What happened in West Bengal

Finally, the poll results are out in West Bengal. While Bengalis like me are not surprised - the feeling is more like a collective sigh of relief - many friends from outside are very surprised: Over the last few years, they have got used to big-man politics and never saw this coming. Here is my I-told-you-so moment, but I think I owe them some explanation why these results were predictable.

But, first, what I think it is not.

To start with, it is not a win for vote-bank politics. This is how the BJP would want to portray it - that Mamta Banerjee has won this election by pandering the muslims! But BJP pandered the Hindus in equal measure, and during the campaign, Ms Banerjee tried to be as even-handed as she could be. If anything, this result is a rejection of BJP's strategy to turn this into vote-bank election.

But, equally, this is not a triumph of secular politics. If that would be so, then the Left and the Congress would have something to show for their efforts. That the two parties, which between them ruled the state until 2011, wouldn't have a single seat between them, show that the conversation isn't about secularism at all. 

This is also not about Mamta Banerjee triumphing over Mr Modi. True, she led from the front, even taking on a local satrap who switched sides in his own backyard. BJP made it all about Mr Modi and the Prime Minister spent an inordinate amount of time touring Bengal in the middle of a pandemic. [In fact, if anything, the state had to endure a five week long, eight phase election schedule to accommodate that intervention.] But the reason why TMC would have won over the BJP, despite a host of political leaders and TV personalities switching over to the latter, is because of its organisational reach and depth. If anything, this result proves that the leaders and the celebrities matter less than they think they should.

Instead of these standard formula, I would offer an alternate explanation. 

My explanation is based on the fortunes of Congress, which ruled the state but started its long decline from 1977, and the Left, whose hegemony evaporated after 2011. The two declines are similar because in 1970s, the West Bengal Congress was smothered into submission by Congress High Command, effectively Indira Gandhi, and from 2008, the same happened to gentlefolk of CPIM leadership in West Bengal. The party organisations, in both cases, were stripped off their decision-making and the bosses from Delhi started dictating the matters. The BJP made the same mistake in 2021: They arrogated the decision-making to Delhi, which turned out this flop-show. 

I speculated in an earlier post that the Left+Congress coalition is heading for a disaster. Indeed, the CPIM Politburo, led by people who are more comfortable writing policies than showing up on doorsteps, and the Congress High Command, dominated by dynasts who never lived like a normal person one day in their lives, could do the maths: This percentage of Left vote plus this percentage of Congress vote equal a winning share in some seats. What they had no way of knowing is that in Bengal, one supported the Congress to oppose the Left and vice versa, and there is no way a Congress voter would suddenly vote the same people who tortured them for years (and vice versa). Therefore, all their voters deserted the coalition and settled for BJP (for Left voters, as they hate TMC) or TMC (for Congress voters, who hate the BJP).

BJP made exactly the same mistake as they decided to welcome a host of opportunists in their ranks and made them poll candidates. Many of those people were the most corrupt of the TMC, and those who tormented the BJP workers in the run up to the election. Ms Banerjee's political genius was to clean the house just before the election and gift BJP the poisoned chalice, a point the high and mighty leaders of the BJP completely missed. 

Hence, when Ms Banerjee is saying that this is a victory for Bengal, there is some truth in it. The dominant theme in Bengal's politics was for a long time to be 'Anti-Delhi'; but this is not necessarily a negative stance. The people in Bengal has a voice and it has been reasserted again. And, in that, there is a template for the future of Indian politics: The state power has moved too far away from the people and it's time to bridge that chasm. For the BJP, not being able to win Bengal should matter: Not just as it shows Mr Modi is not invincible, but also that his brand of Hindu-Hindi nationalism doesn't travel well. On the opposite side, this should show that building India's national opposition around the Gandhis is no longer viable and a new brand of politics needs to be built around greater federalism and local decision-making. In the end, Bengal, tired, poor, disease-ridden, has shown the way - and mocked the arrogance of power yet again.


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