May 8, 2021
Hello and welcome to All Indians Matter. I am Ashraf Engineer.
The recent Assembly election results have put the wind back in the Opposition’s sails. The Bharatiya Janata Party, which hoped to increase its tally in Kerala after naming ‘Metro Man’ E Sreedharan as its chief ministerial candidate, lost even the only seat it held in the state. Sreedharan, meanwhile, sank without a trace. In Tamil Nadu, its alliance with the DMK failed too with an AIADMK grouping that included the Congress winning handily. The BJP won in Puducherry and retained its government in Assam, but the real story of the elections was West Bengal. Mamata Banerjee and her Trinamool Congress steamrolled the Narendra Modi-Amit Shah-led BJP campaign to win a massive two-thirds majority – even more seats than it did the last time. Don’t forget that hers was already a two-term government, so not only did she battle the BJP cash-and-election machine, but anti-incumbency too. And she did it in style.
Despite all the money they threw at this election, despite all the super-spreader rallies they held, despite supposedly unbeatable campaigners like Modi, despite an Election Commission whose role is justifiably under the scanner, the BJP suffered its greatest electoral setback of the past few years. Not only did it not win in West Bengal, it was beaten badly – losing more than 40 seats from its previous tally in an election it felt would be its greatest triumph.
Mamata Banerjee emerged from the bruising campaign as a viable national leader of the Opposition. She demonstrated that, with purpose, even a rampaging, polarising adversary can be humbled.
Once and for all, Mamata Banerjee has destroyed the myth of invincibility that Modi and Shah like to cloak themselves with. And it’s just that, a myth. They have lost elections in several states – from Rajasthan to Madhya Pradesh and from Karnataka to Goa. They have instead showed greater expertise at toppling duly elected state governments by luring MLAs away. They tried that in West Bengal, too, engineering defections of key Mamata aides before the elections. Despite that, they failed. And the winning margin is enough of an insurance against defections pulling down Mamata’s government.
The win in Bengal comes in the wake of the government’s increasing authoritarianism even as its incompetence turns India into the world’s greatest COVID hot spot. Institutions have been compromised and we are in the throes of economic chaos. Patients are gasping for air in the absence of medical oxygen. They are dying in hospital parking lots, in ambulances and on the road. There are long, snaking lines of bodies outside crematoria and our healthcare workers are despairing.
Yet Modi and Shah proclaim that everything’s fine and order a crackdown on social media posts that say otherwise. Party colleague Yogi Adityanath went a step further, directing officials to seize the property of those who criticised his administration’s handling of the crisis. The Modi-led government, meanwhile, decided a vast construction project for a new Parliament complex was an essential service and work on it is being carried out with a zeal missing in the delivery of oxygen and care to COVID patients. Among the first structures that will be built? A multi-million-dollar home for the prime minster. It’s all chillingly apathetic.
West Bengal noticed.
It’s not that the Trinamool Congress wasn’t facing anti-incumbency but Mamata took steps to counter it. Among them was the Duarey Sarkar initiative. Translated, it means ‘government at your doorstep’ – the delivery of many welfare schemes and programmes directly to people’s homes. She also had the good sense to appoint a political consultant in the form of Prashant Kishor whose strategising was at least partly responsible for the result.
Meanwhile, there was great resentment among the masses also at wealthy businessmen funneling large amounts to the BJP campaign.
So, traditional voters of the Left and the Congress resorted to what is called ‘strategic voting’. They did not waste their votes on parties they knew would not form the government. Instead, they rallied behind Mamata. The Muslim vote was crucial, in fact, because the community accounts for 27% of the electorate.
It was a fatal mistake to foist a Hindutva agenda on Bengal. The average Bengali does not worship Lord Ram in the manner that the BJP does. The average Bengali is not a vegetarian. And the average Bengali certainly does not care for Hindi being imposed on the state.
So, Modi growing a beard to look like Rabindranath Tagore was a comical gimmick and his chant of “Didi o Didi” was cheap, turning off women voters.
The problem with the likes of Modi, Shah and Adityanath is that it’s the only way they know. They didn’t care to understand Bengal’s culture and that had consequences.
Mamata made them look like amateurs and their already shaky reputation suffered yet another jolt.
This is a key political moment – perfect for a wide-ranging Opposition alliance that can be decisive in the next general election. It’s not just the BJP’s campaign machine that wins it elections even though it manages vote shares of merely 30-odd%. It’s because the anti-BJP votes are split among a range of other parties. Strategic alliances are the best way ahead for the Opposition but its record on this front is spotty. Can it finally come together this time around?
Thank you all for listening. Please visit allindiansmatter.in for more columns and audio podcasts. You can follow me on Twitter at @AshrafEngineer and @AllIndiansCount. Search for the All Indians Matter page on Facebook. On Instagram, the handle is @AllIndiansMatter. Email me at email@example.com. Catch you again soon.