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West Bengal’s Verdict: How TMC Won Big And Stumped The BJP

The decisive win of Mamata Banerjee’s Trinamool Congress was powered by women voters

Photo: PTI
The People’s Verdict: Trinamool Congress supporters celebrating the party’s win at Birbhum district Photo: PTI
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“Give us thirty-five seats from Bengal to make 400 paar ki sarkar possible under Modiji.” Thus spake Amit Shah, the mighty Home Minister and the ‘Chanakya’ of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). In meeting after meeting—with the public as well as the party’s karyakartas—he set this very challenging target, perhaps to give supporters a moral boost and also to unnerve the ruling Trinamool Congress (TMC). To take it further, he also assured the public that if the people of Bengal could do this, the Mamata Banerjee government would crumble and the BJP would form the government in the state within six months.

Later, as the very long-drawn election was progressing through the deadly summer heat, Shah gave the state party leaders some relief, saying in an interview that his expectations from the state were “24-30 seats”. Most of the exit polls sponsored by major television houses also readily toed the line on 1 June, and began to give the public some miraculous numbers. One of them even gave the saffron brigade a fantastic tally: 27! This boosted the morale of the BJP, and the graph of the stock market saw a meteoric rise. But by late afternoon of 4 June it became clear that the decreasing graph of the BJP’s tally was irreversible. Instead of the minimum target of 24 set by Shah, the saffron brigade was getting just 12 seats. Six seats less than what they had bagged in 2019. Clearly, like in the 2021 state elections, Modi, Shah and the national BJP have failed once again to understand the Bengal narrative in the recently concluded Lok Sabha elections.

Political Cartography

If one looks at the electoral geography of West Bengal, one may find a north-south divide. From this perspective, the cartography of the northern parts of Bengal beyond the Ganges—from Malda to Cooch Behar through the hills and dales, forests and tea gardens of Darjeeling and Dooars via a truncated land known as the ‘chicken-neck’ that falls between Bihar and Bangladesh—would mostly be ‘saffron’, dominated by the BJP, with two ‘green’ pockets, one held by the TMC and the other by the Congress.

But as you move down through the southern districts of the Gangetic plains and also traverse through the hamlets of the jungle-strewn semi-plateaus of the south-western region (known as Jungle Mahal), you will find six scattered patches of saffron in a vastly green space filled with 28 blocks, held by the BJP and the TMC respectively. In terms of arithmetic, it stands for 29 seats for the TMC, 12 for the BJP and one for the Congress. The Left parties, which ruled the state for 34 years, returned empty-handed despite their alliance with the Congress and impressive shows in a handful of seats. In a nutshell, this is the gist of the 2024 Lok Sabha elections in West Bengal.

A supporter at a Bharatiya Janata Party rally at Mosat Bazar Ground, Hooghly district
A supporter at a Bharatiya Janata Party rally at Mosat Bazar Ground, Hooghly district Photo: Getty Images
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The above scenario signals a change not only in terms of seats but also in vote share in favour of the ruling TMC. This time the state ruling party got 45.75 and the BJP was behind by 7%, i.e. 38.73 of the total votes cast. The Left and the Congress allied together and held 6.13 and 4.68% respectively, which together make 10.81 vote share. Compared to 2019, the percentage has risen for the TMC (from to 43.3 to 45.75) whereas the BJP is down 2% (from 40.7 to 38.73). Another relevant point: the Left parties held a vote share of 23% in 2014 and the BJP was at 17%. But in 2019, the Left went down to 6.63 and the BJP rose to 40%. No wonder the rise of saffron in 2019 could happen owing to the fall of the Left vote share: a sizeable section of Bam (the Left) had shifted to Ram (the BJP).

The Issues and Mamata’s Campaign

Within less than a year from the massive assembly victory in 2021, the TMC government and the party looked as if they were in shambles with various charges of corruption and the subsequent massive, all-pervasive raids, followed by arrests of some of the top names of the party and the ministry by central agencies like the Enforcement Directorate (ED) and the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI). Along with a series of unfavourable judicial interventions (mostly by the High Court) and continuous agitations by ‘‘worthy’’ candidates for school jobs who were allegedly ‘‘denied’’ jobs due to ‘‘rampant corruption’’, the pressure on the party and the government mounted, especially on Abhishek Banerjee, Mamata’s nephew and the General Secretary of the TMC. Further, the Modi government stopped paying the dues of Mahatma Gandhi NREGA and PM Awas Yojana, alleging corruption. Finally, the alleged sexual abuse in Sandeshkhali considerably tarnished the image of the party nationally.

But Mamata fought back like a “wounded tigress”, travelled the length and breadth of the (Lok Sabha seatwise) third largest state in the country, and campaigned in every town and village. Her stamina, despite growing age, has rejuvenated the spirit of her temporarily demoralised party workers. Aided by the organisational acumen of Abhishek Banerjee, she looked invincible. Mamata managed to capture the playing field of the BJP and turn it over in her favour.

