You can feel the breath of fresh air in West Bengal as Trinamool Congress (TMC) is crushing Narendra Modi's BJP after a gruelling eight-round State Assembly poll.
The BJP alliance in West Bengal threw everything including the kitchen sink at the TMC and still lost the election.
Amid a deteriorating Covid-19 crisis, the BJP allegedly manipulated the Election Commission to continue campaign rallies and brought in 2 lakh police personnel from outside of West Bengal without testing them for Covid-19.
Narendra Modi and Amit Shah personally came down to West Bengal to sway voters to their side by riling up communal sentiments. According to some pundits, his visit to Bangladesh on the Golden Jubilee of its independence was another ploy to influence the ongoing election in Bengal.
The BJP also ran smear campaigns against Mamata Banerjee, taunting her with slogans like 'Didi o Didi' or music videos chanting 'Didi Aamader Bhalobashena (Didi doesn't love us)'.
But all of these efforts were in vain as TMC aka AITC (All India Trinamool Congress) are projected to grab 213 seats out of 292 available in the West Bengal assembly. BJP only managed to win 77 seats, a much lower number compared to their most conservative estimates of 100 seats.
Why the victory matters
While some may argue that this victory was anticipated given BJP's poor performance in the past, they would be naive to think so.
Firstly, BJP won a whopping 18 out of the 42 available seats in the 2019 Lok Sabha election, where TMC barely managed to eke out a majority with 22 seats—an embarrassing deterioration from their 33-seat-haul back in 2014.
Secondly, for the first time since the formation of the party in 1964, the CPIM, i.e., the Communist Party of India (Marxist), did not win a single seat in the 2019 Lok Sabha elections. To add salt to the rotting carcass of socialism, Congress barely held on to 02 seats.
Quite understandably, BJP's massive success in Bengal led many to estimate that they could achieve a similar feat in the Bidhan Sabha elections as well. To some extent, they did.
BJP, a party that had won only four (04) seats out of 292, in the 2016 Bidhan Sabha election, have gained sustainable footing in West Bengal as they acquired 77 seats in 2021. More importantly, Mamata may lose Nandigram, a constituency she fought for against the CPIM government to Suvendu Adhikari. Suvendu is a former AITC MLA and grassroots leader who defected to BJP right before the election.
BJP is poised to become the principal opposition against Mamata Banerjee's TMC, lending a heavy blow to both Congress and CPIM. The divided left has either chosen BJP or TMC as a vessel to fulfil their objectives, essentially diminishing any hope of CPIM or Congress's return in the foreseeable future.
Given the preceding circumstances, TMC's landslide victory is nothing short of remarkable and it is okay to feel a sigh of relief at the avoidance of imminent catastrophe.
What the future holds for Bengal
The first challenge in front of Mamata's TMC would be handling a surging pandemic that's about to go out of hand. While 'Bangali Unity' and 'Gender' based identity politics have won her the election, these techniques won't be sufficient to handle the pandemic and the subsequent economic meltdown. Mamata will also have to drain the swamp and call out corrupt politicians in TMC. Otherwise, whenever there's a scandal or whenever she fails to deliver on her promises, the BJP opposition will hammer her on those issues.
To make matters worse, the BJP central government led by Narendra Modi may turn out to be quite unreasonable in assisting the Bengal government now that they have an opposition in place with an active incentive to sabotage Mamata's image as a leader of the people.
Multiple reports suggest that the BJP government willfully supplied a lower amount of oxygen to Delhi, a state in dire need of the substance while supplying a higher amount to states that didn't even ask for it.
I would be surprised if the BJP government did not try to pull something similar with West Bengal, either in terms of free vaccine distribution or some other emergency supplies.
Furthermore, Mamata's victory over BJP drew stark partisan lines across ethnicities. While the non-Bangali and Hindu male voters voted for BJP, the 30% Muslim population in Bengal as well as the female Hindu voters turned out overwhelmingly for Mamata. Mamata will have to work hard to reconcile the deepening mistrust among these demographics while also ensuring that the BJP supporters are not mistreated in any shape or form.
To put it simply, the road ahead is dangerous and Mamata Banerjee will have to remain wary at every step of the journey.
If BJP keeps gaining ground while Mamata fumbles, a BJP led state government assuming power in Bengal only seems like a matter of time.
What Bengal thinks today, will India think tomorrow?
Legendary INC leader Gopal Krishna Gokhale once said,
"What Bengal thinks today, India thinks tomorrow."
Even though West Bengal is only a shadow of its glory times, it's probably time for India to think the Bengal way. But why?
Before the exit polls came out in the 2021 Bidhan Sabha, Narendra Modi's BJP appeared to be virtually invincible, especially after their landslide victory in the 2019 Lok Sabha election.
But with carefully orchestrated, data-driven political strategies engineered by Prashant Kishor, Trinamool Congress won against all odds. This adds a new dimension to Indian politics and something more parties are likely to incorporate in their election strategy.
In terms of the upcoming national election in 2024, the formation of an All India Regional Party Alliance, with Mamata Banerjee in front, can be a viable option to defeat Narendra Modi. Congress will have to make further compromises to accommodate more seats for TMC, as they become a more credible opposition to BJP over the next few years.
Mamata Banerjee has already called for unity among the opposition parties before the election. That call will have more credibility now.
Before the election, Punjab CM Amarinder Singh, DMK Chief M.K. Stalin, Rajasthan CM Ashok Gehlot, Delhi CM Arvind Kejriwal as well as Chattishgarh CM Bhupesh Baghel called out the central government's ploy to destabilise West Bengal by stationing a central police force without the permission of the WB government.
After her victory, Maharashtra CM Uddhav Thackeray, NCP President Sharad Pawar, Samajwadi Party leader Akhilesh Yadav, Delhi CM Arvind Kejriwal all endorsed her victory while denouncing BJP's ploys to create unrest in Bengal.
However, it is still uncertain how many opposition leaders will eventually go far enough to rally behind her and form a coalition to defeat Modi.
Even if they do come together, defeating a Modi-led BJP would be extremely difficult in an increasingly divided political landscape in India.
In the best-case scenario where they do, India does not have an encouraging history of successful political coalitions. Notably, after the fall of INC(R) led by Indira Gandhi at the hands of the Janata Alliance (a coalition of Janata Party and CPIM in the 1970s), the coalition did not last even two years as ideological and political divisions emerged. After the resignation of Morarji Desai in 1979, the alliance fell apart.
That is, a common enemy is not a sustainable coalition strategy. As soon as the common enemy is diminished, differences emerge and coalitions break down. Similar circumstances could befall upon a potentially successful anti-Modi alliance as well.
It's difficult to predict what the future holds or what path each party should follow, particularly in times of such volatility. Only time will tell who prevails in this battle for the soul of the largest democracy in the world.
The writer is a journalist by profession