Decade after toppling Left in Bengal: Does Mamata Banerjee still have fight in her to stop another opponent?

Mamata Banerjee has won and survived many a tough contest. However, in her third bid for power, the TMC chief is up against a BJP as determined to do what it takes to win. The Indian Express tracks an election that will decide the contours of national politics.

Over the years, West Bengal and the country have learned not to underestimate Mamata Banerjee. A fiery leader in disarming sari and chappals, she took lathis and more to do the impossible and topple the Left Front in the state. A decade hence, Mamata finds herself in the same spot, and the country is again watching. Does the two-time Chief Minister still have the fight in her to stop another opponent, far mightier, over the course of an election spread out longer than a month, aiming for what no longer seems impossible?

If the Trinamool supremo retains power, she would join the handful of political leaders in the country to have defeated the Narendra Modi-led BJP, cementing her place as one of the tallest Opposition leaders at a time that the Congress is doddering. If the BJP wins, West Bengal would join the list of states the party sees as crucial to its ideological framework to go its way.

The stakes couldnt be higher — or clearer. If in 2019, the BJP’s secret was slogan ‘Chup Chap Padme Chhaap (Quietly vote for the lotus)’, there is little ambiguity now as to who is the alternative.

Bengal daughter vs Sonar Bangla

The Trinamool has framed this election as a contest between Mamata, as “Bengal’s own daughter (Bangla Nijer Meyeke Chai)”, and the “outsider” BJP’s “communal” politics “alien to the state”.

The BJP is promising development and jobs — a return to ‘Sonar Bangla (Golden Bengal)’. The party sees Mamata as vulnerable on these counts, having come to power against the Left Front on a ‘Maa, Mati, Manush’ campaign that had stopped an SEZ in Nandigram and the Tata Nano project in Singur. The BJP accuses the Mamata government of failing to bring investment or jobs to the state, forcing residents to migrate.

The Covid lockdown brought this to a head, when thousands of migrants returned home, to poorly run quarantine facilities. The Mamata government announced a measly Rs 1,000 grant per migrant worker, but even that reached only a small fraction.

In September 2020, in a bid to counter the anti-industry charge, West Bengal Finance Minister Amit Mitra read out sheets of figures at the government’s Bengal Global Business Summit, claiming that between 2015 and 2019, Bengal had received business proposals amounting to Rs 12,32,603 crore. “The employment generated is to the tune of 28 lakh already,” Mitra claimed.

Mamata argues that while unemployment has increased across the country, Bengal has boosted jobs by 40% due to its thrust on the MSME sector.

Recently, the Mamata government launched two new programmes — ‘Duare Sarkar (government at your doorstep)’ and ‘Paray Paray Samadhan (solution at your neighbourhood)’. Officials have been holding camps to enrol people for welfare schemes, including a Rs 5 lakh universal health insurance named Swastha Sathi, and taking note of issues like road repair, drainage, drinking water. These follow Mamata’s earlier schemes such as old age pension and Kanyashree for the girl child which continue to be very popular.

In the vote-on-account presented in February, the Mamata government announced 20 lakh pucca houses and 100 English-medium schools for SC/STs, increased aid to government-recognised madrasas, schools in tea gardens, hike in aid to farmers, and a Rs 5 egg meal for workers.

“Swastha Sathi has been a super success. Free rations to people during the Covid lockdown drew a good response. The Rs 5 meal is also a success. In a nutshell, we are on firm ground,” says Trinamool MP Sougata Roy.

Mamata’s projection as Bengal’s own daughter is meant to appeal to women voters, who the Trinamool hopes won’t abandon Didi. Women continue to form a big chunk of Mamata’s rallies and the Trinamool chief is expected to formally start her campaign from North Bengal with a padayatra of women supporters.

The stakes

“Mamata Banerjee’s schemes for the girl child and women have won international accolades. While BJP-ruled states see violence against women and gangrapes, Bengal is safe for women,” says Trinamool MP Kakoli Ghosh Dastidar.

But the die is caste, community

In a highly polarised campaign, the battle is being fought publicly over every community that can swing votes.

