West Bengal polls: How Mamata Banerjee's Nandigram daredevilry led TMC from near-collapse to sweeping the state
With all leaders who could pull others with them gone, this victory has placed Mamata Banerjee in a safe seat to rule the state
With over 200 sure seats by now, the Trinamool Congress has put itself in a secure position in West Bengal’s politics for the long haul. In fact, even if the numbers for the party were much lower, its victory would have been big apart from being a deciding factor of the state and the country’s political future. But with a defeat, the possibility of the party even disintegrating was a reality.
The clamour for a tough contest in Bengal started in 2019. The nation woke up to the surge of the BJP with their spectacular performance in the Lok Sabha election 2019, winning 18 out of 40 seats in the state. Winning the state seemed well within their reach — the Hindutva narrative was gaining ground in Bengal, where this politics has not had any significant role since Independence, and there was a tangible anti-incumbency on the ground.
But the immediate reason that convinced the BJP about its winning chances was the fact that for a long time, TMC’s own house was in disarray. Soon after they came to power in the state in 2011, the party was embroiled in a massive corruption scam involving the Saradha Group, which ran a Ponzi scheme that expanded to multiple states.
In 2014, the case was moved to the CBI and as one leader after another was being summoned for questioning and arrests being made. It was clear that those unable to bear the pressure would be deserting the party. With the BJP at the Centre with a clear majority, it was their long-awaited chance to make an entry in the state. Their first major success was with TMC's chief strategist Mukul Roy joining them in 2017. Since then, the gossip in the political circles was no more about if the party will break but when.
By the 2018 panchayat elections, the TMC was battling stronger anti-incumbency and, as their senior leaders have admitted now, there was use of brute force to capture the panchayats. This meant an even stronger feeling against the ruling party which led to an en masse transfer of votes to the BJP by even the erstwhile Left supporters giving the BJP its highest vote share in any election of over 40 percent.
At one of its weakest, the narrative of the party withering away was established. It also became an integral part of the BJP’s campaign for the state. National leaders started dropping by regularly informing how more leaders would switch to the BJP. And even Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced that 40 TMC MLAs were in touch with him.
Even then the popular opinion was Banerjee, as things stood in 2019, would scrape through as despite the rise of the BJP her party had in fact managed to increase its vote share. But by the end of 2020 it suffered its biggest blow since Mukul Roy’s switch. Suvendu Adhikari, who was arguably the most influential leader in the party after Banerjee, joined the BJP. Even those who were earlier sure of a TMC win were wondering if the party will even manage to survive.
By then another factor, which created an impression of a much weaker TMC was of polarisation in the state. Though an optics, Mamata Banerjee’s visible annoyance to BJP’s slogan, Jai Shri Ram being shouted at her cavalcade after 2019 had become viral. This helped the BJP and RSS push the narrative of TMC’s minority appeasement and Hindu hatred.
From Jhargram in the west to Yogi Adityanath’s campaign in south Bengal, this minority appeasement and aggressive Hindutva was an integral part of BJP’s campaign.
With all these cards on the table, the only option left for Mamata was to lead from the front into a direct combat to save and revive her party, and she did. By contesting from Suvendu Adhikari’s home turf in Nandigram she made the election a referendum on her. To contest BJP’s Hindutva narrative, she launched a subtle Bengali and outsider campaign while sticking to her secular stand.
All of this was a gamble. Although she has lost in Nandigram, TMC has won the much larger battle of survival with this decisive victory.
With all leaders who could pull others with them gone, this victory has placed Mamata Banerjee in a safe seat to rule the state. But even if the margin was smaller, with a referendum style election won, defections could only be of powerless individual MLAs causing little damage.
This is also the first time since 2014, when corruption charges against her MLAs would not mean an imminent danger of the party collapsing. Moreover, with multiple big names who switched to the BJP from the TMC being those accused in scams, the BJP has a weakened moral position to campaign against corruption in the state in future. In fact, the state BJP president Dilip Ghosh could have hinted at that today when he mentioned that people may not have accepted the turncoat candidates.
The results have dented the polarisation factor too. With areas like Jhargram with a Muslim population of around 3 percent, voting overwhelmingly in favour of TMC, the aggressive Hindutva pitch seems to be weak on the ground even in rural areas. In urban areas, particularly the greater Kolkata region, it did not have much of an echo by the party’s own analysis.
Ironically, the only front in TMC’s anti-incumbency that they will struggle to mend is the question of employment which was the strongest election pitch of the Sanyukta Morcha which won just one seat.
In a situation like this, there seems to be no challenge for the TMC in the state for some time. But a word of caution could come from their own history as they defeated the Left Front in 2011, which got 235 seats in the previous Assembly election.
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