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India elections: Giant killer Mamata Banerjee beats BJP

So Mamata Banerjee has done it again.

West Bengal’s feisty chief minister can now justifiably claim the title of ‘giant killer’, as she takes helm at the state for a third time in a row. A decade ago, she sent the three-decade-old Left Front government, the longest-serving democratically elected communist government, packing. Now she has again, single-handedly, defeated the Bharatiya Janata Party, at the just-concluded state polls.

Even the most optimistic exit polls had predicted a maximum of around 180 seats for the Trinamul Congress, the party created by Banerjee barely two decades ago. But Banerjee has defied the odds and won almost as many seats as she did in 2016.

So what happened?

The first thing we need to realise is that after seven decades of independence, the Indian voter is no longer a pushover. The voter is mature enough to understand the difference between polls at the local level and that at the national level.

As a result, the voting pattern also changes. If the Bengal voters sent back 18 BJP members of Parliament two years ago, it is because they knew that Banerjee’s numbers would not make any difference in terms of capturing power at the Centre. This is also the reason why we see that the BJP remains in power at the federal level despite the string of defeats in the states.

This is where the BJP got it wrong in West Bengal. With the unexpected success in 2019, it went hammer and tongs into the state, riding roughshod through the cities and villages, and gave an impression that there was no stopping the juggernaut.

However, the Trinamool had only one weapon up its sleeve — and that was ‘Didi’ herself. As she had said time and again to the voters, it is she who is fighting on all seats — the actual contender is not important. The lack of a face to the BJP’s fight — I’m not counting the star power it tried to bring in — against the massive appeal of Banerjee herself.

There was no single leader who could hold a candle to her charisma, despite the large crowds that attended the rallies by Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Home Minister Amit Shah. This policy was followed with success by the BJP in some other states, but frankly none of those did the BJP have to contend with a leader of Banerjee’s stature.

But the elections were not just about a personality clash. Several schemes launched by the Trinamool Congress in its decade-long rule in the state — such as the two-rupee rice per kilo and the ‘Kanyasri’ scheme for girls — have found resonance in the rural belt, building a solid support base for the party.

Ground reports suggest that potable drinking water problems are a thing of the past. General health and hygiene issues have also been addressed. These successes have added meat to the party’s prospects.

So, what next for Bengal?

A major issue of concern for the state is that like in the last four decades, the state is still largely opposition-free. Ever since the Left Front stormed into power in West Bengal in 1977, the combined opposition strength has never crossed double figures.

This remains a unique feature in the state’s politics, where the opposition remains substantially behind in seat numbers despite being not so far behind in voting percentage. While we don’t know the percentages yet, the 80-odd seats for the BJP mean that this trend continues.

Therein lies the problem. With a virtual free reign, the ruling party in the state will not have any of the checks and balances that are so essential for the functioning of a democracy. Thus the tendency to rule roughshod, as has been witnessed in the state, is likely to continue, and with it, the high-handedness of a section of its leaders who have been berated so often.

At the same time, the BJP will tout its rise from a mere three seats in 2016 to current figure as a great achievement. But it will surely not fade into the shadows with this defeat. Licking its wounds for some time, the party will surely once again throw its resources towards gaining further ground. That, along with an openly hostile government at the Centre, will remain a thorn in the Trinamool’s flesh. It is to be seen how they pick that thorn out.