‘Mamata Is The Only Leader Who Can Challenge Modi’

Chintan Patel, a sports physiotherapist in Panaji, Goa, feels Trinamool Congress has taken a calculated risk to enter a small state like Goa before emerging on the national stage

Owing to the fact that Goa is the smallest state in the country (40 seats), its political landscape is a little different from that of the other states, especially from that of West Bengal (294 seats). Perhaps Mamata Banerjee decided to start her national political innings from here because it is good to start on a small scale. That according to me is a wise step: to take only as much as one can easily commit to and handle.

The physical and metaphorical distance between the voters and representatives in Goa isn’t that much unlike in larger states. The cook employed at my house is a Goan native and says that local representatives do pay their residential areas regular visits. The voters are aware too and take active interest in local politics. Politics isn’t just about making promises to the janta, but also executing them properly. Mamata Banerjee and her party candidates will have to build a very strong base in Goa, if they want to make inroads into national politics.

Goa, being a small state, is no stranger to personality politics. It is also no stranger to ideas of cosmopolitanism and being open to other cultures, given its thriving tourism industry. Mamata Banerjee will have to strike a fine balance and really try to understand the local lifestyle well. It is good that she visited the state last month for a few days.

The Goa Assembly elections are scheduled in February 2022. As a sports physiotherapist working with the Goa Cricket Association and Goa Football Association, I come in contact with many star players regularly. One of my friends, footballer Denzil Franco joined TMC recently.

Patel comes from a politically conscious family in Gujarat

Anyone who fulfils their promises or tries to show genuine intent to understand and solve local issues will win the voter’s minds and hearts. During the second wave of Covid in May, Goa wasn’t able to handle it well and in the post-pandemic world people are looking for leaders who can be strong and lead from the front in moments of crisis.

ALSO READ: ‘A Daughter Of Soil, Didi Is The Leader To Watch’

The voter nowadays is also more aware thanks to social media and understands that state issues aren’t independent from that of the centre. The central leadership does affect and influence state politics in certain cases, such as a pandemic.

I am a Gujarati who has been living in Panaji for nearly five years now and my family is based in Gujarat. A few of my close relatives are actively engaged in politics and I am aware that the wind can change direction any time on any issue in politics. It depends on the charisma of the leader at top apart from the hard work of the party cadre on ground level.

Modiji or let’s say the BJP has managed to somehow win over the attention of the janta, but Mamata Banerjee is also a formidable opponent. Perhaps she is the only one giving strong ‘opposition’ to Modiji. Despite Congress being the single largest party in 2017, they lost Goa, but Mamata held the fort strongly in West Bengal and came back for a successive third stint as Chief Minister this year. It would be interesting to see if TMC can build a strong base in Goa and go from being a strong regional player to a strong national player.

‘A Daughter Of Soil, Mamata Is The Leader To Watch’

Anil Bhutoria, 59, an industrialist based in Kolkata, says the Bengal CM’s ability to connect with people makes her transition as a national leader inevitable

It is interesting to see the Trinamool Congress (TMC) spreading its wings and seriously panning out from being a regional player to being a national player. Be it Tripura, Meghalaya, Punjab or Goa, Mamata Banerjee and her party seem to be confident of creating a solid base of voters in these states.

Even though it is too early to say whether she will emerge victorious or not, I am sure she will be able to definitely connect with the local people in these states and make some serious advance into the local politics. For example, Bengal and Goa both have large Christian populations and a shared love for football; who knows what factor might tilt votes.

Most probably she will be able to make the transition smoothly into a national figure, for she is a daughter of the soil. She might not be the most camera savvy or suave persons around, but she definitely has her heart in the right place. Plus, she is not new to national politics. She has been a Cabinet Minister at the Centre and definitely knows her way. Again, it might be too early to say anything concrete but she may prove to be a good fit at central leadership or the PM’s role.

Bhutoria says Banerjee leads from the front

As an industrialist who has operated business under both the Left Front and TMC in Bengal (I established the Stadel group in 2003), I would say things had started improving under Buddhadeb Bhattacharya itself. But Mamata Banerjee did make things better. Nobody had ever thought that the Left Front would go out from Bengal, but Ms Banerjee fought single-handedly and won. Who knows what the future holds as far as national politics is concerned?

