Mamata Banerjee, till now recognised as an important regional leader, has emerged as the most important leader, towering above all Opposition faces in India. The defining image of the 2021 West Bengal assembly election was one of Mamata Banerjee campaigning in a wheelchair against the might of Home Minister Amit Shah and Prime Minister Narendra Modi. It is now that her March letter to 15 Opposition leaders in the country calling them to form a united front against the Bharatiya Janata Party at the national level takes on greater significance.
The befitting reply given by TMC supremo Mamata Banerjee to the BJP’s blitzkrieg campaign in this election has elicited kudos from the political world. Shiv Sena MP Sanjay Raut has praised Mamata as the “tigress of Bengal”. Peoples Democratic Party leader Mehbooba Mufti and Samajwadi Party leader Akhilesh Yadav have congratulated Mamata and said that people in Bengal have rejected disruptive and divisive forces. Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal has tweeted congratulating Mamata and commented, “What a fight!” More congratulatory messages are in the pipeline. But one thing is clear. Though elections were held in four states, West Bengal remained the cynosure of all in the country.
Already the farmers’ movement had announced that it would wait for the West Bengal elections to be over before their next move. Mamata Banerjee will now become the focal point around whom a lot of national voices will coalesce.
A three-time CM and national face
“I am writing this letter…to convey my serious concerns over a series of assaults by the BJP and its government at the Centre on democracy and constitutional federalism in India,” Mamata Banerjee wrote in the three-page letter in March.
The TMC chief also alleged that the Centre-state relations were at their worst since Independence. It looked as if she would have invited all the major national and regional leaders to her swearing-in ceremony and initiate the first moves for building the national platform against the BJP. But in her first press conference since the win, Mamata Banerjee declared that her swearing-in ceremony will be a ‘small affair’ and that her first priority in the state is to tackle the rising Covid infections.
But, there is no doubt that a three-time CM has a different halo for Banerjee, just like it had for Modi seven years ago. The dynamics of national politics seem to be changing and Modi-Shah are not dictating the agenda anymore. Rather, they are on the receiving end and would be busy defending themselves. The mismanagement of the second wave of coronavirus infections has also angered people in Yogi Adityanath’s Uttar Pradesh and Tirath Singh Rawat’s Uttarakhand — the support base of BJP. A new window has just opened for the Opposition as they corner the Modi government.
West Bengal, a state that the BJP considers as the cradle of the Hindu Right ideology through Syama Prasad Mookerjee, didn’t lean into that ideology. Yet, the growing disenchantment first with the Left, then with the ruling TMC, has given BJP a support base in the state. For it, a victory in Bengal would give it a tremendous morale boost, which the party needed badly in the face of adverse developments. But Mamata Banerjee steadily held onto her position and the BJP was vanquished.
Women line up for Mamata
What really worked in the chief minister’s favour was the consolidation of women and Muslim voters. Of the total 7.20 crore approximate voters in Bengal, women make up 3.48 crore, or around 49 per cent. They rallied around Mamata — remember the slogan Bangla chay nijer meyekei chaye (Bengal wants its daughter) — and were seen in long queues in front of polling booths.
The way the high-decibel campaign by BJP’s national and state leaders was directed against Mamata, with crude and sexist remarks thrown in (remember Modi’s ‘Didi o Didi’), did not go down well with many women voters. The BJP began its campaign by highlighting the corruption issue and unleashing the CBI and ED, but soon the campaign was directed against just one woman.
So, other women stood up for the chief minister.
They were present at each campaign, rally, meeting, and polling booth. Ever since she came to power in 2011, Mamata has given women something they were denied by other governments: dignity. It is not merely the Kanyashree scheme that saw girls through school and made them eligible for jobs, there were other measures too. The highly popular Swasthya Sathi scheme further empowered women with health insurance in their name. The health card of the family would now be carried by the women. And, in 2020, the ruling TMC introduced ‘Duare Sarkar’ — camps that would bring welfare schemes to rural doorsteps, including Swasthya Sathi.
No wonder then that women wanted their Didi back.
The Mahila-Muslim factor
If UP has the Muslim-Yadav (MY) factor, Bengal has the Mahila-Muslim factor (MM).
The Muslims transferred their votes from the Congress to the TMC in Malda and Murshidabad this time.
Much speculation was made about Abbas Siddiqui’s entry into active politics and forming an alliance with the Left Front and the Congress. There were apprehensions in some quarters that Siddiqui would split the Muslim vote and help the BJP. But Muslim voters in Bengal proved to be sagacious enough to cast their votes in a tactical way. This time in Malda, Murshidabad and North Dinajpur, the traditional stronghold of the Congress, the Muslims did not allow their votes to be split and backed the TMC lock, stock and barrel.
In other words, if the Muslim-Yadav (MY) combination worked for a long time in UP (till the BJP defeated it by forming a wider alliance with OBC and Dalit communities in 2017), a similar combination did wonders in Bengal where women and Muslims came to rally behind the TMC supremo. It means Mamata Banerjee has connected with the masses in a meaningful way.
The credit goes to Didi and her team (including Prashant Kishor) for relentlessly mobilising the people against heavy odds — the BJP and its might, money and machinery.
Nobody is now going to question Mamata Banerjee’s authority as the face of the united Opposition against the BJP. When you ask where is the Opposition in Modi’s India, look at three-time Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee.
Next year, UP, the largest and all-important state, will go to polls. Time for the Opposition to chalk out a strategy against the BJP in the state. Will Mamata play a role?
The author is a journalist and political analyst. Views are personal.
(Edited by Neera Majumdar)