West Bengal’s first woman chief minister, Mamata Banerjee, pulls off a second surprise election victory
The margin of victory for Mamata Banerjee’s Trinamool Congress (TMC) in the recent West Bengal Assembly election, where it won 211 of 294 seats, surprised many.
There were those who believed that the last-minute alliance between the Communist Party of India (Marxist)-led Left Front and the Congress party would run the TMC close. This feeling had something to do with the urban middle class disenchantment with the TMC and sections of the local media playing up the opposition alliance’s chances.
But the election results showed that there was no real mood of anti-incumbency in West Bengal. By and large, rural and poor voters seemed satisfied with the TMC government’s investment in infrastructure. Roads and bridges had been built, more people had access to water and electricity and there was some improvement in the state-run health system. This, along with schemes like subsidised rice and free bicycles for students, had meant that rural Bengal was always going to back the TMC.
The election results were evidence of the success of the government’s efforts. Except for districts like Malda and Murshidabad, where the Congress has traditionally been strong, and Darjeeling, where the Gorkha Janmukti Manch—which is an ally of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and has been campaigning for the creation of a separate state, Gorkhaland, out of districts in the north of West Bengal—is dominant, the TMC did well uniformly well across the state.
The satisfaction of voters was borne out by the post-poll survey conducted by the CSDS-Lokniti team. According to the survey, nearly 60 per cent of voters said the condition of roads had improved; a similar number said they had benefited from the subsidised rice scheme. Muslim voters, who constitute 27 per cent of West Bengal’s population, were appeased by stipends to imams and muezzins and scholarships to students. The CSDS–Lokniti survey shows that 51 per cent of Muslim voters backed the TMC.
The moving force behind the TMC’s strong performance was chief minister Mamata Banerjee herself, who became the first woman to hold the office of chief minister in West Bengal after leading her party to a landslide victory in 2011, defeating the 34 year old Left Front, the world’s longest-serving democratically elected communist government.
She ran a whirlwind election campaign holding some 200 rallies over the course of two months. At one point, hemmed in by charges of corruption against party leaders and electoral violence by party workers, Banerjee urged voters to cast their vote as if she were the candidate in each and every constituency in West Bengal.
Indeed, Banerjee turned the tables on the opposition alliance, which had made her the personal target of its campaign, by making the 2016 election a referendum on herself. Banerjee benefited from the voter, according to the CSDS–Lokniti survey, assigning more importance to the issue of development than corruption. This could have been due to the low exposure of the average voter in Bengal to the media, which had made corruption the major issue. The survey found that only 6 per cent of the voters had very high exposure to the media.
It is, however, the TMC’s exceptional performance in urban areas, where discontent with the government seemed to have been strongest, that carried the party over the 200-seat mark. The TMC won all eleven seats in Kolkata including the ones where candidates, who had figured in a video sting taking bribes, were contesting. One of the reasons for the TMC’s sweep in Kolkata was the unknown Opposition alliance candidates pitted against TMC heavyweights.
On paper, the Left–Congress alliance had seemed formidable. It had roughly the same share of the vote as the TMC in the 2014 national elections. The alliance also displayed reasonably good chemistry by not only dividing electoral constituencies smoothly, but also campaigning on a joint platform. It, however, won a combined vote share of 39 per cent and only seventy-six seats. The alliance was undone by several factors.
First, the alliance did not have a face with statewide acceptability. Its chief ministerial candidate, Surjya Kanta Mishra, was not up to the task as was evident from his inability to win even from his own constituency. Second, unlike Bihar, where the combination of the Janata Dal (United) and the Rashtriya Janata Dal worked well, there wasn’t a smooth transfer of votes from the Congress to the Left and vice versa. Third, the people of West Bengal have not forgiven the Left Front for the stagnation it inflicted on the state, especially during the last two decades of its rule. This was reflected in the decline of the Left Front’s vote from 30 per cent in 2014 to 26 per cent in 2016, even as the Congress marginally increased its vote share. Finally, the alliance did not have a new narrative to offer for Bengal except being opposed to the TMC and Banerjee.
The BJP had a bit role to play in the elections. It had dramatically increased its vote share in West Bengal from 4 per cent in the 2011 Assembly elections to 17 per cent in the national elections. The BJP’s vote share fell in 2016 to 10 per cent and it won three seats. But importantly, the additional votes that had gone to the BJP in 2014 benefited the TMC, whose vote share in this election jumped from 40 to 45 per cent.
Given her mandate, the question is whether Banerjee will crack down on some of the most corrupt and violent elements in her party
In 2011, there were huge expectations of the poriborton, or change, that the TMC had promised after ending the Left Front’s rule. While the TMC’s welfare policies, successfully employed in other states, delivered a resounding mandate and marginalised issues such as corruption, the party has failed on several counts. Political violence and intimidation, which are a legacy of the Left Front’s tenure, continues unabated in West Bengal. This is largely the effect of the mass migration of the Left’s lumpen cadre to the TMC. Whereas a heavy security presence ensured a relatively peaceful poll in 2016, earlier civic and panchayat elections in the state have been marked by violence. At the same time, lack of industry and employment opportunities have given rise to extortion rackets or ‘syndicates’ run by TMC members.
During Banerjee’s second term as chief minister, expectations might not be as high as in 2011. It is unlikely that she will be able to break free from the constraints of her party’s organisation and support base. But given her mandate, the question is whether Banerjee will crack down on some of the most corrupt and violent elements in her party.
The evidence of the first few weeks of Banerjee’s second term seems to suggest that she won’t be taking a tough stand on corruption. Many of those who figured in the corruption sting retain strong positions within the party and in government. Though the chief minister has announced an enquiry into the sting, she has also, at the same time, called it a ‘conspiracy’ to tarnish the TMC.
With the Calcutta High Court also conducting its own enquiry, the issue won’t die down soon. But in the larger scheme of things it might just be a minor irritant for Banerjee. What would be of far greater importance is whether Banerjee can deliver on development and job creation in her second term.
Mamata Banerjee, the moving force behind the TMC’s success in the recent West Bengal election. Photo: Wikimedia Commons