ALSO READ: Mamata In A New Challenger Avatar

As far as I am concerned, I don’t follow any leader or party blindly and only go by the ground reality or statistics. And I must say that the statistics speak for themselves. Mamata Banerjee is a proactive leader. She is forever strategizing and figuring out newer ways to connect with people. And that according to me is the mark of a good leader, someone who has her ear on the ground. Be it the remote areas of rural Bengal or a metropolitan Kolkata, she makes sure to stay connected with the populace. She takes care that social schemes are set in motion and that people benefit from them. One of the things that personally make me the happiest is that Kolkata has begun to look much cleaner than before.

Also, while other states were just fighting the pandemic, West Bengal had to deal with the double blow of the pandemic and cyclone Amphan. And Bengal dealt with it well. Bengal was really well-prepared for cyclone Yaas in May 2021. A good leader should be able to multitask well.

All in all, I think the country is ready for someone who is unafraid to be herself and lead from the front. But Mamata Banerjee also has to take a more balanced approach in connecting with people across the length and breadth of the country.

Nuts & Bolts of Mamata’s Not-So-Nutty Plan For Goa

When the assembly elections in the tiny Indian state of Goa (population: 1.60 million) are held in February 2022, a prominent contestant for a slice of the 40 seats in the state will be Ms. Mamata Banerjee’s All India Trinamool Congress (AITMC). The “All India” part of her party’s name could seem a bit of a misnomer because, at least in terms of the number of seats that the party has won in states other than West Bengal in recent years. It is predominantly a regional political party from West Bengal where Ms. Banerjee has served two consecutive terms as chief minister and is currently serving her third.

But could that change? Ms. Banerjee’s ambition of spreading her political domain to regions other than Bengal is not new. In the past, her party has contested assembly elections in other states: in 2001, in Assam her party won a seat; in Manipur, in 2012, she won seven; in the same year, in Uttar Pradesh, she won one seat, and in Tripura, in 2016, she managed to get six Congress legislators to defect to her party. But her party’s faring has been patchy. In Manipur, where she had seven, she lost six seats in the 2017 elections and has just one now. In Punjab, in 2017, she fielded 20 candidates but none of them won.

Tripura, Manipur, and parts of Assam (particularly in the south where Bengali speaking population is considerably large) are actually low-hanging fruit for Ms. Banerjee. Tripura and Manipur are small and not too distant from her home base and with the right kind of alliances, she could make inroads in those states. But these moves have at best been relatively small ones and not part of a bigger plan to spread the AITMC’s wings.

Till now. Enter Abhishek Banerjee, her 34-year-old nephew and MP, who was appointed as the party’s national general secretary this summer. Banerjee’s rise within the party that his aunt leads has been phenomenal. He has also been in the eye of several unseemly controversies, including having ongoing charges against him in cases of money laundering and disproportionate assets.  But it is Abhishek who is driving Mamata’s party’s national strategy to spread its presence outside West Bengal.

That strategy, as it begins to unfold, is about AITMC venturing out of its comfort zone in West Bengal and its smaller neighbouring states and taking a shy at fresh challenges. And the tactics that make up that strategy seem to be varied. Recently, Abhishek convinced Mamata to get on board Sushmita Dev, the daughter of the late Congress leader Santosh Mohan Dev, who was a veteran politician from Assam and Tripura and Union minister for many years. It was a sort of a coup that could give the AITMC a bigger foothold in, at least, a part of southern Assam.

The reason behind the national strategy is simple. With a broader footprint across India, the AITMC could shed its Bengal-centricity but it could also give Mamata Banerjee the credibility and a raison d’etre for pitching herself as a challenger and alternative to Prime Minister Narendra Modi, a notion that has often been raised, particularly after her party’s victory for the third time in West Bengal.

ALSO READ: Mamata In A New Challenger Avatar

The tactic of going to Goa to fight the 2022 elections has an interesting background. Let’s begin with political strategist Prashant Kishor. No other electoral strategist in India is as famous as Kishor has been. He has worked for parties of every stripe: from national parties such as the BJP and the Congress; and for regional parties such as Yuvajana Sramika Rythu Congress Party in Andhra Pradesh, the DMK in Tamil Nadu, AAP in Delhi, and now the AITMC. Kishor is not only AITMC’s strategic consultant but, it is learnt, that he has a five-year contract with the party, an arrangement of that kind that has not been common in India.

