernaut of BJP finally bowed down to the ‘daughter of Bengal’, Mamata Banerjee. The BJP lost the state election both in terms of winning far fewer seats and in terms of vote sharing than it had optimistically hoped for based on the success of the Lok Sabha Election in 2019. While even the conservative estimate about BJP’s electoral outcome was about 120 seats, and an increase in vote share from 40%, in the end, they managed to secure only 77 seats and drop of nearly 3% in vote compared to the last election. The clear winner was the All-India Trinamool Congress (AITC), headed by Mamata Banerjee — Chief Minister for West Bengal since 2011. Mamata’s victory was not only a hat-trick but a personal victory, having scored an increase in vote share and an overwhelming majority of 213 out of the total of 294 seats in the state assembly.
How did this happen? How did India’s ruling party with its popular prime minister, its well-filled coffers, its vast and well-oiled machinery, come to lose against a political party that is basically one person, who has repeatedly and credibly been accused of harbouring corrupt elements in her party, who was facing over the last winter a series of high-profile defections, that apparently seemed to have dented the organizational core of the party?
The significance of this election is manifold and has, at least to a certain extent, managed to reconfigure the political culture of the state of West Bengal. To begin with, this will be the first Assembly in the postcolonial state of West Bengal with no representation from either the Left or the Congress since 1950. The once-mighty CPM, which ruled the state for a long 34 years, now received a mere 4.6 per cent of the vote.
Second, and perhaps most important aspect of this election was the rise of right-wing Hindu nationalist or Hindutva politics in West Bengal, never really witnessed in the last seven decades. Despite the fact that voters in the state have rejected the idea of nationalism and Hindu nationalism, in particular, one cannot ignore the fact that the Hindutva ideology has been rooted in this region for the last 200 years. A win in West Bengal for the BJP would have meant returning to its roots, Bengal being the Hindu nationalist movement’s own Jerusalem. Despite the fact that voters overall rejected the agenda of Hindu nationalism, support from every third voter has seriously dented the idea of Bengali exceptionalism. Every third voter voted for a national and Hindu nationalist party, not for a regional one.
The third significance of this election is the question of populism intertwined with the identity politics that has dominated the electoral campaigns and will continue to do so in the coming years. Both BJP and Trinamul have harped on these two and played out their cards accordingly. While the BJP used the draconian Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) — that allows for non-Muslim refugees from Pakistan and Bangladesh to obtain Indian citizenship but not Muslim refugees – to woo certain sections of the population in Bengal that included the Matuas and the Rajbangshis, Mamata and TMC too used populist social welfare schemes for various groups, including women who constitute nearly 49 per cent of the population in Bengal. The other critical perspective of this identity politics has been the religious card — from invoking Ram Rajya and the fight against Love-Jihad (that Muslim boys married Hindu girls in order to convert them to Islam) by the BJP to donating petty cash to please the Muslim clerics, and chanting Hindu religious shlokas by Mamata and Trinamul, amongst many others. The BJP will use its position as the main opposition party in the Assembly to launch accusations of being soft on Muslims and hard on Hindus, besides the many other often credible allegations of corruption and malpractice that the Trinamool government will be vulnerable to, possibly pushing Trinamool into ever-larger concessions to special groups.
There are multiple reasons behind the rapid growth of popularity for the BJP in Bengal, where the party has not been a traditional force to be reckoned with. The first is the anti-incumbency factor and lack of a strong opposition in Bengal. In the last few years, people have been reeling under the pressure of various repressive policies by the state government and disillusioned by the frauds, scandals, corruption and extortion and so on. The BJP quite rightly understood this void created and made the most out of this by posing themselves as a viable alternative, mainly riding on the populist and development agendas. The rise of the BJP in West Bengal can be understood as an unintended consequence of Trinamool’s effort to obliterate any opposition.
Secondly, Hindutva politics has not been unknown in Bengal, albeit dormant for the last several decades. The rise of Narendra Modi-Amit Shah has taken the Hindutva politics to an entirely new platform, often vailed with the jargons such as Development and Growth. The old bases of RSS in Bengal were invigorated with a renewed purpose. For many Hindus, who comprise approximately 70 per cent of the population (according to the 2011 census), this was an opportunity to finally come out of their secular veil that had dominated the political culture of West Bengal for many decades. If a majority of Muslims voted for Trinamool, arithmetic suggests that about 50 per cent of the Hindus voted for BJP.
And yet, in spite of the anti-incumbency factor, the Hindutva juggernaut, the defection of hundreds of party workers including certain high-profile leaders before the election, lies, frauds, accusations, scandals and ransacking of public-good economy, Mamata Banerjee and TMC won at the end of the day. A significant aspect to note is the crucial importance of the person of Mamata Banerjee and how she fought off the challenge from New Delhi. There are several aspects to this.
One is that the challenge was not inconsequential. We saw a BJP juggernaut unleashed in West Bengal. This juggernaut was spearheaded by the duo of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Home Minister Amit Shah and included BJP chief ministers of other states, such as Yogi Adityanath. Their campaign was manned by thousands of BJP and RSS activists moving into the state from elsewhere, plus support from its well-filled coffers. BJP’s famous troll army in social media effectively protected them from unwanted attention during the ongoing second wave of the covid pandemic. But this onslaught may well have triggered a sense of Bengali pride and cause a rallying of support for Mamata, their ‘own daughter’ as the slogan went.
Secondly, there is Mamata Banerjee’s persona. She dresses simply and wears simple, plastic sandals. Before becoming chief minister, she lived in her parents’ small house in Kolkata. More interesting, perhaps, is what she is not: she is not from a political family. She did not have powerful political patrons, and she does not have an organization to speak of. She has built her party, Trinamool, from scratch. But there are substantial aspects of bravado to her political career and to this election campaign. She claimed to be on the election in every constituency, not just in one. Even more crucially, and quite the masterstroke, when her former lieutenant Suvendu Adhikari in Medinipur district deserted her party and joined hands with BJP, she picked his constituency to launch her personal campaign and challenged him face on. With this, she showed a daringness that is characteristic of her and that underlines the desire for loyalty, not betrayal, among voters. And she managed to get BJP to focus much of its energy on that particular constituency in order to win it, leaving her a less onerous task in all the other districts. Eventually, she may have lost that particular constituency, but it matters little because she — that little woman in her simple saris and sandals — won more than two out of three among the rest.
This mandate also implies, although not explicitly stated but already hinted in her first media appearance right after the election result, that Mamata will be interested and now has the political authority and a national credibility to unite the non-BJP parties, regional as well as national, under her leadership for the showdown against the Modi–Shah-led BJP in the 2025 Lok Sabha election. Whether she will succeed in forging such a coalition, only time will tell. But to our understanding, the possibility of going national may only happen if Mamata remains confident of political stability in Bengal.
If there is a strongman in Indian politics to challenge the might of Modi–Shah at the regional as well as national level, it is the ‘daughter of Bengal’.
Illustration credit: Dominic Xavier/Rediff.com
Arild Engelsen Ruud is Professor of South Asia Studies, and Niladri Chatterjee is a Postdoctoral Fellow at the University of Oslo, Norway.