West Bengal civic poll results: TMC win reinforces Mamata Banerjee's clout; BJP has an opponent for the long game
The West Bengal municipal elections, results for which were declared on Wednesday, carry a portend deeper than what meets the eye.
Civic polls are usually deglamourised poor cousins of general elections, Assembly polls or even the odd bypolls. Usually fought on ultra-local issues, these polls hardly capture headlines except reinforcing the writ of the ruling parties. Yet, the West Bengal municipal elections, the results for which were declared on Wednesday, carry a portend deeper than what meets the eye.
At the state level, the victory of All India Trinamool Congress confirms the party's hegemony, signals the breaking of "hill barrier", portrays the Left and Congress as inconsequential forces and lays the roadmap for a still-nascent BJP. More importantly, at the national level, it provides the beleaguered opposition parties with a platform to take on BJP's pan-Indian dominance.
One of the curious natures of democracy — at least in the subcontinent — is how it defines the relationship between the political and the moral. Political authority provides moral validation. So, we find that leaders facing massive corruption allegations or charges of criminality — even if convicted and sentenced — refer frequently to the larger "people's court" while fighting elections. They are aware that a win at the electoral hustings would be good enough to wash away the taint.
In other words, political victories ipso facto provide moral justification for the wins. Once that happens, pending charges or a past criminal record are no longer a hindrance to public life. Morality ceases to be of any consequence to the victor or members of the party which he/she helms. What happens though when the situation is reversed? Interestingly, the question of morality resurfaces. All the questions of probity in public life are posed anew. Things can go quickly south if reverses fit into a pattern.
This is the context in which we must place the BJP vs the opposition binary in national politics. Repeated electoral reverses have robbed Congress of the moral immunity. As more and more skeletons tumble out of its closet, India's grand old party is finding it difficult to fight back. This downward curve has affected its allies in equal measure.
Lalu Prasad Yadav, who was the toast of the opposition parties by stopping the BJP juggernaut, sought to relegate his past criminality into dustbins of history. Though Lalu hasn't lost any election since the Bihar Assembly election in 2015, a combination of BJP's relentless march, "third front" partners Congress or Samajwadi Party's miserable performances and recent court judgements on the fodder scam have robbed him of the smugness. Multiple income-tax raids on his properties, allegedly linked to him, have added to the discomfort.
The picture that emerges is one of an opposition-in-disarray, concerned more with its own survival than mounting a worthwhile political challenge to BJP's hegemony. This is where Mamata Banerjee's domination carries a deeper significance. The West Bengal chief minister has promised to "uproot BJP from Delhi" for having the audacity to throw a challenge at her. Hidden in the rhetoric is the supreme confidence Mamata has in her abilities to protect her backyard from an aggressive BJP's advances.
The scale of TMC's victory in West Bengal mirrors BJP's pan-Indian domination. TMC bagged four out of seven municipalities that went to polls. Crucially, it has opened an account in the hills (albeit via an alliance with Gorkha National Liberation Front), a feat which eluded even the Left Front during its 34-year rule in the state. TMC not only bagged the Mirik Notified Area winning six out of nine wards, it also significantly increased its vote share in the other hill civic bodies (Kurseong, Kalimpong and Darjeeling) that expectedly went to Bimal Gurung's Gorkha Janmukti Morcha that has tied up with BJP.
In the plains, it was all TMC. The party swept the three civic bodies of Domkol, Raiganj and Pujali. The extent of the opposition parties' decimation can be gauged from the fact that the Left Front and Congress, which entered into an unofficial seat adjustment, won "royal" four wards out of the total 64. The BJP won three — two wards in Pujali and one in Raiganj.
Bear in mind that Raiganj in North Dinajpur district and Domkol in Murshidabad were the last few pockets where Congress still had some influence. There is not a shadow of doubt that TMC didn't play fair. The three civic bodies in the plains witnessed large-scale violence. Voters were terrorised, rival polling officers were thrashed and the media took a beating as alleged TMC goons sprayed bullets and lobbed crude bombs. The police resembled the picture postcards of 80s Bollywood cinema.
The opposition — Left, Congress and BJP — laid siege at the State Election Commissioner's door and Congress petitioned the High Court urging for repoll in the three areas. There was no relief forthcoming either from the SEC or the HC, which on Wednesday threw out Congress's petition. Where muscle didn't succeed, carrots did. Two Congress candidates in Domkal joined TMC immediately after emerging victorious. Mamata seemed to have taken a leaf out of Chanakya's saam, daam, dand, bhed to achieve total domination.
Violence and polls are almost synonymous in West Bengal. In some ways, Mamata has taken the Left model and improved upon it. The TMC is now a mean election fighting machine. This is where the BJP's biggest challenge lies. At a national level, Mamata may now attempt a coalition of opposition forces and take the lead in defining its strategies. Electoral victories have washed away the taint of Saradha and Narada scams and conferred upon Mamata a political and moral ascendancy that she will look to exploit to the hilt.
At the state level, the BJP must calibrate its strategy. An Amit Shah luncheon with a Dalit family is unlikely to bring large-scale electoral benefits for BJP when its rival is so agile, mutative and resilient.
The BJP has thrown a fair challenge at Mamata's crude social engineering but for that to translate into electoral dividends will require a more sober assessment and recalibration of targets. The tall talks of ousting Mamata by 2021 are meaningless. It is not enough to attempt a larger coalition of Hindu votes. For it to take shape, the BJP must invest in a local and grassroots-level leader who may challenge Mamata's mass appeal.
Many in the opposition saw 2014 as the crest of BJP's political fortunes. Narendra Modi and Amit Shah showed that it was just the beginning. In Mamata, however, the BJP has run into an opponent who has the political capital, resolve and the agility to play a long game. The civic polls' results have provide another confirmation.
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