What is more, Kishor is the main brain behind the Goa foray by Mamata. If Abhishek is the driver, Kishor is the navigator. Kishor did a detailed survey of the electoral situation and mood in Goa’s 40 assembly constituencies and came back with the findings that the voters of Goa (where the BJP leads the government although it won 13 seats to Congress’s 17 in 2017) are not happy with either of the two central parties. Although the BJP upstaged the Congress in the 2017 elections because it was faster in forging alliances than the latter and proved a majority in the assembly, thereby forming the government, it is not invincible as it had been before. The death of Manohar Parrikar (who was BJP’s chief minister for three terms before he died in 2017) has dealt a blow to BJP’s clout in Goa. The party’s current chief minister Pramod Sawant has neither the charisma nor the political clout that Parrikar, who was also defence minister in Delhi in the first BJP government, enjoyed.

As for the Congress, in Goa, as in many other states, it is rudderless and lacks vision. In the 2017 elections it had the largest number of seats but it dithered about finding partners to make up the majority and ended up handing over the government formation to the BJP.

The AITMC intends to leverage this situation by adopting quick tactics. Thirty percent of the population of Goa is made up of Christians (mainly Roman Catholics) and the AITMC has adroitly picked up a leading politician, Luizinho Faleiro, a former Congress leader and ex-chief minister of the state. Faleiro joined the AITMC in September this year. It’s a political win for Mamata Banerjee because Faleiro, besides having political clout in his own state, has been an alliance strategist for the Congress and is credited with forging alliances for his old party in many north-eat Indian states to help the party form governments.

Besides moves such as that, the AITMC has inducted the former tennis champion, Leander Paes, who is now settled in Goa; the socialite Nafisa Ali has also joined the party; and both personalities would likely be visible during the party’s public campaigning in Goa. But Goa also has a sizeable Hindu population (estimated 66%), a base on which the BJP built its support and for AITMC to succeed, it would need to target those voters as well.

To do that, Mamata and her party have been reaching out to smaller parties with a focused following in the state. One of the targets for an alliance is the Goa Forward Party, which has three of the 40 assembly seats and quit its alliance with the ruling BJP, accusing the latter of giving away Goa’s mining resources to the private sector.

Whatever be the outcome of Mamata and her nephew’s electoral strategy in Goa, it has already caused both national parties to be concerned–the Congress more than the BJP. Directionless with a leadership that does not seem to translate into votes, the Congress is particularly concerned that the AITMC is weaning away some of its own leaders at a time when that commodity, political leadership, is a scarcity in the Congress. But one thing is clear. Thanks to Mamata’s moves, the fight for Goa will be watched intently.

Who Can Challenge The Modi Regime In India?

The origin of the acronym, TINA (or There is No Alternative) is credited to the late British Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher, the Conservative Party leader who was in office from 1979 to 1990. Thatcher used it as a slogan to lend credence to her belief that there was no alternative to a market economy where free trade and free markets were the only way to build and distribute wealth. Later, the phrase “TINA factor” was appropriated by Indian political commentators who have used it to describe situations where one powerful party or head of government seems so strong that there seems to be virtually no alternative to replace him or her.

Famously, the phrase was used for the late Indira Gandhi who was the second longest-serving Prime Minister of India (she served from January 1966 to March 1977 and again from January 1980 until her assassination in October 1984). More recently, even as the present Prime Minister of India, Narendra Modi, is serving his second term, the phrase has been cropping up again with various political analysts speculating whether there is a TINA factor at work and whether there is in reality no alternative to Modi.

With the near decimation of the only other significant national party, the Indian National Congress, which after decades of being in power, is now reduced to holding a mere 52 of the 543 seats in the Lok Sabha; and 36 of the 245 seats in the Rajya Sabha, the question of whether the Modi-led, Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-dominant regime has anyone to challenge it in elections. In addition, the BJP, or alliances in which it participates, is part of the government in 18 of India’s 31 states and Union Territories and the party has publicly proclaimed its mission to have a “Congress-free” India.

In the absence of a comparably strong and cohesive party to challenge the BJP at the national level, the alternative in the form of a challenger could, at least theoretically, be a coalition of parties—strong regional ones or one that can be led by the Congress but comprising many smaller parties. Some political analysts have punted for the Mamata Banerjee-led All-India Trinamool Congress (AITC) as a possible key player in evolving a coalition of regional parties. That view has gained ground in the aftermath of the recent West Bengal elections in which despite the BJP’s deployment of a high-powered campaign, Ms. Banerjee comfortably cruised to victory, effectively retaining chief ministership for the third term.

