By Yajnaseni Chakraborty
India’s opposition may finally have a leader capable of challenging Prime Minister Narendra Modi at the national level in “Bengal Tigress” Mamata Banerjee, who handed the Bharatiya Janata Party chief a major defeat in a key state election this week, political commentators said.
The emphatic victory by Banerjee’s party in the West Bengal polls has rekindled hope among the opposition that Modi is now vulnerable at the center, and that it will galvanize other parties to hold India’s Hindu nationalist leader accountable for what they say are his failures – especially his mismanagement of the COVID-19 pandemic – analysts and other political parties said.
“Mamata Banerjee is now a national-level alternative for the UPA,” commentator Sanjay Jha said on Twitter, referring to an earlier alliance of opposition parties and national elections scheduled for 2024.
“She has not only stopped the huge BJP juggernaut but has pushed it back.”
Banerjee “is now speaking for all of India, not just Bengal,” said a spokesman for the opposition Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) party.
“Because of her decisive victory, Mamata can now lead the charge against the BJP and the center that other parties will follow,” Manoj Kumar Jha told BenarNews.
In the West Bengal polls, the results of which were announced Sunday, Banerjee’s Trinamool Congress (TMC) party won 215 of 292 seats in the state legislature. Modi’s BJP won only 77.
The TMC leader was sworn in as chief minister on Wednesday for a third consecutive term, in a ceremony she kept low-key because of the raging pandemic. Top health experts have laid the blame squarely on Modi for ignoring warnings about a second wave of COVID-19 in South Asia’s largest country.
Banerjee’s victory will help hold Modi’s central government accountable for ignoring these warnings and give her a platform to lead an opposition demand to make coronavirus vaccines free for all Indians, said Jayanta Ghoshal, a political analyst and one of Banerjee’s current media advisors who is also close to a former top BJP leader.
“Mamata’s current focus is on battling COVID-19. Had the BJP won in Bengal, Modi would have used the victory to try and sweep all his government’s failures under the carpet. Mamata is familiar with national politics, but will not make an immediate move to grab power,” Ghoshal told BenarNews.
“That said, the COVID-19 crisis provides her with an opportunity to pressure Modi to deliver, on behalf of all non-BJP states. Who knows where that can lead?”
For widely read columnist Shobhaa De, that road leads to New Delhi and the Prime Minister’s office. She called Banerjee’s win India’s “jhaal muri moment.” She was referring to a snack that is popular in West Bengal, especially its capital.
“Learn to love Kolkata’s favorite street side snack quickly, for soon it may travel to Delhi,” De wrote in her column on The Print news website.
BenarNews contacted two BJP members in Kolkata but they declined to comment.
But Dilip Ghosh, the West Bengal chief of the BJP, has not tired of reminding everyone that his party made big gains compared with the last West Bengal election in 2016.
“If you compare the result with the one five years ago, in the 2016 state elections we won only three seats and this year’s number is almost 80 – that is a huge difference, Ghosh told a news conference after the results came out.
Banerjee, meanwhile, has already begun to act on behalf of all of India’s states.
On Wednesday, she sent a letter to Modi, which was released to the media. In it, she said that states have inadequate supplies of vaccines currently, which makes the central government’s directive to vaccinate all adults “an unrealistic target.”
“At the very outset, I would again like to emphasize free vaccination for all,” she wrote, making it clear she was speaking for all of India and not just West Bengal.
On Wednesday, India logged close to 400,000 new COVID-19 cases and almost 4,000 virus-related deaths. The country has recorded more than 20 million cases and more than 226,000 deaths.
‘I am a street fighter’
Banerjee, the only woman to hold the rank of chief minister in India, is known for mincing no words.
She spoke about the 2024 general elections, when asked at a news conference on Tuesday whether she would again try to forge an opposition alliance.
“I am a street fighter. I can boost people so that we can fight against BJP,” Banerjee said.
“One cannot do everything alone. I think all together, we can fight the battle for 2024. But let’s fight COVID first.”
She had earlier referred to her electoral victory as “a battle won not just for Bengal but for India.”
The BJP needed to win in West Bengal to establish a pan-India presence, but also to defeat Banerjee, who is a thorn in its side.
She has twice attempted a “secular” coalition of regional parties across India to form a front against Modi and his belligerently Hindu nationalist party.
Many opposition leaders who have criticized Modi, for what they describe as Modi’s authoritarian style of governing, say Banerjee’s victory is a win for the country.
Jairam Ramesh, an economist and an MP from the Congress party, with which Banerjee had attempted an anti-BJP alliance, said Banerjee’s victory came as a breather.
“The West Bengal poll result is a life-saver for the time-being. Though liberal democracy in India continues to be in ICU [intensive care unit],” Ramesh told BenarNews.
The Shiv Sena, another party that opposes the BJP, explained why it didn’t matter that the BJP gained some seats.
“The results have proved that despite having all the machinery and technology at their disposal, Modi-Shah are not invincible,” the party said in an editorial in its newspaper.
Besides, Mamata’s TMC also gained seats, and more importantly, increased its vote share, while the BJP’s vote share decreased in contrast to how it polled in the 2019 general election, when it first made inroads into West Bengal, said Manoj Kumar Jha, of the opposition RJD party.
“This is the first state election in which the BJP has lost so heavily since coming to power at the center,” he said, referring to 2014.
“If it has happened in Bengal, it can happen everywhere.”
Shailaja Neelakantan contributed to this report from Washington.