If there is one thing that Mamata Banerjee’s emphatic victory – 213/292 -- in West Bengal shows, it is the importance of being combative. Ever since the dramatic rise of Narendra Modi on the Hindutva plank, most opposition parties have given up the fight, making the BJP seem like a juggernaut. Modi revels in this image and a pliant media has magnified it into mythic proportions. No doubt that the BJP is a formidable foe but Mamata has shown that it can be defeated if someone is up for a scrap.
The BJP had its tail up after winning 18/42 Lok Sabha seats from West Bengal in 2019, a gain of 16 seats and a vote share of 40 per cent, but Didi took the Modi-Shah duo head-on. Faced with the Jai Shri Ram jibes of Modi and the blatantly communal taunts by Amit Shah, she responded with the secular war cry of ‘Khela hobey!’ Instead of contesting from her safe seat of Bhabhanipur, she took the fight to Nandigram, the bastion of the BJP’s star candidate Suvendu Adhikari. The intent and energy was picked up by the foot-soldiers, who saw the general leading from the front. Mamata lost to Adhikari by a narrow margin but her party won 33 of the 56 seats in the vicinity of Nandigram, the Jangal Mahal-Medinipur region where the BJP had a higher vote share and led in more assembly segments than the Trinamool in the 2019 Lok Sabha polls.
A similar grit and determination was shown by NCP leader Sharad Pawar when everyone had predicted a second term for Devendra Fadnavis. The man himself had gone around proclaiming that he would return. The Maratha leader had lost citadel after citadel and stalwart after stalwart was being lured away; the party was left with just 41/288 MLAs. Despite the setbacks and his precarious health, Pawar kept up a punishing poll schedule; the sight of him speaking in pouring rain even during the dying moments of the campaign touched hearts. The NCP tally went up to 54 MLAs and its vote share from 14 per cent to 19 per cent. And when the BJP was unable to form a government, Pawar played a masterful end game to checkmate Amit Shah. Having survived to fight another day – ‘Sar salamat to pagadi hazar’ -- he was among the first senior leaders to congratulate Mamata.
For that matter, Uddhav Thackeray also never surrendered to his alliance partner BJP, which constantly sought to undermine the Shiv Sena. The man with eight stents in the heart took all the blows but stood his ground, delivering the knock-out punch in the last round.
However, let alone putting up a fight, opposition parties, especially the Congress, seem to have forgotten their role. They are just waiting for the Modi government to fall under the weight of its own contradictions. In fact, the Congress could have wrested Gujarat from the BJP after Modi left for Delhi but it was unable to get its act together. And even in states that it won, it was unable to keep its flock together.
Why should voters respect the opposition if it cannot keep the government in check, if it cannot exploit the blunder after blunder that the PM has made on the economic front, if it cannot counter his divisive policies, his trifling with institutions, his disregard for civil liberties and the federal structure of India, his bungling of foreign relations, the farm bills and the pandemic. In fact, parties other than the BJP have become so indolent that they don’t know their own strengths and weaknesses, which is why they need political strategists such as Prashant Kishor.
The man who calls himself a failed politician has shown that the role of money power, propaganda and even communal polarisation in elections is exaggerated. Voters look at the track record of political parties, whether or not they can deliver and last but not the least, if they have the stomach for a fight. This is where the Trinamool and the DMK scored and the UDF failed. This kind of seriousness is missing in the Congress party. No one takes Rahul Gandhi as a viable challenger to Modi. Is it any surprise that the Congress could not wrest power in Assam and Kerala where it was the main challenger? In West Bengal, it failed to open its account.
Rahul Gandhi should take a lesson from Mamata, who was fighting with her back to the wall in a protracted campaign but came out on top, garnering 47.9 per cent of the votes polled despite all the might, muscle and machinations of the BJP. Not only Amit Shah, the exit polls as well as the bookies were proved wrong. The only one who got it 100 per cent right was Kishor, who had predicted that the BJP would struggle to reach the three-figure mark. In the event, the BJP won 77 seats, registering a 38.1 per cent vote share, which is not bad in itself but far short of the tsunami that Modi had predicted.
Being combative also means having the will to fix your shortcomings. After the BJP’s stunning performance in West Bengal in the 2019 Lok Sabha polls, the Trinamool responded through extensive programmes of public outreach, through sustained campaigning and delivery, while constantly maintaining voter contact. The regional satraps of the Congress, such as Amarinder Singh and Ashok Gehlot, have realised this. To that extent, the ‘khela’ which started in Bengal may only have reached half-time.