(Eds: Updating figures, adding fresh matters) Jayanta Roy Chowdhury Kolkata, Apr 2 (PTI) Belying all expectations, the TMC headed for a landslide victory in assembly elections, overcoming the might of the BJP after a bitter campaign that had turned into a virtual duel between Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee and Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
By evening the trends were clear. Banerjee's Trinamool Congress had won an absolute majority winning 202 seats and was leading in 11 more out of 292 constituencies which went to the polls with some 48 per cent of the votes counted so far.
Polling was countermanded in two constituencies after candidates fell victim to a raging Covid-19 pandemic.
'It's a victory for Bengal's people it's `Banglar joy' (Bengal's victory),' Banerjee told her party workers, though she herself lost elections to the prestigious Nandigram seat by a narrow margin leading her party to demand a recount.
Banerjee, who is nevertheless set to be chief minister for a third term according to her close associates, stopped celebrations by her party workers and indicated that her first priority after the victory would be 'combatting the pandemic' which has been running amok in the state.
However, she kept up her attack on her principal rivals, by thanking 'the people for saving the country, for saving communal harmony', and rubbed it in by pointing out that the BJP had 'claimed it would win 200 seats can they show their faces after this?' The TMC's main rival, the BJP was stymied in its ambitions of winning the state with a total tally of wins and leads in just 77 constituencies (73 wins and 4 leads), with 38 per cent of the votes counted so far. It is far less than the 120 assembly segments where it wrested a majority when it won 18 Lok Sabha seats in the 2019 general elections.
The actual results were a bitter let down for the BJP as Prime Minister Modi had staked his prestige in declaring his party was set to win over 200 seats after the first few phases of the unprecedented eight-phase election.
Modi and his home minister Amit Shah campaigned extensively throughout the state spending almost every other day of a one-and-a-half month long bruising campaign trying to breach the Trinamool Congress' fortress Bengal.
Countering the high voltage campaign where, besides Modi and Shah, the saffron party fielded half a dozen chief ministers and Union Cabinet ministers, the TMC presented just Banerjee with the slogan 'Bangla nijer meyekei chay' (Bengal wants her daughter) and a promise to expand its popular 'Duare Sarkar' (government at your doorsteps) programme.
In the run up to the elections, the BJP did have Banerjee on the defensive by campaigning against corruption involving TMC leaders and the 'cut money' (bribery) culture affecting citizens' everyday life. It also gained traction by playing the caste and religious cards, hitherto unknown in Bengal's politics.
However, Banerjee's appeal to 'Bangaliana' (Bengaliness), a cultural identity which defies divisions of caste and religion, and identifying campaigners brought from outside the state as 'Bohiragata' (outsiders) seem to have worked with the electorate. As did the image of a lone woman combatting a galaxy of leaders from the Hindi hinterland trying to breach her fortress.
The prime minister's repeated taunts of 'Didi, O Didi' in his speeches too did not go down well in a state where women traditionally enjoyed a high social and economic status and women voters accounted for a major share of the electorate. The repeated use of Hindi too was not liked in a state where linguistic identity politics had in recent years gained ground.
However, the clincher for Banerjee came when she changed tracks ahead of the last three phases of polling by attacking Prime Minister Modi for leaving India unprepared for the second COVID wave. She also blamed an influx of 'outsiders brought by BJP' for the spread of coronavirus in the state.
The BJP suddenly found itself trying to defend itself from COVID mismanagement charges, an unenviable task at any time made worse by television grabs of funeral pyres of Covid dead and overflowing hospitals and exhausted medical professionals.
The Left Front and the Congress which ruled Bengal for nearly six decades before the TMC came to power were, however, the biggest losers as they drew a complete blank. Analysts said their voters simply deserted them in this bi-polar battle for either the TMC or the BJP as the electorate chose between the two different sets of ideologies on offer.
TMC leaders are now speculating that Banerjee who has already reached out to other national and regional parties opposed to the BJP would now try to mount a challenge to the saffron party in the general elections slated for 2024 by attempting to rally all opposition parties to forge a front against it. PTI JRC NN NN