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View: Maganlal Meghraj & Mamata’s Win

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Despite losing in Nandigram, Mamata Banerjee emerged aparajito (unvanquished) on Satyajit Ray’s birth centenary. So it won’t be a bad idea to start with a scene from Ray’s 1979 Joy Baba Felunath, a title that doesn’t need translating on ‘either side’ of the Indo-Gangetic plains.

Maganlal Meghraj, an oily ‘non-Bengali’ character tries to bribe ace private investigator Felu-da and stop him from investigating a case. He takes out a wad of Rs2,000 – remember, it’s 1979 — and throws it from where he is sprawled out ‘lala-style’. It lands on Feluda’s lap across the room, and like his contemporary from a film released four years earlier, Felu-da ‘aaj bhi pheke hue paise nahi uthata’.

It could be quite OTT to suggest that BJP made the same mistake as Maganlal with West Bengal’s voters by simply tossing them an ‘incentive’ to bring about ‘ashol poriborton’. But then, this has been an OTT election.

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  • The fact that TMC has secured a sweeping 200-plus seats against almost all expectations underlines two things. One, Didi remains a popular leader, forming a more singular and visible lynchpin than Delhi’s Dada, who despite his visitations seemed more mascot than spearhead during these polls. Two, anti-incumbency may have been a factor early on. But it was anti-anti-incumbency — fuelled by BJP’s veritable dousing of these polls with personal barbs and taunts, and parachuting leaders pell-mell from anywhere and everywhere — that made many voters who had actually been considering ‘giving them a chance’ pull their hand back from the button.

    For most voters, the sheer ‘force of show’ could well have exposed BJP on May 2 as a big multi-national, ‘buying up’ competition, without having done much consumer reach-out or market studies in the belief that simply flooding the market would get all consumers buying its goods. This ‘McDonald’s franchise’ model reflected BJP’s hubris.

    It would be easy to believe that in a battle of ‘outsiders’ and ‘locals’ – a trope tom-tommed by Mamata Pvt Ltd – this marks Bengal’s voters rejecting the takeover by Maganlal and Co. But it would be irrational to believe that BJP’s ‘non-Bengali’ status by itself was a turn-off, except to a metropolitan few. The template itself that was being sold by the national party to the state – ‘achhe din,’ ‘ashol poribartan,’ ‘Gujarat model,’ ‘Xanadu’ – was itself not looking as glamorous and cut-and-paste-worthy as it did even at the beginning of this year.

    With higher expectations come louder gasps when things appear to fall apart. The way GoI has handled the Covid pandemic in ‘India’ – especially during this vicious second wave – its raising fuel prices in February, and the Bengal BJP’s born-again communal overtones, Didi’s decadal regime seemed stable to many. Less aspirational, perhaps, but certainly more certain in these extremely uncertain times.

    Bengal’s voters, despite their occasional collective dream of ‘revolutionary change,’ are conservative. By not really investing beyond electioneering, BJP failed to recognise the antidote to Banerjee’s anti-incumbency: familiarity. Camera-un-shy janta in Bardhaman or Birbhum striking up a ‘Jai Sri Ram!’ was as much about irking TMC cadres as it was about anyone loudly singing ‘Tumpa Shona!’ a hit Bengali item number – the parody of which was used by CPI(M) – to the bhadralok’s horror.

    The other advantage that countered Mamata’s anti-insurgency was her cadre. By hoovering many mid-level TMC leaders who switched camps after ‘feeling isolated,’ BJP did the ruling party that had gathered much moss since 2011 a favour. Many disaffected sitting TMC MLAs were also cause for voter disaffection. The Nandigram cliffhanger between Suvendu Adhikari and Mamata is the result of something else: voters afraid of ‘consequences’ if they vote for the ‘wrong’ candidate.

    Being around – and in power — for a long time also provided TMC with infrastructural weaponry, whether in the form of carrot or stick. The latter has been all too evident in the extensive poll violence, while the former has come in handy for voters to recall state government schemes at the right time. ‘Khadya Syathi’ for food security, and a flat Rs1,000 a month under ‘Jai Johar’ for scheduled tribes and ‘Bandhu Prakalpa’ for scheduled castes undoubtedly helped voters in the ‘Jangamahal’ districts of Bankura, Purulia, Paschim Medinipur and Jhargram – which overwhelmingly voted for BJP in the 2019 Lok Sabha polls – decide when they voted on April 24.

    Mamata Banerjee’s victory is impressive – especially as it comes in the face of every trick purportedly used in the BJP central government’s book. But with more seats than the 73 won by Congress, Left and BJP combined in the last assembly electins, BJP is now the de facto and de jure opposition party of West Bengal. A state that last had an opposition party worth its functional salt on May 12, 2011, the day before Didi toppled the ancien regime. As a wise man at a chai shop in Garia, in the southern extremes of Kolkata, put it, ‘Because of all its pomp and show, BJP managed to make Mamata’s win look remarkable when it was actually on the cards, while its own performance from 3 to 70-plus is actually remarkable.

    A strong government with a visible opposition is what West Bengal desperately needs now as it finally stops khela and gets down to work to protect its people from the real Maganlal Meghraj: a vile, vicious virus.

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