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  Didi looks at wider horizon

Didi looks at wider horizon

| SHIKHA MUKERJEE
Published : May 20, 2016, 12:29 am IST
Updated : May 20, 2016, 12:29 am IST

Mamata Banerjee has won. She won against her negative image projected by the Opposition and made manifest in possibly the ugliest campaign ever in West Bengal.

Mamata Banerjee has won. She won against her negative image projected by the Opposition and made manifest in possibly the ugliest campaign ever in West Bengal. It is not just the Trinamul Congress’ victory, but her personal achievement. Ahead of the polls, the Trinamul Congress looked more than ever a ragtag bunch. Investing her personal political capital and stamina, Ms Banerjee then dragged the dubious and desperate along the bumpy poll track and secured a decisive victory. It was not easy.

Trinamul Congress won a stunning 211 seats. This is the highest ever by a single party in recent memory. But it’s also an election where the BJP emerged as a potentially important third side, winning six seats and garnering over 10 per cent of the vote, less than the 17 per cent it picked up in 2014, but more than it has won in recent elections. The unthinkable alliance of the Congress and the CPI(M)-led Left Front imagined it was a formidable challenger. It found it was a damp squib; the CPI(M) was weaker. Whether this scale of defeat makes it irrevocably weaker is the question. In contrast, the Congress has done better and has once again made itself an attractive proposition in West Bengal’s revolving-door politics.

There were two squeaky clean images in this election; Ms Banerjee’s and CPI(M) boss Surjya Kanta Mishra’s. And one bad egg. Ms Banerjee won because she was a viable leader.

Mr Mishra lost as voters clearly don’t feel confident about the CPI(M) and the alliance in general. The only jailed candidate from Trinamul Congress, Madan Mitra, lost as West Bengal isn’t indifferent about the criminally corrupt; it’s a defeat for Ms Banerjee as he was her biggest gamble. He was kept in jail by the CBI for his links to the Saradha chit-fund scam, he was also seen in the Narada sting video with cash in hand.

And there was the Election Commission. On one hand, the extraordinary lengths to ensure free and fair voting certainly made it difficult for Trinamul’s unruly bunch of election managers in different locations, but on the other, these measures rescued Ms Banerjee and salvaged her reputation as a vote-catcher as she won a fair election.

The significance of this election is not limited to West Bengal; it confirms Trinamul Congress as an independent power centre in national politics, a status Ms Banerjee craved but was unable to achieve till now. As a winner, even when cornered by the Opposition, her success in 2016 means she can deliver a fair share of the state’s 42 Lok Sabha seats in 2019. She will be a prize catch for any coalition; she knows it and will relish driving a hard bargain.

In contrast, the CPI(M)’s bid to revive its fortunes has bombed. It will have less to offer as part of a coalition in national politics, and also struggle to send MPs to the Rajya Sabha, blunting its effectiveness.

It is Ms Banerjee’s false modesty that she claims to be a “simple person” from a “regional party”. She knows fully well she is perceived as a phenomenon in Indian politics. The Trinamul Congress is enviably flexible and it is neither shy nor silent. It deployed its nimbleness to keep the Congress and BJP on a string, with some occasional attacks such as on the BJP in the AgustaWestland deal, or the masterly delivery in the intolerance debate.

She can join the small independent group that ostensibly keeps an equal distance from the Congress and BJP, or the front of regional parties that gang up against the BJP, or she can, hypothetically, join forces with the BJP. But it’s clear she has set her sights on weaning the Congress away from the CPI(M) and keeping the BJP dangling by offering issue-based support as and when it suits her.

The preliminary estimates indicate Trinamul Congress has improved its voteshare to 45 per cent, up from 2014 when it secured around 44 per cent. This victory is a positive endorsement for Ms Banerjee, who exercises total control over her party. Yet, some of the margins by which Trinamul candidates have scraped to victory in key constituencies suggests some of them were a near thing. It may have been a choice made by people with no real choice.

The Congress-Left alliance failed to instil confidence as an alternative. The challenge to the CPI(M) in 2016 was to first get its act together, then to present itself as a viable challenger, leading the alliance with the Congress. It waffled over this. Officially the deal was a “seat adjustment” pact, but apparently transformed itself into a “people’s alliance” in response to popular pressure. This visibility and buzz was misleading. It was shocking, but a telltale sign was that the CPI(M) couldn’t find enough people to staff its booths and muster voters. While this was apparent on polling day, voters must have sensed the weakness long before that. Voters evidently made their calculations and decided which side would win.

For Ms Banerjee, the campaign was tough but she will need to figure out how to release the pressure from inside the Trinamul cooker. There are enough factions and fights within Trinamul to make a lesser leader quail. She needs to cross over into constructive governance soon. Her strategy of governance by handouts to politically critical segments has given her the maximum in terms of payback. Now she must figure out how to restore the rule of law and get some serious development going.

Ms Banerjee is no statesman. Nor is she forgiving, generous or level-headed, no matter what she said at noon on Thursday. She has promised to avenge whatever she perceived as an insult or injury in the just-concluded poll campaign. She has vowed to avenge herself on the police, administration and, of course, the Opposition. And she has been protective of bullyboys like Anubrata Mandal of Birbhum, who have on their own vowed to crack the whip once the results were out. How will Ms Banerjee put a leash on the dogs of war

Her campaign mood was ugly. She has given no indication that it has changed. She has promised to send “sweets” to those who didn’t offend her in the campaign or polling process. This is not a message of building a bridgehead across the political divide she has nurtured and advanced. Episodic turbulence could become the norm now that she is back as chief minister.

The writer is a senior journalist in Kolkata