NEW DELHI —Weeks before polling began in the 2019 general elections, massive billboards and cutouts of Mamata Banerjee popped up all over Kolkata.
The billboards had one simple message: “The country deserves a chance at democracy.”
Today, Banerjee faced what could easily be called a rout in West Bengal losing nearly 10 seats — some of them Muslim majority ones or with a sizable Muslim population — to BJP.
While the Bengal CM tweeted ‘all losers are not losers’, the verdict was clearly a statement against her party’s hubris. A senior party leader termed the results an ‘anti-TMC verdict’ and said this was a good time to analyse what the party did wrong in the state.
Colonel Diptanshu Chowdhury, who was in charge in Asansol (where BJP’s Babul Supriyo won) and had campaigned extensively in Bankura, Purulia and Malda, said they had underestimated the extend of polarisation these districts had undergone. Formerly TMC strongholds, these constituencies were swept by the BJP this election. “From what I saw, literally all the Hindu votes went to the BJP, we got nothing from them,” he said.
“We have a lot to learn from these results,” he added.
Early this year, Banerjee had led a political coup of sorts when she invited the leaders of all major opposition parties including Congress, Lalu Prasad Yadav’s RJD, Samajwadi Party, DMK, Omar Abdullah’s National Conference and Sharad Pawar’s NCP for a meeting in Kolkata.
Her confidence may have stemmed from the fact that she had managed to keep BJP out of Bengal over two elections in the past 5 years — the 2014 general elections where BJP won just two seats in Bengal while it swept the rest of the country and the 2016 state assembly elections where the party got just 3 of the 293 seats in the state. Banerjee was making her ambitions known.
"All the Hindu votes went to the BJP, we got nothing from them."
However, following an intensive campaign aimed at stoking Hindu victimhood and headlined by Narendra Modi and Amit Shah themselves in West Bengal, TMC’s lead was restricted to approximately 24 seats in the states.
The BJP has in comparison surged ahead, leading as nearly as many seats as its local leaders and exit polls had predicted. When this article was being written, TMC had won 19 seats and was leading in 3, and BJP had won 18.
So what really happened in Bengal in the 2019 Lok Sabha elections, and what does this mean on the ground?
HINDUTVA VERSUS ‘SECULAR HINDUISM’
A popular WhatsApp forward doing the rounds of Bengal prior to the elections had chief minister Banerjee chanting the names of Hindu deities with gusto and then referring to Vishnu and ‘Jai Vishnu Mata’.
While it got some laughs, BJP leaders alleged that Banerjee was chanting the names of Hindu gods in desperation. Mentioning the speech where this clip was recorded, BJP leader Rahul Sinha said in an election rally, “Mamata became Mumtaz. Now the winds have changed and she wants to become Mamata again, but no is buying that.”
Even before Sinha could finish his speech, the crowd roared in endorsement.
Over the past year, BJP leaders worked relentlessly to drive a narrative that Banerjee has extended unnecessary sops to Muslims which would eventually endanger Hindus in the state. Blatantly false accusations — such as Durga Puja not being allowed in West Bengal, people were being ‘jailed’ for chanting Jai Shri Ram — were thrown around in public meetings and social media. Sometimes fake news were propagated by senior BJP leaders like Amit Shah, Narendra Modi and Adityanath.
Though the BJP partially falsified the nature of Banerjee’s engagement with the minority community, it is also true that her government extended unnecessary doles like a monthly allowance for the imams, and did not back the bill banning instant triple talaq. Former Congress MP Mausum Noor who joined TMC and contested from Malda (North) told HuffPost India that she did not agree with the Bill as it was not drafted after holding proper discussions with community leaders.
The BJP also widely criticised Banerjee’s move to recruit old party loyalist Firhad Hakim to government bodies responsible for the development and upkeep of famous temples in the state.
Banerjee sought to counter the discourse that she was ‘anti-Hindu’ by announcing sops for Hindus as well, including extending allowances to Puja committees.
