July 21, 2021. Mamata Banerjee was addressing a massive crowd. The date, remembered as martyr’s day by the Trinamool Congress (TMC), commemorates the death of the 13 people killed in police firing during a demonstration led by her in 1991. Less than two months after TMC trounced the BJP in West Bengal, the audience and many within her party expected a reiteration of the “Joy Bangla” war cry that so neatly summarised her party’s strategy: That the party and its mercurial leader were of Bengal, the BJP wasn’t. Instead, Banerjee said, “Joy Bangla, Joy Hindustan”.
Immediately, the tenor of the euphoric celebrations in the crowd changed. The rally was electrified. This was a war cry. Didi was looking beyond Bengal. During the campaigning for the Bhabanipur bypoll — which she won with a record margin of over 58,000 votes — her nephew Abhishek Banerjee was more explicit. He said that the battle for the seat was also for Bharat. “If Bhabanipur wins, Bharat will also win”. This has to do with the nature of the seat itself: Bhabanipur is a mosaic of different communities, with nearly half of them “non-Bengalis”. Mosques, gurdwaras and temples, posh colonies and slums, a Punjabi dhaba that has artist M F Hussain’s painting of Gajagamini behind the cash counter, and Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose’s ancestral home all coexist in this south Kolkata neighbourhood.
While Mamata projected the seat as representative of an inclusive India, the BJP had hoped that they would gain traction from the “non-Bengali voters”. The party had increased its vote share from 19 per cent in 2016 to 35 per cent in the 2021 state polls and hoped to protect the inroads that they had made. Neither Narendra Modi nor Amit Shah campaigned for the by-election — instead, Union minister Hardeep Singh Puri arrived to court Sikh voters.
That she’d win was all but inevitable. But this was an important election since the influx of people from Hindi-speaking states had allowed the BJP to gain ground. Moreover, Banerjee has now been in power for a decade and there is a lot of anti-incumbency. When Banerjee decided to fight from Nandigram, the BJP state unit claimed that she was afraid of losing from Bhabanipur and was fleeing.
There is a key difference in how Banerjee approached the 2019 Lok Sabha elections and the recently concluded Assembly polls. In 2019, the BJP successfully injected religiosity into the state’s politics and importantly, these elections weren’t about Banerjee, but Modi and his image. But even then, she didn’t expect BJP to do as well as they did. I had asked her once about BJP’s growing clout in the state and she had reasoned that she couldn’t determine which party — the BJP, Congress, or Left — would occupy the opposition space. But that someone had to. In 2021, she didn’t make the same mistake of underestimating the BJP. Instead, she worked to counter the fault lines that the BJP had exposed in those polls ranging from the “dormant Left DNA” of the Bengali bhadralok to religious polarisation in some parts of the state. Instead of getting angry and playing into the BJP’s hands, she countered the chant of “Jai Shri Ram” with her claim that BJP leaders are “outsiders”.
Importantly, Banerjee didn’t say that the BJP were outsiders because they weren’t Bengalis, but because their politics was antithetical to the inclusive ethos of the state. This was the essence of her plan — crafted with the help of Prashant Kishor — and is likely to be a central tenet for her national ambitions.
Abhishek Banerjee told me that the aim is to achieve the achievable. The first step in the route from Bhabanipur to Bharat was to ensure that the party regains the losses made to the BJP in 2019. She is no longer hosting opposition meetings with Rahul Gandhi. Even the party’s involvement in the Goa polls is low-key. In Tripura, the TMC has made it clear to dissident BJP MLAs that they are not interested in toppling the government. Instead, the party is content to wait for the 2023 polls. Abhishek argues that toppling the government will only harm the party’s image. After all, this is exactly the charge that they level at the BJP’s door.
Instead, Mamata’s future political strategy is based on the belief that the euphoria that surrounded Modi in 2014 will not last. Economic degeneration and the party’s management of the pandemic will eat away at the BJP’s supremacy. With the BJP waning, West Bengal consolidated and regional parties doing well, Mamata knows that she will be an important factor.
The next step for her is to amplify her acceptability beyond Bengal. This is what Modi, the then chief minister of Gujarat did ahead of his foray into national politics. She will interact with students and meet business leaders and members of civil society. In doing so, she will speak of moving from Bhabanipur to Bharat. But also, of the politics that she is proposing, highlighting issues of tolerance, attacks on the media and farmer issues. To do so, Banerjee is taking a leaf out of the BJP playbook. Ahead of 2014, and in every election since, the BJP has been able to create multiple ways of communicating promises — where the handbill and Twitter coexist. This is something that she was able to do during the recent Assembly polls. Wall paintings coincided with the Khela Hobe song, her wheelchair spawned countless memes and that was all a part of the strategy.
Will she be able to do that nationally? There are many ifs and buts. But that is the plan. Ahead of 2011, Banerjee was able to successfully become the vehicle for the discontent of people in Bengal. Now, she has sensed growing discontent with Modi, and she is looking to once again become the vehicle for the discontent and the opposition’s fulcrum.
This column first appeared in the print edition on October 27, 2021 under the title ‘The road from Bhabanipur’. The writer is a senior journalist