As the first two phases of the West Bengal assembly poll, covering 60 seats in West Midnapore, East Midnapore, Bankura, Jhargram, Purulia and South 24 Parganas, got over on April 1, the BJP claimed victory in no less than 50 seats. Trinamool Congress (TMC) chief Mamata Banerjee cautiously refrained from making any prediction, or even affecting optimism beyond the victory sign she flashed while campaigning in Nandigram, where she is pitted against Suvendu Adhikari, who defected to the BJP in the run-up to the election.
However, for the next four rounds of polling, covering 163 seats, predominantly in South Bengal, the TMC won 122 seats from here in 2016, Mamata has struck a belligerent note against the BJP. No pleas for votes or apologies for ‘mistakes’ committed by TMC leaders; on the contrary, she is asking women to arm themselves with kitchen knives against “rogue BJP workers” and reminding people in the Muslim-dominated pockets of South 24 Parganas about riots under BJP rule.
In 60-odd seats in the TMC stronghold of South Bengal and North Bengal’s Malda, Murshidabad and North Dinajpur districts, where Muslims account for at least a third of the electorate, Mamata is also raking up the NRC (National Register of Citizens) and CAA (Citizenship (Amendment) Act) to build opinion against the BJP. “If you do not want to be driven out through an NRC exercise, better watch out,” she says at a rally.
Mamata’s grip on Bengal’s 30 per cent Muslim population may not be as strong as it was in 2016, owing to the presence in this electoral race of influential Muslim cleric Abbas Siddiqui. Siddiqui’s Indian Secular Front (ISF) is part of the Left-Congress Third Front. He also has the backing of Hyderabad MP Asaduddin Owaisi’s AIMIM (All India Majlis-e-Ittehad-ul-Muslimeen) and has fielded candidates in 26 of Bengal’s 294 seats, mostly in South Bengal. Mamata is more than aware of the threat. “A friend of the BJP from Hyderabad and a ruffian from Furfura Sharif are spending crores of rupees to try and split the minority vote. Voting for them means voting for the BJP,” she warns at a rally in South 24 Parganas, where four ISF candidates are in the fray.
Playing it cool
There is a conscious attempt, though, to not fall prey to provocations and do anything that buttresses the BJP line that she is ‘anti-Hindu’. Twice in Nandigram, during a roadshow in Reyapara and the April 1 polling booth visit in Boyal over alleged electoral malpractices, Mamata ran into saffron-clad ‘Jai Shree Ram’ sloganeers but she kept her cool. Similar incidents in the past had seen Didi lose her composure, as she did in Kolkata on January 23, refusing to deliver her speech at Netaji’s 125th birth anniversary celebrations, and the May 2019 incident in North 24 Parganas, when she confronted the men shouting ‘Jai Shree Ram’ slogans as her convoy was passing through.
But those were different times. Heeding the advice of senior TMC leaders, Mamata has been deftly avoiding playing into the BJP’s hands. ‘Thanda thanda cool cool, abar jitbe Trinamool (Keep your cool, Trinamool Congress will win again)’ is her party’s new mantra. “We were able to make Didi understand not to get visibly irritated by such sloganeering. Even Trinamool workers have been cautioned against overreacting to provocations,” says former TMC minister Purnendu Bose, who camped in Nandigram for three weeks along with party leaders Subrata Bakshi and Dola Sen to oversee Mamata’s campaign. Bose adds that even attacks on party workers are being handled with restraint. “Didi has asked our workers and leaders to beware of traps the BJP might lay and use to its advantage.”
DIDI AT YOUR DOORSTEP
Going beyond massive rallies, Mamata is trying to give a personal touch to her campaign. It’s ‘Duare duare Mamata (Mamata at every doorstep)’ with her core team lining up localised election meetings and house-to-house visits. “TMC youth leaders have fanned out to meet people and address their misgivings. Senior leaders are holding meetings in localities. For Mamatadi, we chalked out eight small meetings in Nandigram instead of big rallies to ensure a better connect with the voters,” says Bose.
Mamata even cancelled her 5 km roadshow, planned on March 29-30, in Nandigram, preferring to go home to home through village lanes, on her wheelchair, and connect with the voters. “She covered most of the Hindu localities in order to shed the tag of Muslim appeasement foisted on her by Suvendu Adhikari, who had called her ‘Mamata Begum’,” says Biswabandhu Jana, a resident of Bhangabera in Nandigram.
During the visit to the Boyal poll booth, Mamata left it to the CRPF (Central Reserve Police Force) personnel to manage the charged atmosphere as chest-thumping ‘Jai Shree Ram’ sloganeers came face to face with TMC workers shouting ‘Khela Hobe (The game is on)’. The temperamental Mamata waited patiently for about two hours, letting securitymen and the Election Commission team to restore order. “I am not worried about Nandigram, I am worried about democracy,” said Mamata, trying to calm down supporters by assuring them that legal recourse was being contemplated. The EC, for the record, has dismissed her claims of booth capturing at Boyal.
