The spectacular win of the Trinamool Congress in the 2021 West Bengal Assembly elections can be attributed to the charismatic appeal of its leader Mamata Banerjee – and rightly so. Banerjee has been the face of her party’s campaign and can be credited for singlehandedly halting the Bharatiya Janata Party’s enormous political machinery. Hence, it is crucial to closely understand what constitutes her popularity and why it has seen such spectacular success.

Defining Populism

According to the parlance of political theory, Banerjee’s appeal can be largely placed within the conceptual category of populism. Populism is an ideology agnostic concept – one can have Left, Right as well as other variants ­– which is used to define a variety of leadership styles across the world. Such populist styles have also long been prevalent in Indian politics, but Banerjee’s variant of populist appeal in this election needs special attention.

Here it is relevant to see populism as a political strategy that is based on two major aspects. First, it defines the “people” with some distinctive attributes that can appeal to the majority of the electorate against the “other”. The “other” is usually portrayed as a “corrupt elite” or “ill-intentioned outsider”.

Second, populist styles of communication hinge, almost entirely, on the personality-centric appeal of its leaders, who claim to embody the party, electorate and all mechanisms of governance. Both these aspects found its manifestation in Banerjee’s political narratives in the Bengal election campaign this time.

Union Home Minister Amit Shah at a roadshow in Krishnangar, West Bengal. Photo credit: Amit Shah/Twitter

Defining ‘people’

As the BJP launched its political onslaught against the Banerjee regime on the plank of Hindu nationalism, accusing her of “Muslim appeasement” and local-level corruption, Banerjee in turn invoked a sub-nationalist narrative of regional pride and cultural exceptionalism. While appealing to the electorate in Bengal, Banerjee defined the “people” as the residents of the state who represent the historical-cultural heritage and secular legacy of Bengal.

Her repeated invocation of the cultural iconography of Bengal’s legends: Ramakrishna, Raja Ram Mohan Roy, Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar, Rabindranath Tagore, Kazi Nazrul Islam and many others have been used to underline the state’s intellectual richness.

Throughout the campaign, Banerjee also highlighted the religious syncretism of Bengal by symbols from Hinduism, Islam and Christianity as well as recognised distinctive tribal practices of worship.

While formulating her ideas of Bengali culture and the “outsider”, she has been cautious to not alienating the sizeable section of non-Bengalis in the state. This was after she initially drew flak on the issue and had to clarify that by “outsiders”, she meant the people being brought in by BJP from outside Bengal during the election and not the non-Bengali residents of the state.

‘Alien outsider’

Against her construction of the “people” based on regional identity, Mamata Banerjee’s populist projection of the BJP as the “other” seems to have worked for her. She defined the BJP as the elitist, corrupt and ill-intentioned outsider, both as a party and as the BJP-led Central government.

As a party, the BJP has been projected as a North Indian political force that is alien to Bengal’s culture and intellectual heritage with no roots in the state. She highlighted the goof-ups made by the top BJP leaders while speaking about Bengal’s legends and their attempts to pronounce Bengali words to build her case that the BJP is ignorant about Bengali culture.

Banerjee placed BJP in her political narrative as a political force that wants to coercively win Bengal and impose the culture of the “Hindi heartland” and Hindutva ideology by bringing in the leaders from “outside” – that is, the BJP’s central leadership from Delhi ­– to trample upon Bengal’s unique cultural plurality.

She built on the long-held narrative of Bengal’s step-motherly treatment at the hands of the Centre by continuously projecting the BJP-led Union government as a powerful “other”, the “corrupt” national political elite, who were “insensitive” to the sufferings of Bengal during Covid-19 and Amphan crisis but is now “using its massive economic and administrative might” by spending huge amount of money and by “misusing” institutions like the CBI, ED, Election Commission and Central forces to win elections in the state.

Her projection of the ill-intentioned outsider was complete when at the onset of the Covid-19 second wave, Banerjee accused the BJP of bringing in election machinery from outside Bengal who might possibly be the carrier of Covid-19, leading to its spread in Bengal.

Appeal to women

Mamata Banerjee effectively made her populist appeal to women voters an integral component of her definition of “people”. She categorically addressed the women as “Maa Bonera” (mothers and sisters) in every rally and called them her key strength launched a universal health insurance scheme in the name of the female head of household promised them special cash transfers as part of the party manifesto and asked them to lead the fight against the BJP’s aggression in this election.

Apart from that, her welfare schemes encouraging girls’ education and cash assistance for the marriage of women has also been popular amongst women. She highlighted the sexist comments of some of the BJP leaders against her, juxtaposing it with the narrative of a patriarchal BJP bringing in “thugs” from outside the state to humiliate both the women and the motherland of Bengal.

Popular appeal

Mamata Banerjee’s own personal popularity and lack of any alternative popular face in the opposition camp in the state buttressed her populist appeal. Her connect with the electorate and her understanding of grassroots politics in the state seems to have helped in this election. The imagery of Mamata as Bengal’s own feisty daughter with an injured leg on a wheelchair fighting it alone against the mammoth BJP machinery from Delhi possibly made a deep-rooted impact on the electorate, especially the woman voter.

Further, the welfare populism of the Trinamool Congress government hinges on Banerjee’s image and was executed in her name. Banerjee repeatedly claimed that the party’s welfare measures and cash transfers would be discontinued if she is voted out of power. Mamata Banerjee also reminded Muslims that only she can halt the National Register of Citizens process in the state, which explains the Congress’ traditional Muslim support base in the districts of Malda and Murshidabad voting heavily for the Trinamool Congress this time.

Banerjee also projected herself as the only face for all the 294 Assembly seats for her party thus personifying the party. This also helped her to combat the public anger against the local party leadership due to charges of corruption.

Modi has used his own variant of regional populism to win elections in Gujarat in the past and so have other regional leaders. As the prime minister, Modi also effectively deployed a nationalist variant of populism at the federal level in the last two Lok Sabha elections. But this time, Banerjee’s cleverly created populist mode of politics facilitated her return to the chief minister’s chair for the third time in Bengal.

Ambar Kumar Ghosh is a researcher at Observer Research Foundation and is presently pursuing his doctoral research on populism in Indian democracy at Jadavpur University.