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n the end, West Bengal’s voters surprised everyone, from politicians to the media to exit pollsters. Not only has the Trinamool Congress (TMC) returned to power with a two-thirds majority, its vote share has gone up by nearly 4.5 percentage points from the Lok Sabha elections in 2019. The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), in spite of putting everything it had—Modi, money, manpower—into its campaign, has lost 2.5 percentage points of vote share. While in absolute terms, the BJP has risen from three seats in the previous assembly to 77, this may only be cold comfort for the party.

So, what happened?

One, there has been complete vote consolidation—one could even call it polarization. West Bengal’s is now clearly a two-party polity. The Communist-Congress-Indian Secular Front (ISF) alliance has been wiped out. Most of its candidates have lost their deposit money. Nearly every non-BJP vote has gone to the TMC. The BJP had expected the ISF to split the Muslim vote, especially in south and central Bengal, but this did not happen. Muslim voters, who comprise around 30% of the state’s electorate, went for the party that had the best chance of beating the BJP.

Two, Bengali exceptionalism remains true and triumphant. Mamata Banerjee portrayed the election as a war against non-Bengali invaders and a fight for the preservation of Bengali culture and ethos. This worked; the people raised the battlements. The BJP’s heavy dependence on non-Bengali leaders in its campaign, as repeatedly and derisively pointed out by Banerjee, and the absence of a chief ministerial face and a son-of-the-soil leader with wide appeal across the state has cost the party dear.

To put it in very blunt terms, the typical Bengali voter does not like leaders invoking “Modi-ji" and “Amit-ji" reverentially every few minutes in their speeches. At the core of Bengali political thought is the refusal to kowtow to Delhi, or for that matter, any non-Bengali politician—even Congress chief ministers like B.C. Roy and Siddhartha Shankar Ray dealt with prime ministers Jawaharlal Nehru and Indira Gandhi respectively as equals. If Narendra Modi won elections in Gujarat appealing to Gujarati asmita (pride in one’s identity), Bengalis have chosen ‘Banglar meye’—Bengal’s daughter. Modi’s frequent “Didi o Didi" taunts may have also got people’s hackles up. Women have traditionally formed a significant chunk of Banerjee’s vote base, and some remarks by BJP leaders would have certainly been seen as misogynistic.

Three, the BJP appears to have made quite a few mistakes. Its strategies were mostly crafted in Delhi. It is doubtful whether much attention was paid to what local leaders and workers with a keener sense of ground realities and Bengali proclivities had to suggest. A simple example: the spectre of moral policing that BJP leader Yogi Adityanath raised in his rallies. Bengal has one of the most liberal societies in the country, and Bengalis abhor concepts like ‘Romeo squads’. Yet, not a single Bengal BJP leader, perhaps because no one dared contradict one of the party’s prominent faces, allayed these fears that spread silently among the populace. For all its pomp and pushiness, the BJP does not seem to have kept its finger on the somewhat unique Bengali pulse.

The BJP fielded more than a hundred candidates who had been in the TMC only a few months earlier. This disappointed many ground-level BJP workers who had persevered for years for the party’s cause and faced threats to life and livelihood from thugs said to be reporting to the same politicians. It also severely undercut the promise of ‘ashol poribartan’ (real change) that the BJP was making to voters. It might have been a Hobson’s choice for the BJP in its all-out victory bid—either hunt for turncoats and, to some extent, defang the TMC, or lose the actually bloody battles in the streets and paddy fields. It ended up losing votes. And post-election, BJP workers are reportedly facing a wave of violence from TMC cadre.

All this is not to take away anything at all from Banerjee’s achievements in her 10 years as West Bengal’s chief minister. Several of her schemes aimed at the rural poor and women, such as Kishan Bandhu and Kanyashree, have worked. Hinterland roads have been built, infant mortality and malnutrition have dropped, the state has been reducing poverty at a rate faster than the national average. Rural purchasing power is up, and the state’s capital Kolkata is cleaner than it ever was in living memory. Moreover, West Bengal has had higher agricultural growth over the past decade compared with the rest of the country.

The flipside is industrial growth, both manufacturing and services, which has steadily been falling behind the national rate. As a direct effect, per capita rise in income has lagged behind. With Banerjee retaining power, it is unlikely that the state will see much new capital invested, and this diminishes the chances of an improvement in its employment scenario. The migration of manpower from West Bengal looks set to continue.

Right now, there is some exultation among Bengalis across the world that Bengali pride has triumphed, but very few of these men and women can, will or even have the intention to ever return to their homeland, or at least before they retire. For, while Kolkata may not have jobs, it’s a fine city to spend one’s old age in.

Sandipan Deb is a former editor of ‘Financial Express’, and founder-editor of ‘Open’ and ‘Swarajya’ magazines

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