India’s 2021 Bengal Election: Some Take-Home Lessons

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By  Professor Sugata Marjit     17 May 2021

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Ms. Mamata Banerjee, the 3rd term winning Chief Minister of West Bengal, India

 

If there was one stunner in this year’s largely boring political landscape, it would be India’s 2021 state election in West Bengal.

Belying all anticipations , apprehensions and exit poll results publicized by major media outlets favouring Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, the Trinamul Congress (TMC) steered by Mamata Banerjee, Chief Minister of West Bengal, won the election and returned to rule West Bengal for the third consecutive term, with thumping majority – TMC won 213 of  total 294 seats in the State Legislative Assembly.  One should remember that in the previous election in 2016, with a less formidable BJP but against similar barrage of negative publicity by the media, Mamata Banerjee led the TMC to a similar resounding victory with 211 seats. I shall return to the significance of this similarity later in my article.

This year Indian National Congress and CPM, the other two political parties in West Bengal failed to win any seat and BJP got 77 seats, emerging as the major opposition party in the state. However, what is remarkable is that this year TMC obtained an all-time high vote share of around 49% and BJP 38%. It will be interesting to reflect on the causes and consequence of such a huge mandate in favour of Mamata Banerjee , popularly and reverently known as Didi ( Elder Sister) who has now emerged as the  leading face of India’s political resistance against Mr. Modi and BJP.

In spite of the most aggressive campaign Bengal has ever seen from any political party in post-independence India, accompanied by oft repeated and unfounded and sponsored media propaganda against TMC and unthinkable fifteen campaign rallies by Mr. Modi, the Prime Minister, an unprecedented effort by any prime minister ever to topple a chief minister of a state ended in a disappointing performance.

To understand the handicap with which the TMC was pitted against BJP, one has to understand the nature of the campaign engineered by the BJP. It started with major television channels of the country speaking relentlessly about corruption of Didi via her nephew Abhishek, himself a member of parliament and a key campaigner of the party and alleged “ever worsening” law and order situation in Bengal.  Rallies, with unabashed calls for religious division for attracting Hindu votes, the majority in Bengal, were organized in plenty without any of the campaigning leaders wearing masks in public gatherings in a raging contagion that contributed to intensification and rapid spread of the disease uncontrollably. Time and again the entire brigade of BJP campaigners hyped up the law and order problem out of proportion, curiously prompting the Election Commission of India to announce an election schedule spreading for more than one month, with the excuse to conduct smooth polling. Now it has been made clear by many, including the Nobel Laureate Amartya Sen, that such a strategy was to allow the top leaders of BJP to campaign off and on all through the election process moving back and forth to do their daily administrative work and allowing them to campaign right up to the end of the elections. Whatever it is, Bengal has never seen such a lopsided battle in terms of campaign, resources and publicity in such a biased and flagrant manner which  belied the expectations of Modi and his ilk and trashed predictions of all poll pundits. Let me explain why.

It is clear that BJP has been able to consolidate communal votes from the Hindu community and in the process also has helped to consolidate Muslim votes for TMC.  Divisive strategies based on religion or caste tend to polarize votes. Unfortunately a sizable section of Hindu community has supported BJP and moved away from other two opposition parties, namely the Congress and the Communist Party Marxist. Also a section of voters has switched towards TMC away from Congress and CPM. BJP could get bit of a pay off by repeatedly hammering the story of appeasement of the Muslims by Mamata Banerjee. But that is not unanticipated as this has been the reigning strategy of BJP against Congress at the national level and it has worked. At the national level, BJP has decimated Congress. But in Bengal the dynamics is not that straight forward.

Ruthlessly aggressive, blatantly non-tolerant, prejudiced, and ritualistic Hinduism or for that matter any such practice with any religion, however popular it might be elsewhere, is clearly despised here in Bengal by many. Needless to say same has been true for ideologies feeding Islamic terrorism with the slogan such as “Islam Khatre Mein Hay” (Islam is in danger.) Bengal’s social and cultural history does not allow such kind of dominance and influence. Even with rising aggression and conflicts on many fronts, fiercely debated ideologies and opinions, majority in Bengal tend prefer living with  civility and in mutual respect and tolerance of each other. This may have something to do with the lessons drawn from social reformists such as Chaitanyadeb, Ramakrishna, Vivekanada, Vidyasagar, Rammohan, Rabindranath, Kazi Nazrul etc. and partly due to Bengal’s leftist political heritage. This election has clearly demonstrated the spectre of a joint and forceful liberal resistance against sectarianism, a philosophy that BJP intends to promote , an idea which is inherently harmful and no way, represents the history and culture of India.