ALSO READ: Mamata In A New Challenger Avatar

Stable coalition governments are common in many parts of the world, including, in particular, in Europe where in countries such as Switzerland, Finland, Belgium, Italy, and Germany, it is almost a given. In India, both at the national as well as the regional levels, coalitions are not novel arrangements. They have been tried but the outcomes, at least in terms of stability, have been mixed. Unless led by a single party that has a significant clout in terms of the number of seats it wins in Parliament, coalition governments have been short-lived in India. In 1996, after a fractured electoral verdict, when the BJP, led by the late Atal Bihari Vajpayee, emerged as the single largest party in Parliament and was invited to form a government and cobble together a majority (by wooing other smaller parties), it failed to do so and collapsed in 13 days.

It was replaced by the United Front, which was closest to a copybook version of a political coalition with 13 different parties coming together to form an alliance. The coalition formed two governments between 1996 and 1998, the first headed by Prime Minister H.D. Deve Gowda, and the second by I. K. Gujral. The United Front managed to stay in power for less than two years.

The current crisis in terms of finding a worthy challenger to the BJP is accentuated by the fact that the Indian National Congress’ strength has been getting dissipated over the past few years. Its leadership, which for all practical purposes, rests with the Nehru-Gandhi family, has been unable to provide either cohesion or expansion. Rahul Gandhi, who briefly became head of the party between 2017 and 2019 has been an enigmatic leader, often appearing reluctant or indecisive. In recent months, the party has witnessed an exodus of key young leaders, many of whom could have been groomed to lead the historic party whose origins go back to 1885. Many of these young leaders have left to actually join the BJP, the Congress’ arch rival.

ALSO READ: Can Socialism Find Its Feet?

Partly it is hard to make the concept of a coalition government functional at India’s national level because of the nature of the nation. India is a pluralistic society that is like few others. The sheer diversity of a country with a population of 1.4 billion that is more like a continent made up of several “countries” is what makes things particularly difficult when it comes to forging alliances between different parties. The differences in languages, cultures, economic development, among several other parameters, is so wide-ranging that very often it is difficult for outsiders to grasp the enormity of the complex politics in the country. There are differences between regions (north and south, is an example); between states that can be neighbouring ones (each of the southern states has a different language); and between castes and gender.

Coalitions work better in countries where the population is small and less diverse. In Europe, governments made up by alliances of political parties with seemingly different views and ideologies have been comparably more stable than similar arrangements in India. Besides being easier to govern because of their size (some European countries have populations that are smaller than those of large Indian cities), the degree of plurality when it comes to ethnic diversity, cultures, language, and so on, is much smaller than those that exist in India.

To be sure, however, even the ruling BJP-led government is a coalition. Modi is the Prime Minister of a coalition government formed by the National Democratic Alliance (NDA), which comprises at least 14 different parties. Besides being united by ideology (most of the NDA’s constituents are right wing oriented), in the BJP it has a powerful leader: of the 334 seats in Lok Sabha that the NDA now controls, 301 are BJP members. That is the kind of strong glue that makes coalitions work in India. For regional parties, such as Ms. Banerjee’s AITC, it can be difficult to achieve a position where it can provide such a cohesive glue. The same goes for other regional parties such as, for example, the Samajwadi Party or the Bahujan Samaj Party in Uttar Pradesh; or the Rashtriya Janata Dal in Bihar. All of them have the potential to score electoral victories in their respective regions but have little political leverage when it comes to making it big on the national scene.

Mamata In A New Challenger Avatar

Since May 2014, after its victory in the Lok Sabha elections, the BJP as a party, and the BJP government in New Delhi, led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Union Home Minister Amit Shah, has been in ‘election mode’. Critics say it was this “obsession” for electoral victory that the government completely missed the deadly ‘second surge’ of the killer Covid-19 pandemic and failed to ramp up the healthcare infrastructure in time.

After a brief pause, the party leadership is once again switching to the ‘election mode’ with an eye on the coming Uttar Pradesh elections next year. For Modi and Shah, winning UP seems the last straw amidst a rapidly falling popularity graph.