On January 23, the CM refused to speak at an event on Subhas Chandra Bose, attended by the Prime Minister, after a section of the crowd started raising ‘Jai Shri Ram’ slogans. “This is a government programme, not that of a political party,” Mamata bristled.

The BJP reacted sharply, saying this again showed Mamata’s opposition to ‘Jai Shri Ram’ and her “appeasement” of Muslims. Numbering nearly 30% of Bengal’s population, Muslims are crucial to who forms the government in the state. The BJP is banking on counter-polarisation among Hindus.

The Trinamool, that has backtracked on its earlier emphasis that Ram isn’t integral to Bengal’s culture, has come up with a counter, “all-inclusive” slogan — ‘Joy Bangla’. Mamata has urged people to receive phone calls with a Joy Bangla.

The Trinamool is also counting on Muslims staying with the Mamata government, that has announced allowance for imams, scholarships for Muslim students, and grant for recognised madrasas.

With new entrants AIMIM and Furfura Sharif cleric Abbas Siddiqui contesting for the Muslim vote, Mamata has invited regional parties like the RJD and Samajwadi Party to her platform. The Trinamool hopes this will counter the BJP’s pull among Hindi-speaking voters.

At the same time, the Trinamool is trying to fight its “pro-Muslim image” with a course correction. The posters of Mamata with her head covered doing namaz are gone, and the Trinamool government has announced stipends for Hindu priests too. Ram Navmi and Hanunan Jayanti processions no longer see obstacles — despite the BJP being among the chief organisers.

Closer to elections, the BJP has launched Parivartan Yatras — with several slated to go through minority-dominated areas. However, the yatras have not drawn the response it might have anticipated.

Besides, the BJP is assiduously wooing the tribal and Matua (SC) vote, which went its way in the 2019 Lok Sabha polls. The Matuas are Hindu migrants from Bangladesh with influence in 42 Assembly segments. However, there is some disillusionment among the Matuas now over the delay over the Citizenship (Amendment) Act, which would have fastened their way to citizenship.

Shibaji Pratim Basu, professor of political science at Vidyasagar University, says the noise around the BJP notwithstanding, Mamata remains strong. “Since ousting the Left, the Trinamool has built a strong organisation. The party knows Bengal and its people. And whereas Mamata Banerjee’s personal charisma remains intact, the BJP does not have a Bengali-speaking CM face.”

The BJP has been ambiguous on this, with Amit Shah only conceding that it will be a “Bhumi Putra (native)”. Among the names doing the rounds are BJP state chief Dilip Ghosh (whose off-the-cuff remarks are seen as unpalatable to the middle class), Trinamool import Suvendu Adhikari, and lately, cricketer Sourav Ganguly. However, Ganguly appears reluctant.

The Trinamool candidate list includes 50 women (17% of the total), and 42 Muslims (14.43%), with the largest chunk going to SCs. The party denied ticket to 27 sitting MLAs.

Padme chhap

In the cadre-structured Bengal politics, it can be physically intimidating, literally, for a new party to strike roots. However, the BJP has successfully put its organisational architecture to work — building unobtrusive local offices, assuring security and even insurance to party leaders should harm come to them, sending in senior leaders, and keeping Bengal at the top of its agenda. It was this that helped the BJP to a stunning 18 of 42 Lok Sabha seats in 2019 (from two seats in 2014), and the ground has only cleared up since.

Among the key leaders behind the scenes for the BJP, since 2015, has been national general secretary Kailash Vijayvargiya. Together with former Trinamool No. 2 Mukul Roy, he has been instrumental in wooing several leaders to cross over to the BJP.

Apart from the promise of development, the party has built its campaign around the Mamata government’s “corruption”, “law and order failures”, “appeasement of minorities” and “pishi-bhaipo (aunt-nephew) regime”. The charges hit the mark for many, with Trinamool workers accused of rampant cut money (illegal commission), tolabazi (extortion), cow smuggling, coal smuggling, and syndicate raj. This has been a well-established network since the Left’s time, but Trinamool leaders are accused of lining own pockets rather than sharing the booty down the line. The diversion of relief by local Trinamool leaders after last year’s Amphan cyclone also remains fresh in memory.

Highlighting political violence, the BJP is going to voters with the slogan ‘Aar Noy Anyay (no more injustice)’. The BJP claims over 130 of its workers have been killed in Bengal in the last three years.

