Who is the real gainer?
As the Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee led her party – Trinamool Congress – to a spectacular victory against the Bharatiya Janata Party and also against the Left-Congress combine in state polls recently, a large section of media hailed it as a vote for ‘inclusive, secular and democratic India’. Though the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has made major gains in the four states and one Union Territory that voted in elections to assemblies over the past month, there is reason for the country’s opposition parties and alliances to draw satisfaction from the election results. In three states, non-BJP parties and alliances have successfully kept the BJP out of power.
These outcomes of the assembly elections, once again confirmed the notion that arose from various states that voted in assembly elections last year. Regional parties with strong and able leaders are able to vanquish the BJP, and importantly, Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Home Minister Amit Shah, the party’s chief election strategists and campaigners, are not invincible.
The BJP-led National Democratic Alliance returned to power in the northeastern state of Assam and has also wrested power from the Congress in the Union Territory of Puducherry. However, it will have to remain content with sitting in the opposition in West Bengal, Kerala, and Tamil Nadu.
In Kerala, the ruling Left Democratic Front (LDF) returned to power, wresting 99 seats in the 140- seat assembly. The LDF victory is historic; not only did it improve on its 2016 performance but also, this is the first time in four decades that a ruling alliance has won a second consecutive term in the state. In Tamil Nadu, the Dravida Munetra Kazhagam (DMK)-Congress led alliance swept to power after 10 years. It has secured 159 seats in the 234-seat assembly, 61 more than what it won in 2016.
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The super performance by the TMC in the assembly elections of Bengal was not only spectacular but also almost magical. Mamata’s government had no great achievements on the development front. Its governance was below par and was marred by corruption scandals. Consequently, it faced a strong anti-incumbency mood in the state. In addition, its main challenger in the election, the BJP, poured in vast resources to wrest the control of West Bengal from the TMC.
Not all is lost for BJP
The media all over the country is trying to portray the loss of BJP in West Bengal, as if the BJP has lost everything. But the truth of matter is that the BJP has made impressive gains in the three states where it failed to come to power. In the outgoing Kerala assembly, the BJP had just one member. It will hold three seats in the new one. The BJP had failed to win any seats in the 2016 elections to the Tamil Nadu assembly, although its alliance partner, the All-India Anna Dravida Munetra Kazhagam (AIDMK) was voted to power. The party now has three legislators in Tamil Nadu. In the West Bengal assembly the BJP won three seats five years ago but now it will have 77 members sitting in the West Bengal assembly.
Traditionally, in West Bengal, Kerala and Tamil Nadu the party has had little support, unlike the states in northern, central, and western India, where the BJP has a dominating presence. The recent results have shown that the party is gaining ground in areas which were forbidden for it till now. The BJP has made inroads into these states. The ‘Fortress of Bengal’ was also demolished, which has rejected the saffron brigade for decades now. The impact of the assembly election results will be felt not only in these states but also on the national level.
Congress mukt bharat-a reality
These assembly election results also dealt the Congress yet another debilitating blow. The Congress, which is the BJP’s main opponent nationally, failed to improve its position in Assam and Kerala. It failed to exploit the anti-incumbency sentiment in both states. It will lead to more questions being raised against the dynastic rule of Nehru-Gandhi family while a barrage of serious challenges to Rahul Gandhi’s leadership can be expected in the coming weeks.
The results of polls in Assam, Kerala, West Bengal Puducherri and Tamil Nadu have shown that the decline of Congress since the Lok Sabha elections has not ebbed. Moreover, the current loss of face in Kerala and Assam, where it enjoyed the confidence of the electorate for decades, has raised some pertinent questions on its highest leadership.
The existential crisis has deepened for the Congress and the Nehru-Gandhi family. The party lost Puducherry even before the elections were announced, performed poorly West Bengal, couldn’t make a comeback in Assam and Kerala, and is only a junior partner in the winning alliance in Tamil Nadu. The Congress, in its desperation, allied with the All India United Democratic Front (AUDF) in Assam and seems to have revived a party that was in decline. This will affect the Congress’s strength in Assam in the future. Similarly, the Congress had high odds of winning Kerala. After all, the party had won 19 of 20 seats during the Lok Sabha elections in Kerala and Rahul Gandhi (who is an MP from the state) along with Priyanka Vadra campaigned hard. Yet, the party’s vote and seat tally seem to suggest that the Gandhi family has limited pull among India’s southern voters too. The BJP’s dream of making a Congress Mukt Bharat is indeed becoming a reality.
