Decoding Didi’s popularity

Undiminished personal appeal and quick thinking saw Mamata Banerjee through.

May 20, 2016 01:39 am | Updated September 12, 2016 07:28 pm IST

One-woman army: “To understand Mamata Banerjee’s victory, one has to understand the nature of her appeal and carefully crafted image built over the years.” Trinamool Congress supporters smear colour on a poster of their leader.

One-woman army: “To understand Mamata Banerjee’s victory, one has to understand the nature of her appeal and carefully crafted image built over the years.” Trinamool Congress supporters smear colour on a poster of their leader.

The Trinamool Congress won a spectacular two-thirds majority in West Bengal thanks in large part to Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee’s charisma, energy, never-say-die spirit, and ability to think on her feet. Even in these elections, when she realised that the Left-Congress combine might capitalise on both the series of scams that had hit her party and the widespread unpopularity of her party workers, she swiftly made a public apology.

In early April, at a public meeting in Kulti near Asansol, riding on the adulation she enjoys among the people, she said she should be held responsible if any mistakes had been made, but voters should not withdraw their blessings and good wishes from the party.

Interestingly, even on Thursday after her magnificent win, grim-faced even in victory, she said she would attend to any shortcomings in her party.

Also read:>Mamata appeals for peace after election win

Ms. Banerjee has always been far more popular than the cohorts of street warriors she leads, something everyone this writer spoke to emphasised last month, even as complaints floated about her partymen spreading terror in the districts.

Without pretensions Indeed, to understand this victory, one has to understand the nature of Ms. Banerjee’s appeal and her carefully crafted image built over the years. She is still a hero for her largely lower-middle class urban and rural constituents, who took on the mighty Left machine virtually single-handedly. While in Opposition, she fearlessly led michils (walkabouts) to the bastions of government power in Kolkata, stormed Singur, Nandigram and every other site of state oppression, unmindful of brutal baton-wielding cops. As Chief Minister, she outdid the Opposition in leading protest marches. Through it all she retained a simple lifestyle, and stuck to her entertaining colloquial Bengali speeches that keep the audience hanging on to every word.

But beyond the legend, there were other factors in this election. One, the results make it clear that the Left-Congress understanding did not work as well as it should have. While the clearly more disciplined cadres of the Left parties shifted their votes to the Congress, making the latter the second largest party in the State Assembly ahead of the Communist Party of India (Marxist), Congress workers appear to have shifted their votes to the Trinamool Congress, a legacy of years of antipathy to the Left.

Two, if the battle had initially appeared to be a direct contest between the Trinamool Congress and the Left-Congress combine, at some stage the Bharatiya Janata Party upped its game. Once the BJP realised that the gains it had made in the 2014 Lok Sabha polls in the State, when it got around 17 per cent of the vote, could shrink to the roughly four per cent it got in the 2011 Assembly elections, it became more aggressive. It eventually got about 10 per cent of the vote — just 2 per cent behind the Congress — and three seats.

Three, a factor that “cannot be discounted”, according to Left leaders, is the “silent polarisation” in various pockets. In the past five years of Trinamool Congress rule, Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh shakhas have grown at a rapid pace. And in January this year in Malda, riots broke out in Kaliachak after a rally led by Muslims protesting against Hindu Mahasabha leader Kamlesh Tiwari’s derogatory remarks against Prophet Mohammad turned violent. It was immediately seized upon by the BJP. In fact, CPI(M) general secretary Sitaram Yechury credits the Trinamool Congress for the entry of the BJP in West Bengal.

Simultaneously, Ms. Banerjee’s overtures to Muslims (the controversial stipend for imams , and her direct appeal to the community from political platforms) who constitute 28 per cent of the population have also helped create a Hindu vote. The converse of this is that it has helped the Trinamool Congress consolidate the minority vote.

Four, if the Congress in the State is sitting smug, saying it hopes to build on the fact that it is the second largest party — even though by a wide margin — disappointment in the CPI(M) is acute because of the extent of defeat. Party leaders said they will analyse the data before pronouncing what went wrong, but one candidly confessed: “The problem probably lies with us; we have not done enough for organisational renewal.”

Finally, the Kanyashree scheme — education stipends for girls, including a one-time payment of Rs.25,000 at the age of 18, provided the beneficiary continues to study — cycles for schoolchildren, the Rs.2/kg rice for the poor and a vast improvement in roads may have helped too, especially in the absence of an alternative that appealed to the people.

Also read:>Five Narada-stung Trinamool candidates emerge victorious

‘Thanda thanda, cool cool’ On Thursday morning, as it became clear that the Trinamool Congress was heading for a second consecutive triumph, party workers, their faces coloured green, danced through the streets of Kolkata to the beat of the dhak-dhol. Outside Ms. Banerjee’s home, exultant supporters shouted, “ Thanda thanda, cool cool, ghore ghore Trinamool [Trinamool Congress in every home].”

But a little over 200 km away in Asansol, Trinamool workers in celebratory mode vandalised a CPI(M) office — an ominous start to the party’s second term, especially as it comes days after Ms. Banerjee publicly threatening senior police officers who were just obeying the Election Commission and maintaining law and order.


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