Support 100 years of independent journalism.

  1. World
3 May 2021updated 22 Jul 2021 1:34pm

Will the BJP’s defeat in West Bengal prove a turning point in Indian politics?

Despite pouring resources into the state and staging mass rallies during a pandemic, Narendra Modi’s party was comfortably defeated.

By Emily Tamkin

India’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) wanted to win the state elections in West Bengal, not simply because political parties always do, but to prove a point.

The Hindu-nationalist BJP was traditionally associated with western and northern India. If it could win West Bengal, one of the most populous states in India, it could prove that no state, however strong its incumbent party, was beyond its reach. The party’s narrative of invincibility would be reinforced ahead of the 2024 parliamentary elections.

But the BJP did not win West Bengal – despite the resources poured into the state and the mass rallies held amid a lethal second wave of Covid-19. It was comfortably defeated by the incumbent All India Trinamool Congress (TMC), led by Mamata Banerjee, who was hailed by people in the state capital Kolkata as “the unvanquished” (the title of a film by Indian director Satyajit Ray, who came from Bengal and who would have been 100 on 2 May).

Banerjee herself lost her own election in the town of Nandigram to Suvendu Adhikari, a former ally who defected to the BJP. Her decision to contest Nandigram appeared, as some noted, to be an attempt to force her rival to focus on his home constituency instead of criss-crossing the state.

“I accept whatever mandate comes in Nandigram. For me that is not a big thing,” Banerjee said yesterday (though her party has demanded a recount). “We win, we lose. It’s OK. What matters today is that Bengal is saved, that Trinamool has been given a decisive mandate of around 220 seats. That is a big win for democracy and for Bengal and a humiliating defeat for the BJP and its kind of politics.”

Sign up for The New Statesman’s newsletters Tick the boxes of the newsletters you would like to receive. Quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics from the New Statesman's politics team. A weekly newsletter helping you fit together the pieces of the global economic slowdown. The New Statesman’s global affairs newsletter, every Monday and Friday. The best of the New Statesman, delivered to your inbox every weekday morning. The New Statesman’s weekly environment email on the politics, business and culture of the climate and nature crises - in your inbox every Thursday. Our weekly culture newsletter – from books and art to pop culture and memes – sent every Friday. A weekly round-up of some of the best articles featured in the most recent issue of the New Statesman, sent each Saturday. A newsletter showcasing the finest writing from the ideas section and the NS archive, covering political ideas, philosophy, criticism and intellectual history - sent every Wednesday. Sign up to receive information regarding NS events, subscription offers & product updates.

If she is to remain chief minister, Banerjee now has six months to contest and win another seat.  

The BJP sought to make the election a referendum on corruption and played on fatigue with the incumbent party (while recurrently alleging that Banerjee treats Muslims better than Hindus). Banerjee, in turn, who has always been more pragmatic than ideological, played on a different kind of nationalism: Bengali nationalism.

Content from our partners
How to create a responsible form of “buy now, pay later”
“Unions are helping improve conditions for drivers like me”
Transport is the core of levelling up

That ultimately proved enough. At the time of writing, the TMC has won 213 seats in West Bengal, while the BJP captured 77.

How stunning a defeat this is depends on which end of the telescope one uses to look at West Bengal. With the state’s political left now effectively demolished, the BJP – which, again, was never a traditional power player in West Bengal – is now the main opposition party. In the last state elections in 2016 it won just three seats. By this metric, the BJP is growing, not shrinking, in West Bengal.

Conversely, in the 2019 general election, the BJP won over 40 per cent of the vote in the state. This year, despite going to extraordinary lengths to win, the party won 38.1 per cent. 

It is too soon to say what the BJP’s loss in West Bengal means for the rest of India, but one lesson may be that it will be state and regional leaders, more so than national figures, who slowly but surely chip away at the aura of invincibility surrounding the BJP. In essence, though, it is too soon to say whether this is the beginning of the end or the end of the beginning for the party in West Bengal.

Meanwhile, even those celebrating the TMC’s victory had to acknowledge the grim context. 

“No victory celebrations due to Covid,” Banerjee said in a post-victory public appearance. As voting concluded, the number of new daily cases in the state reached a record high.

[see also: How India’s Covid-19 catastrophe is being felt around the world]