How Mamata Banerjee and nephew Abhishek upped the poll game in Bengal

Mamata’s popularity and Abhishek’s poll strategy won TMC 29 seats

44-Mamata-with-Abhishek-after-the-Trinamools-victory-in-the-Lok-Sabha-polls In it together: Mamata with Abhishek after the Trinamool’s victory in the Lok Sabha polls | Salil Bera

The election results in West Bengal, where the Trinamool Congress won 29 of 42 seats, have taken everyone by surprise. Despite the Trinamool’s landslide victory in the 2021 assembly polls, the BJP seemed to be gaining momentum ahead of the general elections. However, the results have underscored the significant challenges to the BJP’s hindutva rhetoric in West Bengal. The outcome also highlights the enduring popularity of Mamata Banerjee and the growth of her nephew Abhishek as the most influential leader in state politics after her.

Mamata, in an address to the media, attributed the victory to the common people and the opposition alliance. “Had [Prime Minister Narendra] Modi achieved majority on his own, he would have committed more atrocities,” she said. “But now we will not spare them. Hopefully INDIA members will also not spare them. Our team will only increase.”

The Trinamool contested the polls on the plank of the state government’s welfare schemes, especially those targeted at women. If Mamata was the face of the campaign, the driving force was Abhishek. Not that he had it easy. The 36-year-old has faced many a summons by the Central Bureau of Investigation and the Enforcement Directorate. Even within the party, the old guard has often questioned his leadership. But Abhishek seems to have sailed through all the crises and engineered a successful election for his party. He won his Diamond Harbour seat for the third time, with a record margin of more than 7 lakh votes―the highest in the history of parliamentary polls in West Bengal. Mamata, too, acknowledged his efforts during her press conference.

From designing the campaign to selecting candidates, Abhishek played a decisive role in every aspect of Trinamool’s poll strategy. His way of operation is distinctly different from his aunt’s. While Mamata built her career on mass movements as an opposition leader, Abhishek’s political career began in the folds of a ruling party. Unlike Mamata and the old guard of the party, he has a corporate style of functioning, which he wants to incorporate in the party’s organisational structure as well. His methods have been criticised by many, including Suvendu Adhikari and Saumitra Khan who were seen as youth leaders of the party before they switched to the BJP. Left leaders called him a product of nepotism. But the 2024 poll results will perhaps silence his critics.

The Trinamool improved its tally this time from 22 seats in 2019. The BJP, on the other hand, found itself restricted to just 12 seats, down from 18 seats in 2019. State opposition leader Suvendu Adhikari, however, said that with 39 per cent votes in its favour, people still considered the BJP as the most credible anti-Trinamool force. “Trinamool won by fear and intimidation,” he told the media. “Trinamool workers scared people by saying that they would stop Lakshmir Bhandar (cash assistance scheme for women) if they don’t vote for the party.”

Meanwhile, the CPI(M) could not live up to its campaign hype, failing to win any seat. The Congress, its ally, won just one―Maldaha Dakshin.

What makes the victory more resounding for the Trinamool is that its candidates defeated several Union ministers and powerful incumbents. In Coochbehar, Jagadish Chandra Barma Basunia defeated Nisith Pramanik, Union minister of state for home. Likewise, in Bankura, Dr Subhas Sarkar, Union minister of state for education, lost to Trinamool’s Arup Chakraborty. Sarkar had won the seat in 2019 by a margin of more than 1.7 lakh votes. Former state BJP chief Dilip Ghosh, who had won from Medinipur in 2019, was made to contest from Bardhaman-Durgapur; the BJP had won that seat in 2019. However, this time, Ghosh was humbled by former cricketer Kirti Azad of the Trinamool. The BJP also lost Medinipur to Trinamool’s June Maliah.

Another surprising result came from Baharampur, where Adhir Ranjan Chowdhury, leader of the Congress in the Lok Sabha, lost to Trinamool’s first-time candidate and former cricketer Yusuf Pathan by a margin of more than 85,000 votes. “Bengal’s politics is getting difficult for liberal and secular forces,” said Chowdhury. “I congratulate Yusuf. But I have been sandwiched between Hindu votes and Muslim votes. I could neither be a Hindu nor a Muslim.”

Except for a few assembly segments, the Trinamool has recreated the 2021 assembly poll results. The same factors that propelled the Mamata-led party to a third term in the state have helped it win 29 Lok Sabha seats. The state government’s direct benefit transfer schemes such as Lakshmir Bhandar and Kanyashree are extremely popular among women, especially in the rural belts.

“The welfare schemes have overpowered the allegations of corruption against Trinamool leaders and the Sandeshkhali issue in this election,” said Subhamoy Maitra, professor at the Indian Statistical Institute, Kolkata. “Since the most popular schemes run by the government directly help women, Trinamool has managed to sustain its women vote bank. Personally, Mamata is extremely popular among women.” Maitra believes that Muslims, like in 2021, may have voted as a bloc in Trinamool’s favour this time, too.

The BJP had aimed for 30 seats in Bengal, and had devised its campaign likewise, with multiple road shows and meetings by Modi, Amit Shah and other senior BJP leaders. But every time a senior BJP leader would come campaigning, Trinamool leaders would remind the people about the money the Centre owed the state. Also, the BJP was plagued with infighting and discontent among local leaders over the selection of several candidates. For instance, in Medinipur, where the saffron party fielded Agnimitra Paul in place of Dilip Ghosh, the rift between the party’s new and old workers came to the fore. During campaigning, BJP workers were seen clashing in Asansol, where S.S. Ahluwalia was defeated by Trinamool’s Shatrughan Sinha. BJP cadres in Krishnanagar were also unhappy with the candidature of Amrita Roy, claiming she was an outsider despite being a member of the Krishnanagar royal family. Trinamool’s Mahua Moitra won from the constituency.

Experts believe the downfall of the BJP and its hindutva rhetoric in national politics could prove beneficial to the CPI(M) and the Congress in Bengal. “If the BJP loses ground in national politics, it will automatically lose its resonance among anti-Trinamool voters,” said Subhamoy Maitra. “That will give the left and the Congress a boost.”