What made the difference?

However, I think that the communal or non-communal issues are being overplayed unnecessarily to explain the outcome of this election. These issues may have affected voter choices to some extent but the factors that worked in favour of TMC came from a very different source.

Essentially, the 2021 Bengal election was a fight between a segment of  urban elite middle class that forever disliked Mamata Banerjee’s Didi image (a symbol of saviour of the poor) and her success story in delivering pro poor, pro low income  and pro women development initiatives. That Didi sustains herself as  a genuine peoples’ leader through public investment and social welfare oriented policies has not been picked by the media nor by many poll pundits that represent some of the  urban elites.  As a result, the so called intellectual rhetoric revolved around denigrating Mamata’s politics of inclusion, and her pro-poor image as a political stunt, without analysing the true sources of her popularity i.e. her pro-poor policies  which fostered social welfare and development

My key point here will be to suggest that the TMC receiving consolidated votes of the minorities is not the only reason that TMC returned to power again with such a huge mandate. Election in 2016 was fought with a far weaker BJP, without the controversial Citizenship Amendment Act in the picture which in a way unconstitutionally targeted Muslims in a secular democracy. TMC mainly fought against the Congress and CPM who could easily garner substantial quantity of votes from the minorities. But that did not happen. TMC won 211 seats in 2016. Thus be it a weak or strong opposition or be secular or otherwise, Didi has been holding her ground, how?

First we must not rule out that the existence and continuity of development initiatives which remain pervasive, uninterrupted and intense since TMC came to power, are not the main reason for its repeated success. No, we cannot do that. As between 2011 and 2016, between 2016 and 2020 also, a variety of new development cum welfare projects have been initiated by the TMC govt. The Kannyasri ( Welfare of women) project received the best award from UN among all such policies run all over the world which help to retain women in schools and colleges and increase their marital age.

Muslims definitely voted for Didi en masse as they, as well as many Hindus in Bengal, are scared of BJP coming to power. But Didi’s victory cannot be a reflection of only negative voting with an SOS from the minorities against the BJP which is now being proposed at large. If Didi gets such a mandate in spite of a weak or a strong version of the same opposition, there must be other reasons.

The only episode of a setback for TMC was the last Loksabha ( Parliament ) elections when BJP won almost same number of parliamentary seats as TMC in the state. Prompt corrective response from Mamata Banerjee saw TMC winning all “by elections” (vacated assembly seats due to various reasons) within a few months of parliamentary election. That incident was conveniently bypassed in debates and discussions on current elections.   The recovery from the setback was quick and therefore results of 2021 and 2016 remain comparable.

TMC’s post victory challenges

Notwithstanding Didi’s soaring and undented popularity, TMC government faces several policy challenges which it must focus and address immediately.

Lack of adequate jobs and opportunities in Bengal compel many skilled youths to migrate to other states of India and this is not good news for Bengal. Indeed, lack of skilled and high paying jobs in Bengal are a serious damper for many highly skilled aspiring youths. Bengal’s low per capita income compared to the richer states and lack of industries, skilled and professional formal sector jobs are things to worry about.  Fiscal management of substantial debt burden without much hope for cooperation from the central government is another issue.  Over the years, TMC government has done well to take development at the grass-root level. However, options that strike a balance between distributive aspects of development (providing services at the grass-root level) with policies that contribute to economic growth, warrants attention.

In addition, efforts are also on  to improve discipline and accountability within the party as well as in the government, which has been a challenge for the party.  In sum, these – policies that promote equity and growth and good governance – are critical for earning trust of people and ensuring political and electoral success in a democracy.

While it is true that the landslide victory does indicate that people are quite happy with TMC especially with Didi, there is no room for complacency. The newly elected third term TMC government under Didi must address the following with utmost urgency: (i) protect people against COVID 19 (ii) attract high end investments and create high paid skilled jobs in the state; and last but not the least, (iii) strengthen discipline and accountability both within the government and in the party. In this respect one should mention that the new policy of “Duare Sarkar” or “Govt. at your Doorstep”  has been timely and quite effective which tends to drastically reduce bureaucratic hassles to avail public benefits.

The 2021 election victory of TMC in Bengal has created a history not just for Bengal but for India as a whole which has shown that at the end of the day, people care for a party that promises better days for all people and not just for select few and that people care for a leader that cares for them equally and reject those that  tend to pamper hatred among communities  and create divisions  – a trait which questions the very notion of a united and diverse India.