After a stunning victory in the West Bengal state elections, all eyes on Mamata Banerjee as she becomes the face of the Indian opposition. Indian National Congress is still the opposition party in documents. But after the Trinamool Congress leader triumphs over the BJP establishment, Congress is now further cornered to irrelevance. Political analysts in India are already prophesying a Mamata vs Modi-Shah show-off in the 2024 national elections.
Although a state-level election, the West Bengal legislative election had every colour of a national election. The central BJP leadership campaigned untiringly and turned the state election into the Mamata vs Modi show.
The Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi repeatedly returned to the state to campaign against Banerjee; his chaperon Amit Shah almost made West Bengal his home campaigning for days. The top BJP leadership across the country made West Bengal their pilgrimage.
The West Bengal state assembly election thus became a prestige issue for the BJP leadership.
But West Bengal has humiliated Narendra Modi and Amit Shah, presenting a crushing defeat as Mamata Banerjee bagged more seats than her previous victories.
The state BJP leadership and Amit Shah are now trying to convince supporters that the party found a firmer ground in the state, bagging some 80 seats in the state assembly where they had only a handful before. But their tireless efforts for the last two years and overconfidence of winning more than 200 seats before the elections says otherwise.
Mamata over Modi: Didi's rise as a national leader
Mamata Banerjee fought Modi as an equal and crushed him in the poll is the stronger narrative in India today. During the campaign, she repeatedly expressed his national ambition.
The central BJP leadership campaigned untiringly and turned the state election into the Mamata vs Modi show
As she campaigned on a wheelchair after an attack in Nandigram left one of her legs injured, Banerjee famously said in a Hooghly meeting that she "will win Bengal on one leg & Delhi on two."
Banerjee has so far been true to her words. When most political parties are bowing down to the Modi-Shah magic in polls, Banerjee crumpled them alone and created precedence. She portrayed the elections as Mamata vs BJP runoff and requested the West Bengal voters to see her image in all her candidates irrespective of who they are.
The West Bengal voters listened; chose Mamata over Modi.
Didi's upfront leadership
However, this is not the only precedent Banerjee set in this election. She contested this election from Nandigram instead of her own Bhowanipore constituency in South Kolkata. Political analysts considered this as a gamble gone wrong.
But Mamata competing from Nandigram, challenging Suvendu Adhikari – her estranged TMC colleague – in his home ground, didn't only inspire his party members, it elevated her as a fearless politician India needs to defeat the Modi-Shah duo.
Efforts to cut minorities votes: Didi fought back
Banerjee was challenged on her narrative as the champion of minority groups from various fronts. Since the BJP's communal politics has left the Indian Muslims and other minorities stranded in despair, Banerjee's political footprint as the defender of secular India and minority groups was one of her key appeals to West Bengal voters.
All her opponents, including Narendra Modi, tried to win these minority votes.
Remember Narendra Modi visiting Matua Hindus in Orakandi, Gopalganj, during his last visit to Bangladesh? Many in India considered his Orakandi visit an effort to win Matua votes in West Bengal elections, especially given the timing of his visit coincided with state assembly elections.
The Matuas constitute a significant portion of the 23 percent scheduled caste population in West Bengal. They were BJP's biggest bet to neutralise the impact of Muslim votes.
Efforts, however, were also made to cut Muslim votes from Banerjee's share. Furfura Sharif's Pirzada Abbas Siddiqui founded a political party called Indian Secular Front (ISF) and made an alliance with the left and Congress.
Since Furfura Sharif has a huge influence on the Muslims, it was anticipated that ISF – although there was no formal support for the party from Furfura as some of its members are with TMC – would reduce Muslim votes for Banerjee.
But all fell apart due to Banerjee's political charisma. Didi's opponents took some minority votes from her bag, but she won more and emerged as the defender of secular India and a unifier.
Didi: The unifier?
Last March, in a letter to 15 political leaders including Sonia Gandhi, Arvind Kejriwal, Sharad Pawar, Akhilesh Yadav, Farooq Abdullah, and Mehbooba Mufti, Mamata wrote, "the time has come for a united and effective struggle against the BJP's attacks on democracy and the constitution."
"We can win this battle only with the unity of hearts and minds, and by presenting a credible alternative to the people of India," she added.
A decade of TMC rule in West Bengal has seen its odds as corruption allegations against the ruling party men surged, suppression of the oppositions also increased. But simultaneously with the rise of Didi in West Bengal, India witnessed the rise of Narendra Modi with ideologies that tarnished India's secular image, damaged communal harmony, and weakened the economy.
The allegations against the decades-long TMC rule in West Bengal aside, Mamata Banerjee has indeed set an example on how to become a "credible alternative" by defeating the undefeatables – Narendra Modi, Amit Shah and the BJP establishment.
The Indian oppositions' overwhelming support for Didi and flattering congratulations after the result perhaps assert that the national leader in the making in West Bengal is not going unnoticed elsewhere in India.