On the one hand, she increased the quantity and quality of the popular schemes, especially those centred on women. Among these, Lakshmir Bhandar (the Lakshmi Fund), which provides Rs 1000 and Rs 1200 per month to all the women of ‘‘general’’ and ‘‘reserved’’ categories respectively, has proved to be a winner in this election. The enthusiastic voting by women, whose numbers surpassed that of male voters, is ample proof. Mamata also convincingly projected the denial of central funds for MGNREGA and PM Awas Yojana as ‘‘deprivation’’ by the ‘‘anti-Bengal’’ Modi government and promised to pay back the dues to the rural working people. Politically, Mamata has connected the issues of deprivation and misuse of central agencies with the larger question of federalism and remained in constant touch with the non-BJP chief ministers of other states, which later helped to form the INDIA bloc of Opposition parties.

Politically, Mamata banerjee has connected the issues of deprivation and misuse of central agencies with the larger question of federalism.

She also attacked the citizenship-related central acts like the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) and the National Register of Citizens (NRC), which affect the lives of millions of erstwhile Bengali refugees, now settled in the state. Terming these acts of the Modi-government as ‘‘unconstitutional’’, Didi assured that EPIC and Aadhar card holders were “already citizens”, so they did not need the CAA to prove their citizenship. She also jibed that ‘‘Modi’s Guarantee’’ was ‘‘420’’ and routinely questioned the crowds whether they had received Rs 15 lakh in their bank accounts and 2 crore jobs per year as promised by the PM ten years ago. Satisfied with a chorus of a resounding ‘‘no’’, she raised the issue of “fish and meat eating” habits which had been disapproved of by Narendra Modi in one of his recent election addresses. Now, in a state where 90% of the population eats non-veg dishes at least once a week, what reaction had the saffron party expected from Didi’s audience, who were living in fear of a ban on these items after the election?

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Mamata’s Adversaries

This election not only witnessed the shrinking of the BJP in the state, which hurt the pride of the Modi-Shah duo who failed to conquer Bengal after so much of wooing and travelling across the state so often; it was also a befitting reply to two of Mamata’s prominent adversaries: the State Congress President, Adhir Ranjan Chowdhury, and an influential ‘‘turncoat’’ leader of the BJP, Suvendu Adhikari. Although, a partner of the INDIA bloc, Chowdhury, a five-time parliamentarian from his citadel, Baharampur, has been a known opponent of Mamata’s since her Congress days. In the last few decades, he consistently criticised her even more vigorously than the saffron leaders. Before this election, he had made certain demands regarding seat sharing that foiled the chances of a TMC-Congress alliance in the state. Had it been executed, the INDIA bloc could have gained by at least five more seats. But when it failed, the TMC went ahead and fielded World Cup cricketer Yusuf Khan Pathan against Chowdhury in his minority dominated constituency. This result has ‘‘tragically” ended the colourful political career of Chowdhury, who was the leader of the parliamentary party of the Congress in the last Lok Sabha.

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The TMC also crushed the myth of Suvendu Adhikari, the leader of the Opposition in the state assembly, who enjoyed the status of being the ‘‘uncrowned king’’ of Jungle Mahal, the south-western region. He and his family had been the old comrades of the TMC. In December 2020, just a few months before the assembly elections, Adhikari joined the BJP, contested against Mamata, the chief minister and TMC supremo in his old bastion, Nandigram, where he defeated Mamata in the last minute of counting in an allegedly controversial manner. Although Mamata was declared elected at first, after some time, Adhikari was announced as the winner. Since then, he has become a sworn enemy of the TMC and the Mamata-Abhishek duo and vice-versa. Adhikari, who is very close to Home Minister Amit Shah, has risen in the BJP, which has partially alienated Dilip Ghosh, the previous Party president, who fetched the BJP 18 Lok Sabha seats in 2019—the best performance of the party so far in the state. It had only won two seats in 2014. During the 2019 elections, when Adhikari was still in the TMC, the party could win only three seats out of eight in Jungle Mahal. This time, when he almost unilaterally ran the election for the BJP, the tally of the TMC has risen from three to four in this region and the party has lost the Bishnupur seat by only 5,567 votes.

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Where to from Here?

There are many possibilities now for the TMC under Mamata. With a weak, coalition-partner-dependent BJP at the Centre, Mamata, Abhishek and others in the party and the government can work more freely. They might raise their claims for long-pending ‘‘dues’’ once again, and perhaps with more vigour. They can put pressure on the governor, C V Anand Bose, who like his predecessor—now Vice-President Jagdeep Dhankhar—is silently sitting on various bills passed by the assembly for months and as chancellor has been running a ‘parallel’ administration in state-run universities for more than a year, defying the state government. Politically, Didi’s stature may rise further as one of the most prominent senior opposition leaders at the national level, who has the experience of running various important central ministries, and now taking on her third term as CM. With some exceptions, she is also a flexible person, who has always maintained good relations even with rival leaders. In case of any crisis, especially in the given present situation, the possibilities are infinite.

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(Views expressed are personal)

(This appeared in the print as 'Bengal’s Lakshmi Bhandar')

Sibaji Pratim Basu is an author, political commentator & Professor of Political Science, Vidyasagar University. West Bengal

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