If only veteran Awami League politician Shamim Osman knew that his famous exhortation to any and all comers ahead of the 2014 election, 'Khela Hobe'(Game on!), would be turned into a triumphant election song for Mamata Banerjee's Trinamool Congress, he surely would have patented it.
Prashant Kishor, the political strategist considered as the brain (although everything frankly pales in comparison to the faith people repose in Banerjee) behind TMC's landslide victory in the assembly election, explained the significance of the 'Khela Hobe' slogan several times while talking to the Indian medi in the lead up to the recently concluded West Bengal assembly election.
According to Kishor, 'Khela hobe' delivered a message to the voters that TMC will fight till the very end, in the face of the relentless onslaught of the BJP, that saw the head of the Indian government (the prime minister) and his number two (home minister) literally camped out in Bengal even as the Second Wave of COVID-19 started ravaging India.
"During elections, BJP created such a psychological fear that there is no chance for the other party. Amit Shah comes to Bengal and says that Didi(Mamata Banerjee) is done, she is all alone. This psychological pressure forces the opponents to give up. Hence the 'Game on' slogan. It means we will fight till the very end," he said in an interview with India Today back in March.
An intense matchup did take place, staggered out over eight legs, and Mamata played till the very end, with an injured left foot and won decisively against a fully fit BJP squad, led by Narendra Modi and Amit Shah - who each held over 50 rallies in the state - and propped up by the likes of Yogi Adityanath.
BJP has a very clear strategy when it comes to winning elections.
They challenge an incumbent government, strengthen their local organisation by poaching politicians from the local parties and through party booth committees and the work of Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh(RSS), present Narendra Modi as the only leader committed to the state’s interests, promise a web of welfare schemes and push a very aggressive Hindu nationalist ideology in the state in a bid to polarise and consolidate the Hindu vote.
Despite doing it all in Bengal, the saffron camp failed to conquer their final frontier after locking horns with the charismatic Mamata Banerjee.
'Didi', as Banerjee is affectionately known, stood her ground against a BJP machine which had everything, money, muscle power, the media and some would say even the Election Commission.
Shah, the architect behind the BJP's electoral juggernaut witnessed since 2014, was constantly predicting the kind of overwhelming victory that in the end TMC pulled off.
The Trinamool Congress ended up winning 48% of the vote and 73% of seats, its best performance ever on both counts. Not bad for a party said to be suffering anti-incumbency!
In this piece, we will try to look at some of the factors which contributed to the win.
Bengali nationalism: From Didi to Banglar Meye
Any specific ideological core was more or less absent from Trinamool Congress since its inception. But they had to resort to something to combat BJP's Hindu nationalism.
Thus, they went for Bengali nationalism, which was probably the most obvious choice.
They portrayed themselves as local heroes up against bohiragotos(literally outsiders) and Borgis (Maratha raiders who led a destructive invasion of Bengal in the 18th century).
To take matters further, Mamata Banerjee, who was always known as Didi (Sister) and still is by the people of Bengal, was also rebranded as 'Banglar Meye' (Daughter of Bengal). During campaigning, Trinamool launched the slogan — “Bangla nijer meye ke chay (Bengal wants its own daughter)” as a part of this.
Talking to UNB, Papia Sen, professor of political science at Jawaharlal Nehru University, said: "Although the rebranding of Mamata Banerjee was not the main reason behind TMC's success, it was certainly an effective tactic against the Hindutva stance of BJP."
According to Prof Sen, it "evoked Bengal's natural sentiments for their daughters and added a household touch" to Banerjee.
According to Papia Sen, the real vote bank for TMC is not Muslims or minorities, but rather women.
"Over the years, Mamata has undertaken a series of welfare policies which led to direct flow of cash into the hands of women. In return, the women of West Bengal have always remained loyal to her," she said.
TMC ensured regular cash transfers to girls if they do not get married and remain in school.
Papia Sen also said that she believes that the women of Bengal were emotionally moved when they saw their chief minister, a strong woman herself, was on the receiving end of "low-level bullying and taunting" by BJP leadership, including PM Narendra Modi.
Modi publicly taunted Mamata by saying “Didi O Didi" in a tone likened to louts and punks by Mahua Moitra, a TMC politician.
BJP’s West Bengal chief Dilip Ghosh also offended traditional Bengali sensibilities when he commented on Mamata's hitched up saree (to accommodate the cast on her injured left foot), asking on national television why she can’t switch to sporting bermuda shorts instead of exposing her legs.
The taunting and bullying only moved more women votes towards TMC, according to experts including Papia Sen.
The so-called Muslim vote bank is always a huge factor in West Bengal as the Muslim share of the state's population is more than double the national average.
"TMC government funded minority institutions including madrasas and brought it to the mainstream. They have also provided scholarships to the Muslim and Dalit students. All these contributed in Muslims relying on the TMC government yet again," said Papia Sen.
"Besides, the way BJP blamed TMC for pampering Muslims and pledged to change the status-quo once they come to power, forced Muslim voters across the state to perceive TMC as their only saviour. For this reason, Muslims who generally vote for Congress or Left, voted for TMC this year which played a major factor behind the election results."
"See, Murshidabad and Malda are strongholds of the Congress and Lefts, so generally the left alliance relied on the Muslim vote banks of these two districts. But when the poll results came, it was seen that TMC sweeped these two districts which means that the Muslims were undividedly united behind TMC this time around. This proved to be a huge game changer," added Papia Sen.
"Muslims were alarmed by BJP's promise of a communal citizenship test or National Register of Citizens and reflected it on the ballots," Papia remarked.
