Doing it the Didi way: How Mamata confounded predictions and proved Bengal is hers again

TMC's big win came despite the BJP, PM Modi and Amit Shah giving the state elections their all.
West Bengal CM Mamata Banerjee (File | PTI)
West Bengal CM Mamata Banerjee (File | PTI)

When the sun rose on Tuesday, June 4, not many gave an outside chance to West Bengal's ruling All India Trinamool Congress (TMC) to stem the saffron tide in the state. In fact, many were wondering if she might wobble out when assembly polls are held two years later.

But by the time the sun was at its zenith the same day, the tables had turned.

TMC went on to clinch 29 seats in the Lok Sabha election 2024. Didi had reduced the BJP to just 12 seats from the 18 they won in 2019. This despite the BJP, PM Modi and Amit Shah giving the state elections their all. What lay behind the comeback?

Still Bengal's didi

Mamata herself is still the “didi” she was. While many TMC leaders are facing corruption charges, the party chairperson remains unscathed. She is known to maintain a humble lifestyle since her time as an activist.

She is an enigma to many. A strong, yet vulnerable person. An astute politician, but one who calls a spade a spade. She remains a leader in whom the followers can repose their faith. She is also looked up to as a person who cares.

For the older generation, she is the leader who stood up against the Left's alleged oppression and inertia. For the youth, she is an icon of rebellion and change. Her role as a generous patron of sports and festivities adds to the charisma.

In addition, special schemes like Swasthyasathi for health and government initiatives for women and minorities helped her earn support.

Women power

Then there was Lakshmir Bhandar, where eligible women from the SC and ST category are given Rs 1,000 per month and those from other categories Rs 500. A revised amount of Rs 1,200 and Rs 1,000 respectively has been announced for 2024-25.

There is also a one-time grant of Rs 25,000 and an annual scholarship of Rs 500 for eligible girls aged 13-18 years enrolled in classes VIII-XII in recognised schools or training courses. This is for girls from families with annual family income not more than Rs 1, 20,000, or orphans, or with 40% disability, etc.

Perhaps that's why women voters seem to have backed Mamata.

In Phase 1 of the Lok Sabha election 2024, 82.59% women cast their vote against 81.25% men in the state, when the national percentages were 66.07 and 66.22 respectively.

In Phase 2, they surpassed men with a 77.99% turnout against 75.22%, when across the country, 66.42% female turned up at polling booths to 66.99% male.

In the third phase, the number of women went up to 83.01% against 72.21% men, as the nation witnessed a turnout of 64.41% female voters to 66.89% male. In the fourth phase, women (81.49%) again bettered men (79%), while the figures at the national level were 68.73% and 69.58% respectively.

In the next two phases, women voters in the state recorded a 78.43% and 83.83% turnout, with males at 78.48% and 81.62%.

At the time of writing, the male-female breakup is awaited from the Election Commission.

Minorities

While women were seen backing didi, minority voters were also turning to her.

The border districts – like Malda, Murshidabad, among others – are among the few areas in the country where the minority population is in majority.

The last Census of India conducted in 2011 records Muslims constituting over 51% of the undivided Malda district's population of about 40 lakhs. Unofficial estimates now put that number at around 69%.

The polarisation is such that despite the demography, in one of the two Lok Sabha constituencies in this district (Maldaha Uttar), the BJP candidate has won the seat twice in a row, including in 2024. The split of the minority votes between the TMC and Congress, who fielded a Muslim candidate, also came to Khagen Murmu's aid this time. The other seat here (Maldaha Dakshin) saw Isha Khan Choudhury of the Congress register his party's lone win in the state.

But TMC had better luck elsewhere.

To Malda's south lies the district of Murshidabad where the last Census recorded Muslims comprising 66.27% of its population of over 71 lakh people in 2011. Estimates put Muslim population in the former at a formidable 72%. Here the TMC candidate Abu Taher Khan bested CPM stalwart Mohammed Salim.

Didi's government has several schemes for minorities which include honorarium to the imam and muezzin, funds meant for the establishment of hostels and for stipend to poor and meritorious students of the minority community. The outreach paid dividends in 2024.

Though Muslim electors, most of whom are from adjoining Bangladesh, do not repose their faith in a non-Bengali minority candidate, Yusuf Pathan proved to be a rare example in 2024.

In fact, he turned into a giant slayer. The cricketer-turned-politician, who challenged Congress leader Adhir Ranjan Chowdhury on his home turf of Baharampur (in Murshidabad district), won convincingly with a margin of over 85,000 votes despite being a greenhorn.

Pathan, from Gujarat, got the support of minorities, purportedly since he represented the TMC. His sporting background added to the final score.

The TMC outsiders who won

Pathan wasn't the only "outsider" from the party to win.

Film star Shatrughan Sinha and cricketer Kirti Azad, who are from the adjacent state of Bihar, were leaders of the BJP and then Congress. While the former lost from Patna Sahib (Bihar) in 2019 on a Congress ticket in 2019 and subsequently joined TMC, Azad lost from Dhanbad (Jharkhand), again as a Congress candidate.

Sinha was reinstated in the TMC and won the Asansol seat in a bye-election and he retained it in 2024, while Azad found victory this time in Bardhaman-Durgapur Parliamentary seat.

These three candidates were propped up by the TMC despite party leaders having coined the term “bhariagata” which means an outsider. For BJP, a party just evolving in West Bengal, there was no other option than finding leaders from other states to camp in the state or poach others as candidates. Thus, the TMC, which itself is a breakaway from the Congress, raised this slogan to fight their rivals.

West Bengal CM Mamata Banerjee (File | PTI)
The big changes in Bengal's Lok Sabha elections in 2024 and the impact they could have

Ekla Chalo

Added to other factors was Mamata's decision to go to the hustings alone in 2024. She had formed the TMC in 1998 after leaving the Congress. But it was the same Congress that allied with her when she formed a government the first time in 2011. Now a wiped out Congress in the state could not help her in elections. She would only lose the seats that could land in her party’s kitty.

BJP was also a no-no though she had chosen to align with the NDA to strengthen herself against the then-ruling Left Front government in the initial years after forming her party. But, she knews that re-aligning with the saffron party could cost her the minority vote bank now.

Another point was that arch-rivals with regional compulsions may shake hands elsewhere, but not on ground. In successive elections, Left parties' alliance with the Congress did not necessarily result in the conversion of the other's votes.

Mamata does not need an ally anymore to rule West Bengal.

Her charisma and tactics helped the TMC collect over 48% of the votes in the assembly election of 2021, an increase of about 3% over her victory in 2011. In the Lok Sabha polls, the share gradually increased from about 40% in 2014 to around 43% in 2019, and almost 46% in 2024.

Therein lay the decision for 'ekla cholo re', because she calculated that finally it would still be 'khela hobe' for her…

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