The 2021 Assembly elections in West Bengal were bitterly fought. The Bharatiya Janata Party marshalled all its resources, pumping in huge sums of money, bringing in national leaders, influencing election arrangements and getting large sections of the national media to portray it as the favourite.
In the end, it all came to nought. The BJP fell well short of victory. The Trinamool Congress swept the state, winning 48% of the vote and 73% of seats – its best performance ever*.
How did it manage this feat? Here are seven reasons – collated through Scroll.in’s ground reports during the election – which explain how Mamata Banerjee managed to stop India’s most formidable election machine in its tracks.
- Mamata’s vast cash-transfer welfare state
This was, by some distance, the single biggest factor driving votes to the Trinamool.
The Trinamool has, since it came to power in 2011, turbocharged welfare in the state. This includes, amongst other things, regular cash transfers to girls if they do not get married and remain in school, a grant once they do get married, an unemployment dole for young citizens, scholarships for Dalits and minorities, a handout to cover funeral costs and payments to farmers (including compensation on death), pensions for old age and widows: you name a problem and Banerjee has a cash transfer ready for it.
The Trinamool’s welfare web is in fact so vast that Maitreesh Ghatak, a professor of economics at the London School of Economics, told Scroll.in that it has pushed the growth rate of the state’s rural per capita consumption expenditure as well as poverty reduction past the national average.
Many of the issues working against the Trinamool Congress that got significant play in the national media – “cut-money” or bribery, caste and communal polarisation factors – were also a result of the party’s welfare apparatus: the people making these complaints were more often than not those left behind when it came to welfare programmes.
So while there was anger, what was often missed is that the Trinamool Congress had far more people happy with its welfare than not.
In effect, pro-incumbency trumped anti-incumbency.
2. The Trinamool’s formidable party organisation
Bengal is, as famously described by political scientist Dwaipayan Bhattacharyya, a “party-society” – a system where political parties completely occupy the public space and older forms of social organisation (such as caste or landownership) take a back seat.
Unsurprisingly in Bengal, the party with the stronger organisation has a significant advantage.
On this parameter, the BJP was no match for the Trinamool. Not only did Banerjee’s party apparatus, using both carrot and stick, ensure its own vote remained intact, it also guaranteed that a section of the electorate otherwise disgruntled with its rule also ended up voting for it.
This is a peculiar feature of Bengali politics and was, in fact, best seen during the last decade and a half of the Left, when in spite of economic stasis and significant political discontent, the Communist Party of India (Marxist)’s cadre ensured it simply kept on winning.
While the BJP’s impressive media machine ensured that this factor was mostly ignored by the media, the signs were everywhere. BJP rallies would often go unattended. Even Narendra Modi’s marquee rally at Kolkata’s historic Brigade Parade Grounds on March 7 saw the maidan half empty, with BJP’s famed social media machine forced to tweet out photos of an earlier Left rally, passing it off as their own.
When the BJP desperately tried to overcome this advantage by using cash and sometimes legal threats to poach Trinamool leaders, this caused even more problems. Turncoat Trinamool leaders often imported anti-incumbency into the BJP as well as angered BJP workers – who felt that they deserved tickets being awarded to Trinamool leaders who had, till a few days before, oppressed them.
3. The Muslim vote
With a Muslim percentage in West Bengal more than double the national average, the Muslim vote was always going to be a huge advantage for the Trinamool if the community consolidated behind it. And by corollary, this would be a huge disadvantage for the BJP.
So significant was this factor that the BJP actually scripted a fairly non-polarising campaign by its standards. However, its past was an albatross around its neck. Bengal’s Muslims were alarmed by the party’s promise of a communal citizenship test or National Register of Citizens aimed exclusively at them.
So much so that even Muslims in Bengal’s only two Muslim majority districts voted, for the first time, as a bloc behind the Trinamool, Scroll.in found during its ground reporting. Expectedly, the Congress has collapsed in those two districts, with its Muslim vote being transfered en masse to the Trinamool Congress.
4. The women’s vote
While Muslim support for the Trinamool Congress gets a lot of media attention, actually its biggest “vote bank” is not a community but a gender. In 2019, according to a postpoll survey done by Lokniti at the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies, the Trinamool Congress was the only party to have more women voters than men. Cut another way, 47% of Bengal’s women voted Trinamool while only 38% went with the BJP.
If Muslims are a big population, with a quarter of Bengal, women are straight up half. This significant lead in female vote share therefore brings in a massive dividend in terms of votes for the Trinamool.
Unsurprisingly, Mamata Banerjee has sharply concentrated on wooing women using welfare, with a host of schemes designed to directly transfer cash to female hands. In return, clearly those hands have chosen the Trinamool’s twin-flower on the EVM machine.
5. Mamata’s image and state elections
That Mamata Banerjee is the tallest leader in the state is a fact beyond any doubt. One survey just before elections showed that she enjoyed a massive 57% approval rating as chief minister.
Note that even in 2019, during a national election with issues such as the airstrike against Pakistan at play, the BJP had fallen well short of a majority when measured in terms of Assembly Constituency leads (41%). Clearly this would further come down – not go up – in a state election where the image of Mamata and local issues such as MLA candidates would play an even greater role.
While this assumed very large proportions in Bengal due to Banerjee’s persona, this issue has bedevilled the BJP in every state since it came to power in New Delhi in 2014. The party’s performance has always lagged behind in Assembly elections compared to its performance in Lok Sabha polls.
6. Bengali nationalism
The Trinamool, by and large, did not have an ideological core till very recently. However, it was forced to change when confronted with the BJP – a party with possibly the strongest ideological core of any in India. To counter the party’s Hindu nationalism, the Bengal-based Trinamool reached for an obvious choice: Bengali nationalism.
In 2021, the Trinamool painted itself as a nativist force while the BJP was a party of bohiragotos (outsiders) and Borgis (as people in the state remember the Maratha raiders who led a destructive invasion of Bengal in the 18th century).
Much of this actually had little effect on the ground, Scroll.in found. Nationalisms take decades to be “imagined” bottom up. But it did provide the Trinamool a coherent media narrative when taking on the BJP’s Hindutva. This worked so well that at one point, Amit Shah was even forced to clarify that a Gujarati would not form the government in Bengal but that it would consist of Bengalis.
7. BJP’s Covid mismanagement
The Election Commission decided on an eight-phase election in West Bengal – the longest state polls in India’s history. Much of this was seen as helping the BJP, given it would allow extensive deployment of Central paramilitary troops in order to cancel, to some extent, the Trinamool’s organisational advantage.
However, things did not pan out exactly as planned. From mid-March, Covid-19 cases started rising exponentially in India as it headed into its second wave – the deadliest coronavirus outbreak in the world.
In spite of this, Modi and Shah continued to spend much of their time canvassing in West Bengal rather than fulfil their duty to manage collapsing health systems in places like Delhi, Uttar Pradesh and Gujarat. This had a negative effect on both the image of Modi as a selfless leader as well as the BJP as a party of development.
Even worse was when Modi and Shah stopped campaigning. The fledgling BJP Bengal unit needed the central unit of the party. This is why Modi-Shah had taken such a huge political risk in continuing to campaign even as cases raged in Delhi. Without them, the BJP campaign was badly hit. Even worse, the Trinamool took advantage of the chaos in the BJP to press home its organisational advantage, violently disturbing the vote in many locations in the final phase as part of its strategy of “khela hobe” – game on.
Unsurprisingly, the Trinamool has performed excellently in the last two phases.
*Note: Figures include wins as well as lead from the Election Commission at 7 pm on Sunday.