'No to BJP' campaign
A section of ‘civil society’ came out with a campaign called "No vote to BJP” at every corner of the state in an attempt to unite all voters against the party.
The activists, more or less consisting of people from Liberal Left backgrounds, were never huge fans of TMC or Mamata Banerjee in the first place.
But despite the 'No Vote to BJP' campaign not explicitly mentioning which party to vote for, it was perceived as a call on voters to unite behind TMC against a communal BJP. The defensive attitude of the Left-Congress Alliance against this campaign only made this perception stronger.
Even leaders of the recent farmer protests in Delhi came to West Bengal and participated in this campaign. The leaders of the Samyukta Kisan Morcha led by Rakesh Tikait and social activist Medha Patkar held rallies in Nandigram, Singur and Kolkata urging people not to vote for the BJP.
The prominent names of Bengal’s television and film industry including singer-songwriter Anupam Roy, Anindya Chattopadhyay, Parambrata Chattopadhyay, Anirban Bhattacharya and many more came up with a six-minute video song titled ‘Nijerder Motey, Nijeder Gaan’ with a message to the voters emphasising diversity and West Bengal's tradition of non-communal politics, setting it in contrast with BJP's unabashedly communal pitch.
Professor Sen has recognised the impact of this campaign behind the landslide victory of TMC.
"After 2011, the civil society distanced themselves from Mamata and TMC. But this time, the Civil Society and the Liberal Left were in a united front to stop BJP from coming to power at any cost," Papia Sen said.
The role of all the welfare schemes of TMC government behind their landslide victory has been getting inadequate attention.
Mamata's government has adopted a slew of welfare policies tackling every major aspect of life including food, shelter, education and health in Bengal, with some of the major ones started in the wake of the health and economic crisis due to the ongoing pandemic.
She has schemes targeting women empowerment such as, Rupashree and Kanyashree that support them with grants for education and marriage, allowances for elderly people and social security measures for the struggling farmers and the unemployed youth.
According to Professor Sen, "The welfare schemes of Mamata Banerjee are one of the bigger factors if not the biggest driving votes to the Trinamool."
"As the BJP rose to prominence in the state threatening Mamata’s position since 2019, she has increased the magnitude and reach of her welfare schemes to galvanise the support of both the urban and rural poor, which constitutes most of the state’s voters. Delivering on these schemes, which have improved the lives of the poor and middle class have been very crucial behind TMC's success," she added.
Mamata for PM in 2024?
"Today Bengal saved India. This is not only a victory of the Bengali people, this is a victory of all India."
This is what Mamata Banerjee said in her immediate reaction after TMC's landslide victory.
According to many political experts this statement reflected her ambitions of becoming the face of the opposition in the 2024 central election.
The way Modi magic and the mighty 'Modi-Amit Shah' duo crumbled upon Mamata's charisma, it won't be a far fetched idea to consider Mamata Banerjee as an important figure in the upcoming 2024 national polls.
Besides, Congress's poor performance in Assam and falling behind DMK in Tamil Nadu and the Left in Kerala mean that Rahul Gandhi cannot be perceived as the main opposition leader at a national level.
Professor Sen said regarding this, "Although I am not sure whether she (Mamata) will be the main face of opposition in 2024, as it is related with many factors including a Congress buy-in, I am sure that she will play an instrumental role in uniting the opposition alliance against Modi."
"Moreover Mamata is a strong leader who unites people. So personally, I won't be surprised if she ends up being the main threat against the politics of division of BJP," Prof Sen said.
She also added that the strong image of Mamata can be effective against the Hindutva narrative of BJP as people can associate her with female goddesses, including Durga.
What the result means for Bangladesh
While many Bangladeshis expressed their emotions in social media or local tea stalls, celebrating the victory of Mamata Banerjee as their own, some didn’t shy away from identifying her as the main obstacle of the Teesta River treaty, something which holds great importance to the people of north Bengal in Bangladesh.
In short it can be said that there was a huge interest among the Bangladeshis regarding the West Bengal State Elections.
UNB talked with Tanvir Habib Jewel, Lecturer at the Department of International Relations at Bangladesh University of Professionals, on what the election result means for people across the border.
When asked about the future of Teesta treaty, he said, "TMC will continue leveraging the sentiment of the West Bengal people to deny Bangladesh the waters of Teesta. Besides, considering the fact that the relationship between their State and Central government is at an all time low, I don't see the treaty happening in the near future."
Despite a grand reception of Modi in his recent Bangladesh visit, top BJP leadership have not stopped passing demeaning statements about Bangladeshi immigrants.
On April 13, Indian Home Minister Amit Shah claimed that Bangladeshis “infiltrate” into India because they don’t get food back home.
Further back on April 11, 2019, referring to illegal migrants from Bangladesh as “termites,” Shah said the BJP would throw them out after coming to power in nationwide elections that year.
So when asked about what would have happened if BJP won, Jewel said, "A BJP government in West Bengal would have increased the risk of communal violence in the state due to the party's aggressive Hindu Nationalist stance. The status quo would have created a precarious situation for Bangladesh as the communal tensions would definitely have a spillover effect across the borders."
"The advent of a BJP government in Bengal along with Assam and Tripua would have surrounded Bangladesh with their ideologies. This would have encouraged the communal forces within our country and we have seen how violent they can turn out to be," he added.
Jewel also believes that BJP would have tried their very best to implement the controversial National Register of Citizens and the Citizenship Amendment Act, to "justify their stance on so called illegal immigrants."
"They have already deregistered two million people in Assam. Now of people were delisted in West Bengal there would have been major problems for Bangladesh as a large number of people had migrated to the neighbouring country after 1947 and 1971," he concluded.