What is unfolding in the immediate aftermath of Mamata and her TMC’s triumph is horrific. Bengal has been in the grip of bloody violence that has allegedly left dozens of BJP workers dead and injured, and their property ransacked, looted and burnt. Social media is swamped by a flood of videos and photos of goons, allegedly from the TMC, wreaking havoc on their defeated political opponents. BJP cadre and leaders have reported hundreds of cases of looting and arson, and some even of murder and rape in the last two days in Bengal. Concerned over incidents of brutal violence after the 2021 Assembly election results in West Bengal, that claimed several lives and left many injured, Prime Minister Narendra Modi on Tuesday called Governor Jagdeep Dhankhar and enquired about the ‘alarming situation’ in the state, said a News18 report.
Although BJP workers have been the primary targets of these horrendous attacks in a majority of the cases, even the Communist Party of India supporters and their offices have been subjected to violence. Multiple reports of post-poll violence and arson from various parts of West Bengal have also prompted the Union Ministry of Home Affairs to seek a report from the Bengal government on incidents of attack on opposition workers. Not only are business establishments of political opponents being looted, but even the offices of political parties are being burnt.
Houses of candidates who fought against the TMC are being attacked and ransacked; even the cars and other vehicles of BJP candidates and supporters are being smashed and damaged. Social media platforms were also inundated with reports of cases where female polling agents of the BJP have been gang-raped. There were tweets and reports that alleged that at least 28 BJP workers/supporters have been killed in the immediate aftermath of the results..
However, all through this mayhem, Mamata Banerjee has remained totally silent. She has not made even a meek plea to her cadre asking them to maintain peace and hasn’t condemned the violence at all.
For someone who has ruled the state with an iron hand in the last 10 years, Mamata’s appeal to her workers will go a long way in stemming the violence that has engulfed Bengal as BJP workers are being terrorised and killed. Mamata is the undisputed supremo in her party and no one will disobey her word.
In Bengal, violence seems to be woven into the fibre of its politics, with West Bengal being scarred by it right from the days when the Congress and Left ruled the state. Violence also marked the 2011 Assembly polls, in which Mamata Banerjee trounced the Left and ended its 34-year-long unbroken rule. The phenomenon has continued to haunt the state as seen by the ghastly visuals coming after the latest Trinamool victory. For the ‘bhadralok’ of Bengal, the killings were a sombre reality check as Bengal was the only state which could not come out of this cycle even amid the pandemic. With the BJP increasing its Assembly seats to 77 in 2021 from a mere three in 2016 and Lok Sabha tally from just two in 2014 to 18 in 2019, the polity in West Bengal has already undergone a tectonic shift. Consequently, the bitterness between the TMC and the challenger knocking at the doors of power is at an all-time high.
While claims and counter-claims in Bengal muddy the political waters, a return to long-lasting peace will take much effort.
It would be a mistake to read the results as a verdict against the Narendra Modi government owing to its failure in handling the Covid-19 crisis. Polling in states, other than Bengal, were over before the situation turned from bad to worse. And the scale of the Trinamool Congress (TMC)’s victory in Bengal suggests that the party was ahead even in the first five phases when normal campaigning took place. The BJP may well pay a political price in the future as the Covid-19 crisis continues to unfold. But a lot will depend on popular perceptions of how different parties responded in a time of crisis. Either way, this election was not a referendum on Covid-19 management. These results, once again, exposes the limits of the BJP’s strategy of over-relying on Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s charisma, without presenting a credible state-level face, and expecting it to overcome the organisational ground game, especially in a state where there is an opponent such as Mamata Banerjee. Her personal popularity, much like Modi, is greater than her party. And, she excels in situations when pushed against the wall. Despite making a formidable entry into Bengal, the loss is going to pinch the BJP for some time, as this was not just an election but an emotional project for the party. Victory in Bengal would have given the BJP a huge ideological boost and narrative advantage till 2024.
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