Perhaps, there is no state capital whose elite is so disconnected from the districts as Kolkata. Travelling in West Bengal during the 2016 assembly election, the contrast was stark. The Kolkata bhadralok elite thought the CPM-Congress alliance could work, and Mamata Banerjee may well be on her way out. After all, people are fed up of the Trinamool Congress cadres, their violence and thuggery.
Violence and thuggery are as innate to politics in West Bengal as Tagore to its cultural life. Outside Kolkata, people confirmed they hated the TMC as a party but had faith in Mamata Banerjee. Didi herself promotes this dichotomy, playing good cop-bad cop. Such was the terror of the TMC cadres that people were even afraid to talk politics with a visiting non-Bengali journalist. There is no state in India, not even Kerala, where elections are this unfree and unfair.
No wonder there were some, especially young men, who yearned for real opposition. The Left and the Congress didn’t look like they could challenge the TMC, not even together. They didn’t have a leader in whom the people could repose their faith. Bengal has always looked up to strong leaders, from Subhash Chandra Bose to Jyoti Basu to Mamata Banerjee.
Young men in the villages who weren’t fond of the TMC said they already knew the leader they wanted for their state — Narendra Modi — but the BJP as a party didn’t really exist on the ground. Why, I asked these Modi fans, was the BJP weak in the Bengal assembly election? “They don’t have the dadalog,” was a common reply, “the day they get dadalog, they will win.”
Hollow out the opponents
That is exactly what happened in the 2019 Lok Sabha elections. The BJP learned to play real politics, West Bengal-style, participating in political violence, tooth for tooth and jaw for jaw.
The TMC was far from destroyed in the Lok Sabha elections. It shed 12 seats but still won a respectable 22 of the 42 Lok Sabha seats. The BJP won a shocking 18, up from just 2 seats in 2014. Yet, this was a national election fought on ‘Who else but Modi?’ narrative. Surely, the same logic should benefit Mamata Banerjee in 2021 since the BJP does not have a credible chief ministerial face.
But the BJP may not need a CM candidate. Such is the faith in Modi, as we have seen in many states, that people are okay with whoever Modi appoints as the CM. The BJP’s strategy in West Bengal is similar to what it did in Tripura. It has already hollowed out the Left, poaching its cadres, turning Communists into Hindutva supporters overnight. The focus now is on hollowing out the Trinamool Congress as a party and ex-Trinamool stalwart Mukul Roy is just the right man. He is to Bengal what Himanta Biswa Sarma is to the northeast.
What Mamata Banerjee has on her side is time, or does she? Two years is a long time for a CM to change her image, take on a newbie opponent and save the day. As far as advance notices go, Mamata Banerjee has been given a very generous one.
Trouble is, she may already have reached a point of no return, sliding down a slippery slope. It isn’t the Lok Sabha results but the events after that make Mamata Banerjee look like she is losing control. Hers comes across as a ‘lame-duck’ government much like the UPA-2 in 2011, and they had three years to make things worse.
Poverty of imagination
Mamata Banerjee’s decline began with the panchayat elections last summer. The elections were so undemocratic and violent that on one-third seats, the winners won unopposed. Nobody dared to contest against them. A pressure cooker without a safety valve is bound to explode if heated too much.
Mamata Banerjee’s greatest failure has not been arrogance, or that she couldn’t control the TMC cadres, or that she under-estimated the BJP, or that she went overboard with Muslim identity politics. All of that is true, but her greatest failure has been the inability to re-imagine a new way of doing politics in West Bengal. Winning a thumping majority for a second consecutive term in 2016, Mamata Banerjee did not feel the need to unlearn the CPM’s way of running the state.
She used the means and methods of the Left Front to defeat it after 34 years of uninterrupted rule. She poached their cadres, had them participate in political violence, politicised governance, crippled the opposition space, lashed out against dissent, and rigged elections. This is how the Left ruled West Bengal for 34 years and this is how the Trinamool Congress has been ruling it for the last eight years and this is how the BJP wants to grab power in the state.
Sure, the BJP will introduce some concepts that have so far been subdued in Bengal, such as religious strife and caste divisions, but the state’s politics will essentially remain violent and undemocratic. Mamata Banerjee had a free run in the state from 2011 to 2018. This was the time when she could and should have re-imagined the political culture of West Bengal. It is perhaps too late to start doing it now.
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