Kolkata, July 12 (The Telegraph): The unfolding results of the panchayat polls have underscored two related points: that Trinamul's supremacy in rural Bengal remains largely unchallenged and that the Opposition forces are at the moment far behind the ruling party in the game of electoral politics.
The results till 8.30 pm indicated that Trinamul had bagged around 73 per cent of the gram panchayat seats and 98 per cent of the panchayat samiti seats for which counting had ended. Five years ago, the strike rates were 78 per cent and 87 per cent, respectively, for these two tiers.
The trends also suggested that although the ruling party might face contests in districts such as East Midnapore and Alipurduar, it was unlikely to lose any of the 20 zilla parishads, the topmost tier of the three-tier panchayat system.
The situation in Darjeeling and Kalimpong - which have two-tier panchayat systems without the zilla parishad under a special arrangement - was similar with Trinamul ally BGPM poised for a sweep.
Grateful to the people for converting Oppn's 'NO VOTE TO MAMATA' campaign to 'NOW VOTE FOR MAMATA',” Trinamul national general secretary and heir apparent Abhishek Banerjee tweeted in the evening.
It was a clear taunt aimed at leader of the Opposition Suvendu Adhikari, the main Opposition face in Bengal, who had launched a“no vote to Mamata” campaign with the promise of the BJP bagging“several zilla parishads” and“teaching a lesson to the government of thieves”.
On Tuesday evening, Adhikari and the rest of the saffron ecosystem blamed the results on“electoral malpractice”.
“I had a few rounds of conversation with Union home minister Amit Shah today but we did not discuss the election results even once. Our discussion was on the violence during counting day,” Adhikari said, giving the impression that the BJP had long before thrown in the towel.
The Left and the Congress said the results reflected the farcical nature of the entire poll process, and any analysis of the outcome therefore meant little.
The despair among the Opposition parties on counting day, however, contrasted sharply with their mood in the run-up to the polls, when senior leaders of the BJP and Congress-Left camps predicted a stiff fight against Trinamul and resorted to legal steps to ensure the deployment of central forces.
The Opposition had pinned its hopes on factors such as the perceived anti-incumbency after 12 years of Trinamul rule and the slew of corruption cases against ruling party leaders.
However, whatever discontent there was on the ground appears to have been insufficient for an electorate, coddled with populist welfare schemes by Mamata Banerjee, to attempt a change of guard without a determined and galvanising grassroots campaign - something the Opposition was clearly incapable of.
While the BJP's primary aim was to create a pervasive anti-Trinamul mood ahead of next year's Lok Sabha polls, the Left and the Congress were - after the humiliation of drawing a blank in the 2021 Assembly polls - hoping to send out a message of a turnaround.
The challenge before Trinamul, on the other hand, was to prove its supremacy across the length and breadth of the state and prepare the ranks for next year's bigger battle. That the party believes the twin objectives have been achieved was clear from Abhishek's tweet.
“...We'll surely have a roaring mandate, paving the way for LS elections. Bengal, I thank you for all the love,” he wrote.
Some of the takeaways from the poll results:
Abhishek passes test
Abhishek was Trinamul's main strategist for these rural polls, Mamata having taken a back seat - except for addressing a few meetings physically or virtually - after getting injured during an emergency landing by her helicopter. The results have cemented his leadership credentials.
At a time Trinamul was reeling under the arrests of several of its heavyweights on corruption charges, and the consequent“chor” (thief) chants against party leaders, his Nabo Jowar march across the state seemed to electrify the cadre.
“The turnout at his programme gave the lower-rung party leaders the courage to hit the streets and the results bear the proof of our organisational strength,” a Trinamul insider said.
Appeal of Centre-bashing
The theme of Abhishek's 54-day, state-wide march was woven around the narrative that the BJP-led central government had stopped the flow of funds to Bengal - for the rural job guarantee and rural housing schemes - because the party had failed to win the state in 2021.
The BJP, on the other hand, argued that the Centre had frozen the cash because the Trinamul establishment was stealing it.
At all his rallies, Abhishek sought votes from people with the pledge that he would take 10 lakh people from Bengal to Delhi and bring the money that the Centre owes the state. The results suggest that the theory of central deprivation - championed by the Left in its heyday - has not lost its appeal for rural Bengal.
Trinamul not invincible
The BJP has secured 9 of the 17-gram panchayats that fall under the Nandigram Assembly segment, with a dogged Adhikari resisting Trinamul's attempts to avenge Mamata's narrow defeat to him in the 2021 Assembly polls.
Multiple sources in Trinamul admitted that the Nandigram outcome this time was another blow as the party had pulled out the stops to try and upset Adhikari in his backyard.
Similarly, Trinamul failed to repeat its 2021 Assembly poll performance in Murshidabad and Malda, with the Left and the Congress gaining toeholds this time. These outcomes in some pockets bear out that Trinamul often tends to crumble when faced with determined Opposition resistance.
Bread and butter issues
Over the last few months, the Opposition had emphasised mainly two issues - the school recruitment scam and the lack of parity in dearness allowance between state government employees and their central counterparts.
While these issues are important, they didn't gain much traction in rural Bengal. The Opposition's corruption-centric narrative appeared to have paled before Trinamul's focus on how its government was trying to address rural woes with schemes like Lakshmir Bhandar.
Trinamul did better than expected in tribal areas in the western districts and parts of north Bengal that had till now been BJP fiefs.
Minority trust for CM
The rural polls were held against the backdrop of a narrative that the Muslims were turning away from Mamata. The theory gained traction after the Sagardighi by-election result and certain developments in pockets such as Bhangar where Trinamul lost ground to the ISF.
But the trends till Tuesday evening suggested that there had been no upheavals in minority-dominated districts such as North Dinajpur, Malda, Murshidabad, Birbhum or South 24-Parganas outside local turbulence in small pockets such as Domkal and Bhangar.
“The minorities may have voted for the Congress or the ISF in areas where they felt these parties could defeat Trinamul, but such places are limited in the state as the fight is mainly with the BJP. So, the theory of the minorities turning away from Didi doesn't hold true, at least for the time being,” a Trinamul source said.
Intent means little
Abhishek had said several times in the run-up to the polls that the election process would be free and fair and the Opposition parties would get a level playing field.
He had also issued warnings aimed at reducing the possibility of Trinamul-sponsored malpractices in the poll process.
The developments before the polls, on polling day, and during counting have proved that his message didn't trickle down to the ranks.
If Abhishek is sincere about changing the culture of poll violence in Bengal, mere words will not be enough.
Lok Sabha forecast
Abhishek's tweet reflected his confidence that the rural poll outcome would pave the way for a Trinamul sweep in the Lok Sabha polls, less than a year away.
There is little doubt that the Trinamul scorecard looks impressive - but it had done so in 2018, too, before the BJP bagged 18 Lok Sabha seats from Bengal the following year.
A lot may change between now and the Lok Sabha polls, with the country's political space witnessing sweeping changes as the BJP carries out multiple experiments to corner the regional parties.