Dilip Ghosh says their aim is more than winning power. “We want to create a Sonar Bangla where people will not have to give cut money to avail welfare schemes. We want to provide security to women and daughters. This can only happen if we choose a double engine government (the same government at the Centre and state). We are confident we will win over 200 seats (out of 294).”

And then there were…

As the race nears the finishing line, what is spurring the BJP on are the defections from Mamata’s party. Some of her most trusted aides are no longer with her — starting with Mukul Roy (who left in 2017) to Suvendu Adhikari (December last year), Rajib Banerjee (January 31), and Dinesh Trivedi (February), apart from a dozen-odd MLAs.

A number of civil society members and Bengali film and television industry stars have also shifted allegiance to the BJP.

Backing them up are the BJP’s battery of political leaders, from Shah and BJP chief

J P Nadda to Uttar Pradesh CM Yogi Adityanath and Union ministers, who have been visiting Bengal regularly. The Trinamool has few stars beyond Mamata now. Modi may address as many as 20 rallies by the end of the campaign — with the Trinamool accusing that the eight-phase election schedule is designed to ensure that the PM can devote his time to Bengal free of other poll-bound states. Top BJP leaders may chalk up as many as 100 rallies between them.

The Trinamool could be looking at even more desertions as Central agencies probe its leaders. Several leaders who crossed over to the BJP earlier also faced similar probes. Recently, the agencies reached Mamata’s doorstep, with the Enforcement Directorate targeting her nephew Abhishek, the “bhaipo” at the receiving end of the BJP’s jibes.

Party insiders admit Abhishek is Mamata and the Trinamool’s weak link, and that several desertions from the Trinamool, including of Adhikari’s, were prompted by the 33-year-old’s fast rise. Sources say many Trinamool leaders who joined the BJP told the party to reach others via this sore point.

Mihir Goswami, among the Trinamool MLAs to move to the BJP, says, “The party has changed. Abhishek and Prashant Kishor have turned the Trinamool into a private limited company. No one gets respect anymore in the party.”

The influential political strategist had been brought in by the Trinamool after the 2019 Lok Sabha polls saw its tally drop from 34 to 22 seats. While Kishor is said to be the brain behind initiatives like Didi Ke Bolo (Tell your Didi), a direct grievance cell for people, he is also said to have antagonised many in the party with his exercise of “evaluating” MLAs and MPs.

Sources said Mamata has lately tried to contain the damage. “Kishor is there but Didi is in charge,” says a leader close to her.

The ‘Sanjukto Front’

It’s an unlikely coalition, of former rivals and of communist and religious forces. However, pushed to almost the margins, the CPM and Congress have few options. Where there was once tension in the two parties over coming together, there is now a resigned acceptance (the two together got just 13% of the votes in Bengal in 2019). The reach-out to Furfura Sharif shrine cleric Abbas Siddiqui was perhaps a natural progression.

There are still some wrinkles in the thus-dubbed Sanjukto Front (United Front), with the Congress holding back on giving seats to Siddiqui’s Indian Secular Front in its few remaining strongholds like Malda, Murshidabad. However, the huge turnout at the Front’s rally at Brigade Parade ground in Hooghly on February 28 may smooth the way.

Says CPM MLA Sujan Chakraborty, “It was the Left that kept communal forces at bay in Bengal. The Trinamool has promoted identity politics and communal politics, allowing space for the BJP.”

With the BJP accusing the CPM of betraying its secular credentials by aligning with Siddiqui’s party, Chakraborty adds, “Siddiqui is echoing the demands of the common people, irrespective of religion or caste. He, like us, speaks for the downtrodden.”

State Congress chief Adhir Chowdhury plays down tension with the ISF. “We have an alliance with the Left Front. Let us first get a clear picture of seat-sharing with the Left.”

Another development may clear the larger picture. Today, March 7, PM Modi addresses a rally at the same Brigade Parade ground. The Maidan, flanked by the Raj Bhavan, Eastern Army Command headquarters, Victoria Memorial and Eden Gardens, has been a part of most historical milestones in Bengal. It will now mark Modi’s first rally after the election schedule was announced.

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