What worked for Mamata Banerjee in Bhabanipur

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TMC workers celebrate Mamata Banerjee poll victory in Kolkata on Sunday | PTI

Mamata Banerjee broke her own record on Sunday by beating her closest rival – Priyanka Tibrewal of BJP – by nearly 59,000 votes from Bhabanipur.

In 2011, she beat the CPI (M) by just over 54,000 votes in this constituency. The victory is all the sweeter since just five months ago, when the rest of West Bengal voted, Trinamool’s congressional candidate won the seat by a margin of less than 29,000 votes.

So what was it that contributed to Mamata’s massive victory?

Non-Bengali awareness

The April elections were held on Bengali identity ground. Mamata and the rest of Trinamool called the BJP and its supporters “outsiders” who wanted to destroy the culture and traditions of Bengal. The beards have been interpreted to be directed against the state’s huge non-Bengali population.

Mamata Banerjee speaking to supporters in Calcutta on Sunday | PTI

A massive election victory, however, allowed Mamata to moderate her rhetoric, especially as she began to harbor national ambitions. The “Bengali vs Outsider” pitch would not have worked in Bhabanipur either, as the constituency has around 40% non-Bengalis – Marwaris, Gujaratis, Punjabis, Biharis and others.

Mamata quickly moved on to the inclusivism story. She called Bhabanipur a “mini-India” during her election rallies, visited a gurudwara and began to appeal to non-Bengali communities. The outreach appeared to have worked as Mamata ruled even in neighborhoods dominated by non-Bengalis, according to the results. In 2019, the Trinamool was hanging out in a few of these neighborhoods.

Pan-Indian ambitions resonated with voters

Gujarati asmita boards and Narendra Modi’s Gujarat style had become the talk of the town for the past two decades. From Chief Minister of Gujarat, Modi scored 7, Lok Kalyan Marg with ease. Sharad Pawar also reached the halls of power in Delhi on the pride of Maratha. Almost all of the other regional satraps also harbor national ambitions and work to expand their influence.

In such a scenario, Mamata’s Pan-Indian aspirations might have resonated with the population, many of whom would like to see their representative take the lead in Delhi. After targeting the Bengali population in Assam and Tripura, Mamata is gradually entering states like Goa. All of this to herald her arrival on the national scene and send the message that no opposition to BJP would be complete without her, Trinamool insiders say.

With Congress in tatters, calls for a unified opposition or a strong personality at the head of a coalition of regional parties are longstanding demands in the anti-BJP camp. Trinamool want Mamata to replace the shoes and his campaign to do so has often found support from a section of Bengalis.

Populist schemes

Mamata’s populist ploys continued even after her party’s resounding victory in the parliamentary elections. Whether it is food grains, electricity, water, roads, health care or education, its projects have appealed to the poor in rural and urban areas. The decision to provide government assistance to the Durga Puja committees received a warm welcome from voters. All this to a large extent swayed public opinion in its favor.

The organizational weakness of the BJP

Most often, by-elections favor the party in power. But the BJP also failed to fight vigorously in Bhabanipur. Despite bombarding the constituency with a host of central leaders, political analysts believe the BJP has always known the truth – defeating Mamata in his stronghold is nearly impossible. Add to that the replacement of Dilip Ghosh as head of the Bengal BJP in the middle of the campaign which sent the wrong message to the electorate.

BJP HQ in Calcutta wears desert look on Sunday | PTI

The “Bengal girl” factor

Mamata fought against Nandigram and lost to Suvendu Adhikari by less than 2,000 votes. However, its presence in the region had helped Trinamool gain sieges in eastern and western Midnapore, considered the stronghold of the Adhikari family. The BJP, however, campaigned for Mamata to decide to challenge Nandigram because she feared defeat in Bhabanipur. It all evoked sympathy for Mamata, the “Bengal girl”. Many even believed that there was foul play involved in the counting in Nandigram, as propagated by some leaders in Trinamool.

What future for Mamata?

Many regional anti-BJP pillars such as Sharad Pawar and HD Kumaraswamy have a good relationship with Mamata.

Although the so-called “Third Front” has a number of contenders who want to lead it, the Trinamool supremo would like to garner support for it given the stunning victory in Bengal. The Trinamool believes Mamata is the only person who can stop the BJP juggernaut across India.

With Bengal firmly with her, Mamata now plans to visit various metropolitan and level II cities in India to expand her base. Trinamool insiders say she could address programs in Mumbai and Bangalore, with the exception of Assam, Rajasthan and Punjab. It could start after the Uttar Pradesh election in a very calculated way.

Ultimately, says a leader from Trinamool, the goal is to make it a Modi vs Mamata fight and not a Modi vs Rahul Gandhi fight in the Center.

(The author is a senior journalist based in Kolkata)


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