Indian democracy veers around personalities. The popular leaders emerge as political anchors who help translate public sentiment into a positive vote. Conversely, they successfully help override anti-incumbency against their party by making the political arena a biographical phenomenon around themselves. This explains the victory of the BJP in Assam, of the CPI(M) in Kerala and of the DMK alliance in Tamil Nadu and the AINRC-led alliance in Puducherry.
In all these states/UTs, the winners were led by powerful regional anchors. Similarly, the electoral outcome of Bengal reveals the indispensability of regional anchors in the assembly elections, albeit with a difference.
First, the ruling Trinamool was seriously facing an acute anti-incumbency. This aspect was visible on the ground to journalists, researchers and other observers. Even the Trinamool’s political strategists took cognizance of this aspect. However, they asserted that the welfare outreach measures like ‘Duare Sarkar’ (government at the doorsteps of the people) initiated three months before the election would help the incumbent mitigate the popular anger against the local TMC leadership. The 2019 Lok Sabha verdict and emergence of the BJP as a serious challenger had already alarmed the party. Further, the Cyclone Amphan tragedy and massive corruption in the relief measures had alienated a large section of voters in the core bastion of the Trinamool in south Bengal. The narrative about political repression of rivals since the 2018 Panchayat election reverberated on the ground. In short, the state and the public sentiment seemed to indicate a popular mood for change. And yet, the Trinamool took everyone by surprise and made a phenomenal comeback, even defying the expectations of their own strategists.
Hence, merely engaging with the question as to why the Trinamool won is not enough; it is equally pertinent to ask as to why the BJP failed to dislodge the incumbent despite having a conducive ambience of anti-incumbency, public anger and a mood for change, particularly among subaltern sections.
This brings us back to the role of regional political anchors in assembly elections. Lacking an undisputed state leadership who could have been the anchor of the BJP in Bengal, as Biplab Kumar Deb was projected in Tripura, the BJP followed the tried and tested strategy of investing overwhelmingly into Narendra Modi’s image. Thus, Bengal became an arena where the electoral battle was led by the charismatic national anchor against the powerful regional satrap. The expectation that the Modi phenomenon would override the BJP’s structural problems of lacking a highly credible local leadership profile as well as organisational weakness came a cropper.
As the final result shows, while the BJP did well in North Bengal and areas like Bankura, Bishnupur and Purulia--the sub-region around jangalmahal. It also performed impressively in the Dalit dominated seats in Ranaghat and Bongaon areas in Nadia and North 24 Parganas,
However, The BJP’s seat tally in districts like Birbhum, Jhargram, Purba and Paschim Medinipur and Bardhaman, besides areas like Barrackpore and Hooghly where it was expected to do well, turned out to be quite disappointing for the party. The case of Paschim Bardhman and Barrackpore, where the electorate comprises both Hindi and Bengali speakers, clearly indicate that unlike the 2019 Lok Sabha election, a majority of Bengalis shifted to the Trinamool. Similarly, in the bastion of Suvendu Adhikary, who defeated Mamata Banerjee at Nandigram, the overall defeat of the BJP signifies the party’s failure to consolidate Bengali Hindus, the sentiment for change notwithstanding.
Hence, the contradictory phenomenon of a pro-change sentiment and a pro-incumbent vote, particularly among a large section of the Bengali electorate, presents a puzzle: Why didn’t the sentiment translate into votes?
Here, it seems plausible that two factors--organisational weakness and bad choice of candidates--seriously limited the dissemination of the high-pitched campaign led by PM Modi. In a state like West Bengal, where everyday life is aligned around party affiliations and calculations of rewards and reprisals, the BJP needed credible local anchors and institutional structure to transmit the charisma of Modi on the ground tangibly and beyond just a perception. The results show that Modi’s charisma is primarily a catalyst, which could swing electoral equations on the ground by helping one set of local narratives align with his image and then supersede the others.
However, in Bengal, while the BJP struck the right note at the top level, at the ground party didn’t have the machinery to parry the counter-narratives, be it the Hindi vs Bengali faultline or the perception that, come what may, the TMC would win with a reduced margin, or win with the help of the Left and the Congress. Further, the candidate selection of the BJP proved to be another blunder, which ended up alienating many local cadres. Thus, in the end, Modi--the catalyst for swinging sentiments and enabling them into votes--neither had the institutional structure nor the credible faces at the constituency level on his side.
In the visible swell of anger against the Trinamool across the state, it was expected that the minorities would veer towards the incumbent. But the extent of two factors--TMC’s decisive organisational edge over the BJP and the availability of familiar local faces--were underestimated by many analysts, including myself. It was assumed that the sentiment of change would seamlessly align with the BJP, wherein the candidate factor would be secondary. In the end, it turned out to the classical case of a significant section sharing the perception that change is an imminent possibility at the state level, but being unsure about the BJP’s winnability in their own constituencies.
Bengal’s electoral history demonstrates that a party which is not considered winnable at the individual constituency level is not rewarded even by sympathetic voters, as the fear of reprisal is high. The ongoing post-poll violence against BJP and CPI(M) cadres and supporters is a case in point.
Finally, there are many factors that are being invoked to account for the TMC’s spectacular victory. Most prominent among them happen to be the argument that women voted for it decisively. This invocation of the gender factor as an autonomous variable in the electoral arena emerged in the work of some analysts who relied predominantly on past electoral data. Thus, according to them, Mamata Banerjee had a decisive lead among women. However, this approach was selective at best, as the same data also points to TMC’s edge among the subaltern Bengali communities who have shifted in significant numbers to the BJP since 2019. One needs to wait for the post-election data to see if women indeed played the decisive role, thereby overriding faultlines like religion and language, as is clear in the election results.
In conclusion, the BJP missed the bus in Bengal in spite of an intense anti-incumbency against the Trinamool. It succeeded in presenting itself as the default alternative at the state level but failed to inspire confidence at the ground level as it lacked both the organisation and credible faces at individual constituencies. The Trinamool took maximum advantage of these factors in their favour and scored over the BJP. Now, with 38 per cent of popular votes and 77 MLAs, the BJP is not only the sole Opposition in Bengal, but has the faces to enhance their party structure. In a politically vindictive state like Bengal, it is state power that entrenches a party organisationally, rather than the organisation itself being the base of power. The CPI(M)’s withering away as a presence in Bengal drives home this point unambiguously. Now that the BJP is armed with the role of the main opposition, much would depend on their degree of assertiveness. The Trinamool, on their part, realises this danger and is expectedly trying to nip the challenger in the bud by going for a systematic ground level violence against its adversary’s support base.
(Sajjan Kumar is a political researcher associated with Peoples Pulse. Views expressed are personal.)