Electoral odds are stacked against Mamata, but she might rise to the challenge
The All India Trinamool Congress (AITC) is one of the very few Indian political parties to keep combating the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in power at the Center. But as elections for the West Bengal State Assembly approaches (the due date is in the first half of 2021) the AITC is not looking as strong as it used to be.
West Bengal is the second most populous State in India in terms of density, after Bihar. It has a population of about 100 million. About 30% of its population are Muslims. West Bengal is strategically important as it shares borders with Nepal, Bhutan and Bangladesh. But, interestingly, it has often rejected a north India-centric party.
The AITC had the most serious electoral setback when the Hindu nationalist BJP bagged 18 out of 42 seats in the Lok Sabha elections in 2019. After initial disbelief and shock, the AITC managed to recover last year thanks to the BJP government’s misadventure on the citizenship issue.
The saffron party had decided to fire all its cylinders to implement a nationwide National Register of Citizens (NRC) to identify legal citizens, and segregate and deport illegal ones. It backfired in Assam as many of the 20 lakh illegal citizens were Hindus. Bengali Hindus were furious in Assam and Bengal as well. A large number of Dalits who came from East Pakistan – and are now backing the BJP – complained that the process was against the interest of the refugees.
A political scientist and expert on refugee politics of Bengal, Soumen Chakraborty noted that there are about “64 lakh Dalit refugees in south Bengal alone influencing polling in about 47 of 294 Assembly seats.”
So, the AITC and its chief, the Chief Minister of West Bengal Ms. Mamata Banerjee took advantage of this anti-BJP sentiment. But the joy was short-lived. COVID-19 corruption and flaws in managing the Amphan cyclone disaster began to undermine her popularity. The party had announced an ex-gratia compensation of $270 for the cyclone affected people in the villages. It reached many but a large section was also left out.
In Nandigram in south Bengal, where CPI-M had a major setback following a drive to acquire land for a private company in 2006-07, many complained that they have not received the fund, while AITC members did. The allegations were big enough for AITC to suspend about two dozen party workers in the area. Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee however denied the allegation. As far as COVID-19 is concerned, West Bengal’s nightmare may have just started unfolding.
Meanwhile, since the time of the Amphan cyclone of May 20, the BJP has been distributing relief and claiming that they can deliver the goods without corruption. The BJP has the advantage of being in the opposition, while Banerjee has the disadvantage of being in power for nearly 10 years.
In India, with multiple political formations, caste and religious complexities and deep inequalities, management of public grievances after a term or two is difficult.
A disciplined party organization is thus fundamentally critical to rule in India. The Communist Party of India-Marxist (CPI-M) and the Hindu nationalist Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), with BJP as its political wing, had realized this long ago, but the AITC had not.
Party chief Mamata Banerjee – a product of anti-left politics – has always said that the Left's militant trade union and organizational network is responsible for capital’s flight from West Bengal. Thus, she focused less on organization and more on service delivery, infrastructure development and governance through the administration.
While her governmental actions were lauded, a weak party organization stopped connecting with the people. The party’s local level leaders started behaving like satraps, corruption skyrocketed, and the deep penetration of the Hindutva ideology went unnoticed. Nearly all of AITC’s problems stem from the fact that the organization weakened.
This is why right after AITC’s setback in the 2019 Lok Sabha poll, Mamata Banerjee said: “I may have done little more than I should have done [in running the government]. I will now devote more time to the party [organization].” It is a surprise why Banerjee with very in-depth understanding of Bengal’s society and politics neglected the significance of organization. She has now hired a poll manager and strategist, Prashant Kishor, who worked with BJP as well, to put an organization in place.
On the other hand, the RSS took a long time to identify an RSS whole timer as the President in West Bengal; someone who is not from the BJP but RSS. This is Dilip Ghosh, a village-bred RSS Pracharak (missionary volunteer and whole timer) since 1984. Ghosh was selected as the President at a time when RSS was unsure about its Bengal policy – how far to go to disturb Banerjee as she is a devout Hindu, a non-Communist and earlier (2003) had even described the RSS members as “true patriots”.
On his part, Ghosh, fumbled in a few of his actions. He however steadied the BJP’s ship in West Bengal over the last five years and emerged as a credible face. He got elected to the Lok Sabha in Delhi too. However, it is yet to be seen whether the BJP projects him as a Chief Ministerial face in the State where most of the chiefs, over the last several decades, were city-bred Bhadralok, representing the elite social class (Banerjee is an exception).
The BJP also does not declare its Chief Ministerial candidate before the election results. In case Ghosh is projected, it would be clearly a city versus village contest, when BJP would be interpreted to have put its weight behind rural Bengal where the majority of voters reside.
Another critical problem was the AITC’s complete lack of understanding of Hindutva politics. Hindu nationalism, as an ideology, is old in Bengal but had failed to gain ground owing to the rise of the Left around the middle of last century. In the first State Assembly elections in 1951-52, the Hindu nationalists bagged 13 seats indicating its appeal.
Hindu nationalism started growing after the BJP came to power at the Center in 2014. It developed a massive network through which it infiltrated a political society dominated by communists for decades. It projected Banerjee as “a pro-Muslim leader” which she was not. Reports suggest that the Muslims’ living standards have hardly improved in Bengal in the last 10 years since AITC came to power.
Nonetheless, Hindutva networks damaged the AITC, largely convincing the voters that Banerjee is not too keen to protect the interest of the Hindus. The communal polarization of Bengal was gathering pace. Despite performing all Hindu rituals, the AITC was clueless about a strategy to counter religious polarization. Again, without an organizational bulwark, it is difficult to take up the challenge. Banerjee continues to resist the rise of Hindutva in Bengal but her voice is getting muffled.
The third critical mistake was to completely decimate the secular and Center-Left opposition. The CPI-M’s cadres and leaders were targeted, party offices were torched and false cases galore were slapped, while half of the local legislators of the Congress were coxed to join the AITC in order to create an opposition-free space. But that empty space was captured by a well-organized BJP.
In addition, BJP’s has a better understanding of the social media. Its ability to evaluate a predominantly unequal and poor society combined with its aggression, money power, finesse in anticipating crises, also helped it rise.
Having said that, the AITC has certain advantages. Firstly, it has a leader, Mamata Banerjee or Didi, who is still considered a non-corrupt and fearless people’s leader. Her charisma may have been hit over the decade but she still is head and shoulders above any of BJP’s State or even national level leader other than Narendra Modi.
Secondly, the AITC still has powerful local level leaders who have a sense of the realpolitik. The BJP is matching them but the AITC leaders are capable of engaging young boys during the election to manage more than 70,000 booths of Bengal which is a clear plus.
For Banerjee, since she defeated CPI-M veteran Somnath Chatterjee in 1984, every political battle has been a do-or-die one. Yet, the one in 2021 will perhaps be the toughest. The biggest advantage that she has is her ability to combat. The tougher the fight, the better her performance. But whether it would work against a network steered by Narendra Modi in 2021 remains to be seen. The fight, however, would be worth watching.