Even as the second wave of COVID-19 continues to engulf India, the country erupted in cheer on May 2 as news of Mamata Banerjee or Didi’s stupendous win in the 2021 West Bengal assembly elections broke out on national television. Banerjee’s Trinamool Congress (TMC) registered a massive win in 213 seats out of 292, while the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) scored a distant 77 despite a high-voltage, 117-day campaigning that saw the likes of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Union Home Minister Amit Shah and other cabinet ministers spearheading rallies and roadshows in the state in quick intervals.
In many ways, it was a befitting reply to the mass carnage that the country is currently witnessing, courtesy the central government led by Modi and his close aide, Shah. Although the BJP had clearly pumped in huge sums of money and tried to turn the bhadralok against Bengal’s daughter in her own land (who can forget the sexist jibes), everything came to nought. The TMC emerged as the clear winner, garnering 48 per cent of the vote and 73 per cent of the seats.
For several months, the media projected BJP’s Hindutva politics as a favourable ploy to win over Bengal, just like most other states, especially the states in North India commonly known as the Hindi heartland. This shows BJP’s myopia as they underestimated the huge connect and popularity that Banerjee enjoys with her women voters, who constitute 49 per cent voters in the state. In fact, women voters have been voting and rooting for Banerjee ever since she has come to power in 2011.
The direct cash transfers to the matriarch of the household and the recent Swasthya Sathi healthcare cards issued in the name of the family’s matriarch as part of the pre-poll Duare Sarkar (government at doorstep) initiative have only lent more agency to women voters. So, when Banerjee asked the “ma-boneder” (mothers and sisters) of the state to come out with ladles and brooms to kick the BJP “bohiragotos” (outsiders) out of the state, she knew she could trust in the deeply familial bond that she enjoys with her women voters.
Clearly, the BJP missed this emotional resonance in a state where gender dynamics are very different from the Hindi heartland. Moreover, her formidable victory against the poster boy of saffron politics — Modi — is proof that BJP’s dream project to propagate dominance through stubborn regional identities and demographics is, after all, faulty.
While many of her critics ridiculed her loss in Nandigram to BJP’s Suvendu Adhikari, she remained unfazed and maintained a calm demeanour. Instead, Banerjee called her party’s win a ‘victory of India and democracy’. On several occasions through the election season, Didi convinced her people that she would not let Bengal be ‘taken over by outsiders’. Well, she stuck to her word, and we couldn’t be happier.
What sets her apart
Didi’s simplicity has always been her biggest virtue; despite being in power for two terms, not once has she portrayed an air of elitism, unlike her counterparts. This has helped her retain her connect with the masses, who look up to her for her compassionate and people-centric model of governance. Biographer Monobina Gupta in her book Didi – A Political Biography writes, “The white sari with a thin, coloured border, the hair pulled back into a bun and the rubber slippers helped Mamata manoeuvre an environment dominated by the media.”
Gupta also points out that Banerjee does not fit into the stereotypical maternal, married Bengali woman, and yet exudes an aura that makes her the ‘big sister of Bengal’.
It’s not just her simplicity, but also her indomitable spirit, resilience and never-say-die attitude that sets her apart from the rest. From riding pillion, campaigning across the state on a wheelchair to calling out Modi and his party for their sexism, Banerjee has done it all. Ever since she began her political career, she has always had strong “street fighter” credentials , and it is now an inherent part of her personality.
Throughout the campaign season she was taunted and bullied by misogynists, laying bare the patriarchal mindset of the BJP leaders. In fact, even when many of the men from her party defected to the BJP before the polls, she refused to let power and intimidation weaken her grit. Instead, she made it clear ‘loud and proud’ that you can’t mess with her.
Women and welfare
Banerjee, who hails from a modest background, might have been targeted by critics for being abrasive and unpolished, but no one can discredit the fact that she continues to reign in her homeland, despite the sea of toxic masculinity she encounters from time to time. What’s also commendable is that Banerjee is the only woman in Indian politics to have founded her own party, and this is only one of the many feathers in her political cap.
While many speak of her overwhelming popularity with Muslims in the state, it is important to note that women in the state are her true loyalists. In 2019, according to a post-poll survey done by Lokniti at the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies, the TMC was the only party to have more women voters than men. The total number of voters in the state are 7.32 crores, among whom 3.73 crore are male and 3.59 crore, female, revealed data released by the Election Commission of India last month.
Over the past decade, Banerjee has worked towards the upliftment of women and girls through its various schemes. One of them is Kanyashree Prakalpa, which was launched in 2013, and provides financial assistance to girls between 13 and 18, provided they are school-going and unmarried. The scheme was introduced to reduce child marriage in the state, and encourage more girls to go to school. The scheme also won the United Nations Public Service Award at The Hague in 2017.
Banerjee might not be a model politician, but she has won the hearts of the people of Bengal yet again – and this time around, the country too can’t stop applauding how she single-handedly crushed the Modi wave.
(Edited by Sanhati Banerjee)