Closer to the grassroots, local leaders like Anubrata Mondal distributed drums that, he told Bengali news channels, will be played by kirtan singers who will line the BJP’s ‘rath yatra’. In riot-hit Asansol, a ‘secular’ Ram Mandir was built, reportedly with help from Muslims and Hindus, though it was funded by Jitendra Tiwary, the local TMC MP.
In Purulia, it was reported that a Sankatmochan Hanuman Dal had been formed mostly by Trinamool Congress workers to counter Bajrang Dal’s brand of Hindutva. Banerjee’s party attempted to push back with their own brand of ‘Hindutva’ when BJP amped up their efforts to polarise Hindus.
However, these above measures were taken mostly over the last year and half, at a time the electorate had clearly been polarised already.
Chowdhury explained that the results seem to indicate that ‘hyper-nationalism’ and communalism may have seemed more ‘glamorous’ to the electorate. “While we talked about our various development schemes and the work we have done, BJP stuck to Hindutva. Also the whole thing about Balakote and Pulwama and ‘nation first’ stuff. Seems like people bought that more,” he added.
DIGGING THEIR OWN GRAVE?
Political analysts, however, pointed out that it was Trinamool Congress which sowed the seeds of communal polarisation, something the BJP then handsomely benefitted from.
Amal Mukhopadhyay, former principal of Presidency College in Kolkata and a political analyst, explained that Banerjee’s ‘awful’ appeasement politics annoyed voters in Bengal who aren’t necessarily ‘communal’ in nature.
“Why did she announce a monthly allowance for imams? It was unnecessary. It doesn’t contribute to the holistic development of the community. Of course, people began saying ‘why not Hindu priests’ then?” Mukhopadhyay said. He added that the results show that Bengal’s electorate is canny and politically conscious.
LEFT TURNS RIGHT
While the CPM had a vote share of nearly 39% in 2014 general elections and 26% in 2016 Assembly elections, its vote share plummeted to less than 7% this time. While Trinamool Congress’ hovered around 44 percent — what it got in the 2016 Assembly elections — BJP’s share soared to nearly 39% from 17% in 2014.
Chowdhury said that while the Trinamool Congress’ vote share has marginally increased over the last two elections, the share of votes CPM had mostly swung to the BJP. “Not all of it, but all the Hindus who voted for CPM now voted for BJP. Same happened with Congress,” he said.
Mukhopadhyay, however, said it was Trinamool who drove votes towards BJP with their political violence. “The panchayat elections which TMC won by a landslide was a farce. There was widespread violence, people couldn’t even file nominations. TMC did not leave any space for the opposition last year, now they are paying the price for it. Rural Bengal has not forgotten it,” he said.
With CPM and Congress organisation in a shambles, voters understood that backing those parties would only benefit TMC. “So the votes swung towards BJP, people wanted their vote to count,” he said.
Chowdhury confessed that the results show that there was a huge gap between mid-level party leaders and booth level workers and the voters. “Mamata Banerjee cannot go everywhere. These people should also pull up their socks and get their act together,” he said.
MODI VERSUS MAMATA
While Narendra Modi and Mamata Banerjee are at loggerheads, both political figures command a kind of hero worship that’s similar in nature. Voters are exhorted to vote for them, instead of their governance or their parties for that matter. During an informal meet with reporters, a senior TMC leader commented that though the party had raised a hue and cry about staggering the elections over seven phases, it actually worked to their benefit. “Can you imagine the result of giving Mamata Banerjee the space to do three rallies in each constituency?”, the leader said.
Issues such as governance or corruption would simply slide off Banerjee’s overwhelming personality and hence, BJP latched on to the only thing that trumps most other issues in this country — religion. And to make sure that it worked, Narendra Modi visited the state thrice in a couple of months to campaign for a party whose local leadership struggled to make an impact with voters.
BJP’s Bengal president Dilip Ghosh said that though their leaders were novices and had never won an election, they had ‘help from Delhi’. “After Indira Gandhi, the country has seen a leader with charisma for the first time. So people voted for Modi despite the BJP bungling on issues like GST and demonetisation. This is not BJP’s victory, this is Modi’s personal victory,” Mukhopadhyay said.