The TMC has several big guns, but Mamata remains its only star campaigner. While she aims to campaign in 100 seats, nephew Abhishek Banerjee is targeting 60, half of them in South 24 Parganas. Besides, a group of 20-25 TMC leaders are crisscrossing districts and holding rallies, party meetings and coordinating with local groups and activists opposed to the BJP and its policies at the Centre. “In Nandigram, we got Medha Patkar and Yogendra Yadav to educate farmers about the draconian new farm bills and the Narendra Modi government’s indifference to farmers’ woes. Even popular artistes, such Kabir Suman and Nachiketa, who had expressed solidarity with the Nandigram agitation in 2007, were brought in,” says Purnendu Bose.
Bose is also mobilising anti-BJP forums such as ‘No vote to BJP’ and ‘Bangla Bachao, Songbidhan Bachao (Save Bengal, Save the Constitution)’. Likewise, Dola Sen, who has a strong base among trade unions, has been visiting the jute mill areas in Hooghly and the tea gardens of North Bengal. Bose himself has worked extensively in the tribal region and areas inhabited by the Rajbongshi and Mechh ethnic groups. One of his aims is to prevent an en bloc transfer of Scheduled Caste (SC) and Scheduled Tribe (ST) votes to the BJP, in a repeat of the 2019 Lok Sabha election.
But with the BJP deploying over 50 national leaders in Bengal and the Modi-Amit Shah duo flying in and out, it has become all the more pertinent for Mamata to remain visible in as many seats as possible. (See accompanying report Why West Bengal matters to the BJP)
The TMC chief is running a gruelling campaign through the length and breadth of the state and addressing an average of three rallies a day. Sun-tanned, visibly tired and on a wheelchair, Mamata presents a striking contrast to the BJP’s carnival-like rallies and roadshows marked by the heavy presence of Union ministers and celebrities. “Mamata Banerjee is oscillating between two image constructs. One, of an injured woman on a wheelchair, constantly being wronged and looking for the support of Ma-Bonn (mothers and sisters), and the other of a tigress, wounded but nevertheless powerful and vengeful,” says political analyst Sobhanlal Datta Gupta, former professor of political science at Calcutta University. “She switches between the two depending on where she is campaigning.”
One reason why Mamata’s presence alongside her candidates has become crucial is the need to address discontent in the party at the local level. Unlike the past, she isn’t seeking a decisive mandate in her name alone. “I am winning, but this election is not about me. You must make the TMC win in over 200 seats; else, the BJP will use money power to buy traitors,” she claimed in Falakata in Alipurduar district.
There were disagreements over candidate selection, but Didi’s word has been final. The process began over a year ago with poll strategist Prashant Kishor’s team assessing the performance and popularity of sitting TMC MLAs before suggesting three probables for each seat. The sitting MLAs were reportedly categorised under four broad categories: those who had performed and also had a clean record; performers but seen as corrupt; non-performers who otherwise had a clean record; and non-performers with a dubious past. “We chose candidates primarily on the basis of performance and popularity, giving less weightage to the criterion of a clean record,” says a member of Kishor’s team. Attempts were also made to woo some Left and Congress politicians with a clean image, but without much success.
Kishor had suggested that 120 of the TMC’s 211 sitting MLAs be dropped. But Mamata was against such heavy pruning. Ultimately, 80 sitting MLAs were denied tickets. Mamata and Abhishek tried to placate those denied tickets by making personal calls, but many complain about not getting a hearing. “Had Didi called me up and explained why she was unable to field me, I would have thought twice before joining the BJP. No phone call came from Abhishek either,” says Sonali Guha, a Mamata loyalist for three decades who defected after being denied a ticket from her Satgachia seat in South 24 Parganas.
PAYBACK FROM WELFARE
Mamata’s trump card could well be the Rs 12,000 crore a year social welfare benefits her government has been extending despite the state’s precarious financial health. The subsidised rations, stipends for higher education of girls, old age pension for SCs/STs, health cover worth Rs 5 lakh for all and crop cover for farmers have benefitted about 75 per cent of Bengal’s 100 million population in one way or another. The TMC also claims that each household in Bengal has seen an income increase of Rs 12,000-Rs 20,000 a year.
Mamata must fervently hope that all this will hold up against the BJP’s promise of ‘ashol poribortan (real change)’, so-called ‘double-engine’ growth and clean governance. But Didi is also keeping the door ajar for post-poll alignments, should the need arise. In a letter to Congress chief Sonia Gandhi and 10 key opposition leaders in end-March, she has called for uniting against the BJP to prevent a “one-party authoritarian rule” in the country. Is it political foresight or the first signs of panic? We’ll find out on counting day, May 2.
Read India Today magazine by downloading the latest issue: https://www.indiatoday.com/emag