The sometimes eccentric, frequently vindictive but deeply rooted chief minister of West Bengal, Mamata Banerjee is coasting towards victory, ensuring a place in history as the third consecutive non-Communist chief minister of Bengal. At last count, the Trinamool Congress (TMC) was heading towards a tally of more than 200 seats, lower than its 2016 mark of 229 in a house of 292 (two constituencies did not go to the polls). True, the gains of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) are no less stupendous: from 3 MLAs in the outgoing house to 80s in this one. But as the song says, "the winner takes it all". And today must go down as Mamata Banerjee’s: who gave her all to the poll, even though her own election from Nandigram hangs in balance.
The verdict reveals many truths: BJP, with much of its local force of candidates ‘borrowed’ from the TMC had to pay for the errors of commission (and omission) of these candidates. The party might have notched up even bigger gains had it had its own party MLAs. As it is, defections from other parties to the BJP came in a rush just before the election: before the party had time to repair the record of MLAs.
The Left and the Congress, which parted ways to fight independently in the 2019 Lok Sabha elections, came together again, like in 2016, to contest this round of assembly elections. But judging from current trends, their performance together and separately is no better. This suggests both have to spend time thinking of new ways to recast themselves. They seem to be behind the curve in the current politics of Bengal.
Internally, those who left the TMC to join the BJP will find themselves seriously at risk, especially if they have lost the election. They will immediately be on the state government’s scanner. Bengal has, in the past, led in imposing the Narcotics, Drugs and Psychotropic Substances (NDPS) Act on political rivals. This is a legislation the centre can do little about. Conversely, the Enforcement Directorate (ED) can be expected to become super-active in rooting out long forgotten investigations against TMC leaders--but only those who have stayed in the party. Cases against those involved in the Saradha scam will also be dug up now.
There are some big winners and big losers. Former Railway minister Dinesh Trivedi left the remainder of his Rajya Sabha term and joined the BJP in the expectation that if the party came to power in the state, there would be an important position for him in the government. This may have been a historic mistake. Ashok Lahiri, former Chief Economic Advisor who left it all to join the BJP and contest the assembly election, is leading from his Balurghat. Unfortunately, his talents as practical economists will remain unutilized by the state government.
The same applies to the strategists and planners. The man most celebrating his victory will be Prashant Kishore, advisor who helped the TMC. Kailash Vijayavargiya , BJP general secretary in charge of Bengal, had linked his party’s victory to his fortunes in his home state of Madhya Pradesh, where he would have challenged rival Shivraj Singh Chouhan if the BJP had been able to form a government in Bengal. He will now have to postpone his plans.
At the national level, things will change now: In the Lok Sabha, the Congress, which has shown its worst-ever performance in Bengal, will be muted and the TMC will increasingly become the most vocal and principal opposition. Mamata Banerjee had called for opposition unity ahead of the elections – seeking support from other opposition parties for a united front against the BJP. That call will now have greater credibility.
However, the result--with the BJP snapping at her heels--should force Banerjee to change her management style but it is doubtful that it will. Such is Banerjee’s hold on her party that leaders know they must indulge her every whim, or face a fall from grace. This has led to unforeseen consequences, as several leaders who thought they had a brilliant political future discovered after they were dumped by Banerjee: for not listening to Rabindra Sangeet with the right level of concentration (Banerjee was singing) or for not taking medicines she had prescribed (she fancies herself as a doctor), for example.
An ominous fallout is greater religious polarisation in Bengal, with the BJP organisation behind it.