In West Bengal, the assembly election results have brought reason to cheer for three of the four major players in the state. At the top of the pile is the Trinamool Congress (TMC), which has won an impressive 211 seats in the 294-seat assembly, thereby single-handedly securing a rare two-thirds majority in the House. With this, the party has also improved upon its landmark performance in 2011, when ended the Left Front’s three-decade long rule in the State with a 184 seats. That year, the party’s vote share was pegged at 38.9 per cent. This year, it has gone up to almost 45 per cent.
Now, the fact that the TMC has been able to renew its mandate and Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee has secured a second term for herself is on expected lines. However, what is interesting though is the scale and scope of the win, given that there has been palpable public disillusionment with the TMC government in these past five years. When Banerjee was sworn into office in 2011, the people had hoped for development and good governance. But her first term was marked by a deteriorating law and order situation, the worst kind of minority appeasement, limited economic progress and large-scale corruption scandals.
If the TMC has been able to prove its critics wrong and return to power with overwhelming public support, it is in part because of Banerjee’s own personal charisma and strategic politicking, and in part because of her opponents’ absolute failure to put up a fight. In the first case, it is important to understand that while the TMC and many of its senior leaders even may have been tainted in these past five years, Banerjee has retained her appeal with the masses. She is still seen as a committed and incorruptible leader who will fight the good fight for her people. Additionally, Banerjee has consistently cultivated the state’s large Muslim vote-bank, and some of her social welfare schemes, such as education stipends for girls and cycles for school students, as well as her notable road improvement projects have also worked in her favour. This brings us to the second factor in the TMC win story: the lack of any serious and credible Opposition. Having been dislodged from power in the state in 2011 (and effectively reduced to a minor player at the national level), the CPI(M) should have used these past five years to reform and re-build itself from the ground up. Herein, it failed spectacularly – and its situation was only made worse by its alliance with the Congress. The two parties have historically been at loggerheads in the state, and even if party bosses in Delhi decided to join hands and perhaps consolidate the Opposition vote, on the ground in Bengal, the rank and file did not reconcile. And so it was that the CPI(M) won only 26 seats, compared to the 40 it held in 2011, while its vote share fell from a reasonable 30.8 per cent to a shameful 19.79 per cent.
In contrast, the Congress actually managed to up its game, emerging as the party that is second in line, even if by a huge distance. It has won 44 seats, thereby slightly improving its 2011 tally of 42 seats, and its vote share has shot up from less than 10 per cent in 2011 to more than 12 per cent this year. This may not be much for what used to be this country’s grand old party but given that the Congress has been reduced to a rump in Parliament, this was not such a bad showing after all.
This brings us to the fourth and final player in Bengal: the BJP. Notwithstanding the fact that the party’s founder, SP Mukherjee, was from Bengal, the saffron party has never really had a significant presence in the state. But the 2014 Lok Sabha election indicated that it may be possible to change this script – riding on the so-called Modi wave, the BJP won as many as 24 assembly constituencies in West Bengal and cornered 17 per cent of the vote share. However, in the two years since the Lok Sabha election, the BJP failed to leverage the momentum from the Lok Sabha election. It has won only three assembly seats and its vote share is now at 10 per cent. Sure, this is better than its 2011 tally when it had no seats and only four per cent of the votes but even the staunchest BJP supporter will agree that if the party’s state unit could have put its house in order sooner, it could have done even better. That said, the BJP is at a very interesting place in Bengal especially vis-à-vis its relations with TMC. It is widely believed that the BJP cadre downplayed its campaign wherever possible so that the TMC could emerge with stronger numbers.
The understanding here is that the TMC will return the favour to the BJP in New Delhi. At the Centre, the BJP has a majority in Lok Sabha but still needs all the help it can get in Rajya Sabha to pass crucial legislation. TMC support in this case will make a big difference.