The four states and one Union Territory where elections were held delivered decisions that represent a sovereign people making a choice that reflects what passes for sovereign will in an imperfect electoral democracy. These elections were more than which party will win by what margin.
They were a contest between democracy as competitive politics and politics as a war of conquest. The brutal ambition of one party-one nation, crudely promised as a vision for a new India, dominated the elections and played out in its fullest, ugliest form in West Bengal.
It was the battleground state and a new territory the BJP set out to conquer. It was a clash between diversity, political, social, religious and individual, and constricting homogeneity of a single party in control over the centre and the periphery regardless of its competence.
Never before in the history of India’s elections has the prime minister or the Union home minister spent as many days campaigning in one state as Narendra Modi and Amit Shah did in West Bengal. They pulled out all the stops to fight against the Trinamool Congress and two-time Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee, pushing responsibility for management of the spiralling public health crisis aside.
The out-of-control surge in the number of COVID-19 cases, over four lakh infections daily, turned the crisis into a catastrophe. As the disaster of acute shortages of oxygen, hospital beds and life-saving medicines unfolded, the BJP remained focused on campaigning in West Bengal. Throughout the gruelling campaign, the BJP ignored the pandemic as an ongoing crisis. It claimed that it had won the war against the virus.
The priorities of the government it would lead in West Bengal were identifying illegal Muslim migrants and ejecting them from the state, extending citizenship to all Hindu refugees regardless of whether they already possessed documents certifying them as citizens, enforcing Jai Shri Ram as the signature chant, banning cow slaughter, ensuring freedom to celebrate Durga Puja and Saraswati Puja on the false assumption that the festival had been forcibly restricted, unearthing corruption and delivering development.
Undeterred by its organisational weakness, its unfamiliarity with the complicated geography of India's third most populous state, the scarcity of well-recognised and rooted leaders and contestants, the BJP believed that it could conquer West Bengal and demolish the ethos of a border state that had for over 70 years resisted communally divisive identity politics by foregrounding ideology of Liberals versus Marxists as the difference and the choice.
The TMC won because its politics is inclusive. The BJP lost because its politics excludes and divides a population that has lived in a state of social and communal equilibrium for over 70 years.
By emphasising that Mamata’s policies for Muslims was appeasement that would convert even her constituency of Nandigram into a "mini Pakistan", the BJP constructed a new narrative designed to polarise on the one hand and consolidate the nervous Hindu voter on the other. The glue has not worked to deliver the target of 200 seats that the party aimed for.
The BJP narrative of a West Bengal that will soon be overrun by Muslims reducing the Hindus to a minority is not new.
This was the line it spun in 1989 when it targeted the Congress and the CPM-led Left Front for Muslim appeasement and making citizens out of illegal immigrants from across the border. By 2014, the BJP had become more ambitious and believed it had leaders who could convert the anxiety already sown into a political advantage that would rapidly catapult it to power in West Bengal.
In 2019, it seemed the goal was achievable in 2021. The BJP posed a formidable challenge to all the political parties in West Bengal, including TMC, by winning 18 parliamentary seats, 40% plus of the votes that translated into leads in 121 Assembly segments.
It failed in 2021 because it was in too much of a hurry to go through the grind of building its base, nurturing voters by working for specific issues, because the average voter who chooses mostly the middle ground rejected its extremely polarising politics.
Without the organisational apparatus, by excluding the Muslim voters comprising 27 per cent of the population, arrogant in its supposition that an acquisition spree from other parties, particularly the TMC, would give it the spread it needed, the BJP overreached.
It seriously miscalculated and its tally proves this. The BJP, even though pundits declared it has a superb war room, failed to attract two segments of the population that have proved loyal to Mamata, namely women and younger voters.
Its campaign was targeted at both segments, but clearly what the BJP offered did not cut ice with the voter. The CPM in this election fielded the young and more women than it has in the past. That did not work either. For both these segments of voters, Mamata remains the best bet.
As a bhoomikanya, or daughter of the soil, Mamata had a far better idea of the pulse of the people, the culture of the place; she used local knowledge to brand the BJP as intruders and make it stick as a slur.
The task before her now is not only to manage the pandemic surge and protect people from the deadly virus, but also to deal with the dangerous communal polarising politics that has now been installed as the elected opposition in West Bengal.
The burden of dealing with the BJP and the volatility it can trigger does not rest on the TMC alone. The Left and the Congress, however decimated, have some responsibility in containing the BJP's politics of division in West Bengal.
The original consensus that set up the communal equilibrium was forged by the Congress, the Left and parties that have died away. Co-opting the non-BJP parties to contain and constrict the saffron party would be Mamata’s best bet; will she create the space for a non-BJP opposition to be active?
(The writer is a political commentator and senior journalist and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org)