To paraphrase Charles de Gaulle, Mamata Banerjee has lost a battle, in Nandigram, but she has won the war in West Bengal. Having beaten the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) so decisively at the state elections, despite all the big guns from the centre in New Delhi descending on the state and making it clear that their goal was to show the feisty Chief Minister the door, Ms Banerjee can now properly claim to be a giant slayer. In simple terms, her electoral triumph has transformed her into the tallest political leader in India today through exposing her rivals for the hollowness, as it now turns out, that was symbolic of their politics.
It does not help the BJP that a good number of its stalwarts are now trying to put a spin on the results of the election. Men like Chandra Kumar Bose, who until the other day waxed eloquent about the grave need to defeat the Trinamool Congress (TMC), have in the aftermath of the elections called for the creation of an inclusive society in West Bengal. They have cleverly papered over the truth that during the election campaign, inclusive politics was indeed the plank on which Mamata Banerjee and her party fought the battle for the ballot.
In contrast, the BJP played the divisive Hindutva card (the slogan 'Jai Shri Ram' being notable), all too often ridiculing Banerjee for what it called her appeasement of the religious minority, in this instance the state's Muslim population. That approach has now backfired, given that Muslims have made their choice known by voting en masse for the TMC. Add to that the women's votes which have fallen into Banerjee's bag. And, of course, liberal Hindus, outraged by the brazen communal card played by the BJP, have rallied behind her.
In more ways than one, Mamata Banerjee fought a powerful group of Delhi-based politicians all by herself. She was the voice of the TMC, waging a rear-guard battle against a Prime Minister, a Home Minister, the BJP chief and an entire phalanx of Modi loyalists. Add to that the individuals who, having been loyal to Banerjee for years, swiftly decided to jump ship and make their way to the BJP. The actor Mithun Chakravarty called himself a cobra, in other words informing anyone who would listen that he had the sting to kill the TMC dragon.
That has not happened. Of course, the BJP has won a substantial number of seats, in the seventies' figures, in the state assembly. But that number pales before the pre-election boast of the party's leading figures that they expected to romp home with two hundred seats or perhaps more. Those two hundred-plus seats have gone to the TMC, testimony to the skills and enduring appeal of a politician who turfed the Left out of power in 2011 and then won a second term in 2016.
Now that the TMC has won a third term in office in West Bengal, Mamata Banerjee's reputation as a giant killer has simply been cemented in a way few people thought would happen (she was called a giant killer years ago when she beat the CPI(M)'s Somnath Chatterjee at an election). 'Khela hobe' was Banerjee's message, accompanied as it was by 'Joi Bangla', during the campaign this time around. The 'khela' is over, with the TMC walking out of the field a cheerful winner. As for the BJP, it made the serious mistake of fielding Narendra Modi, Amit Shah, J.P. Nadda and a whole army of others against the solitary Mamata Banerjee. Amit Shah's road trips in the state every day and Modi's rallies every other day did not help.
For the public and the media, Modi's self-congratulations on the huge public rallies he addressed in the state were seen as self-aggrandisement. Neither did it help that the Prime Minister, in less than prime ministerial demeanour, resorted to using such sarcastic phrases as 'Didi O Didi' at his rallies. For the voters in West Bengal, as has now been proved, such sarcasm and ridicule did not go down well. In plain terms, it was a blunder for the BJP to have the Prime Minister and the Home Minister engage in an unseemly battle to dislodge a Chief Minister from power. There is hardly any earlier record in Indian history of a leadership at the central level wading into elections at the state level.
It is once again Mamata Banerjee's moment in the sun, as it was her moments in sunlit glory in 2011 and 2016. A study of her career is revealing of the difficult, indeed improbable terrain she has traversed since she made her entry into politics in the mid-1970s. Her determination and strength earned her praise from the redoubtable Jyoti Basu, for they have been character traits that have stood her in good stead over the years. It took huge courage for her to delink herself from the Congress (she served as a minister of state under Prime Minister Narasimha Rao in the early 1990s) and form the TMC.
And then there have been the times when she has served as a minister in the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government in Delhi, under Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee, in the late 1990s to early 2000s. In these past many years, she has faced challenges from the Left, from the Congress and now from the BJP. She has beaten back those challenges, for one good reason: her politics has always been that of a street fighter. She stood by the villagers of Singur, demanding that Tata's nano car project not be allowed to seize their land. Her politics worked. Today, the Left stands decimated; the Congress is comatose; and the BJP licks its wounds.
Banerjee has never felt the need to be subtle in her expression of ideas. Coming from a humble middle class background, she has been one of the very few politicians in West Bengal who have made it a point to mingle, literally, with the masses. Dressed in a simple cotton saree, abjuring all thoughts of the glamour that afflicts so many political figures in these times, she has walked through the villages and towns of West Bengal, presenting herself as 'Bangla'r meye'.
In the just concluded election campaign, she did what the BJP failed to do. She reached out to all Bengalis, Hindu and Muslim, informing them that the heritage of Bengal --- underscored by secularism, by a collective adherence to its poetry and its multifarious religious manifestations --- was under assault from the votaries of Hindu nationalism and needed to be saved. On the TMC's political posters, she was therefore alternately presented in the image of a woman praying to a Muslim deity and as a devout Hindu in obeisance to the goddess Kali.
In the course of the campaign, Mamata Banerjee vowed to have the BJP bite the dust in West Bengal and then have it go out of power in Delhi. She has retained West Bengal. Whether she now sets her sights on Delhi 2024 --- and that depends on the degree to which she can be a galvanizing force for the opposition --- is a thought that will exercise minds in India and beyond. Banerjee has shown that there is space for a credible alternative to the politics Narendra Modi has promoted and presided over in Delhi over the past seven years.
Syed Badrul Ahsan is a senior journalist and writer. [email protected]