However, the drubbing in West Bengal continues to rankle. Not only because ‘Didi’ has emerged as a ‘national icon’ after her incredible victory with Modi as her principal political opponent. But because she is tipped to be a possible leader of a secular opposition alliance in the next Lok Sabha elections.

Mamata Banerjee is not unaware of her new status. One can clearly witness that every political move of Didi since her victory on May 2, is designed to position herself as a ‘direct adversary’ to Modi, while attacking him routinely with an aggressive and creative consistency. This is bound to unnerve the ‘Dear Leader’ in New Delhi.

Take, for example, her statement after what seemed like the hounding of her chief secretary by the Centre on whimsical grounds: “There are so many Bengal cadre officers working for the Centre; if we confront like this, what will be the future of this country, Mr Prime Minister? Mr Busy Prime Minister, Mr Mann Ki Baat Prime Minister… what, do you want to finish me? Never, ever…. As long as people give me support, you cannot…” 

ALSO READ: Time For A Federalist Alliance Against BJP

The latest is the ‘big news’ of what seemed a predictable event – the return of prodigal son Mukul Roy, back into the Trinamool, which he founded with Mamata Banerjee in 1998 against the mighty CPM which ruled Bengal for more than 30 years. Undoubtedly, this was ‘breaking news’ not only in Bengal, but in the national scenario.

Mukul Roy was the second-in-command, responsible for organizational affairs in the Trinamool, appointed as Union Railway Minister at the behest of Mamata Banerjee, her point-man in Delhi’s power circles, even while he called the shots in Kolkata. All this changed after the Narada-Saradha scam, and the decline in his fortunes led him into the lap of the BJP – also perhaps because that was the only alleged ‘method’ to escape the Centre’s law enforcement agencies.

Mukul Roy was seemingly sidelined before the assembly polls in the BJP though he was the key strategist who lifted the BJP to 18 Lok Sabha seats in 2019, an unprecedented victory in Bengal for the Hindutva party.

Roy shared this ‘scam dilemma’, along with another high profile ‘turncoat’, Suvendu Adhikari, who switched over to the BJP before the 2021 polls, became a bitter enemy of his mentor, abusing her in the most communal and misogynistic language during the campaign, and is now reportedly a favourite with the Modi-Shah dispensation, adding to the angst and anger of the ‘original’ BJP workers and leaders like state party chief Dilip Ghosh.  

The inevitable return of Mukul Roy is therefore bad news for both Modi and Shah. In a party replete with discontent among its hardcore followers because it is filled to the brim with ‘turncoats’ — and several of them losing in the recent elections — his departure might trigger major defections back to Trinamool, including several MLAs. These defections are just a tip of the volcano – the BJP might be actually imploding in Bengal.

Indeed, with the BJP weakened in Bengal, and with Didi on the ascendant in terms of her ‘national stature’, it is believed by observers that all the signs are pointing to the beginning of the end of the Modi era, with a possible rainbow coalition of federal reassertion under a secular umbrella beginning to take shape in the national scenario. The latest is her move to send political strategist Prashant Kishore to meet Sharad Pawar, known for his tactical acumen; they had discussions for three hours.

Didi has called upon all opposition parties, including civil society organizations and NGOs to unite against Modi. Recently, in Kolkata, while yet again fully backing the farmers’ leaders who had come to meet her, she told journalists: “I have only one thing to say: Modi has to be removed from power.”

Besides, she told the farmers’ leaders that she will take the lead in organizing opposition leaders and chief ministers to hold a joint meeting in their support. Clearly, the importance she has been giving to the protracted movement and to specific leaders like Rakesh Tikait (the West Bengal assembly passed a resolution earlier in support of the farmers’ struggle), is evidence that she understands the political importance of the farmers as integral to future electoral dynamics, especially in the Hindi heartland, Haryana and Punjab.

Meanwhile, nursing the wounds of the massive defeat despite pumping in money and muscle, and the media hyperbole, the Modi-Shah regime started hounding Mamata Banerjee soon after May 2. First, there was this fake news campaign of organized violence against the BJP cadre and Hindus, with fake videos and Whatsapp campaigns trying to create a communal divide. She was blamed by central leaders, but the fact is that when the short-lived violence was triggered, the Election Commission was still in control, the central forces were still deputed in Bengal, and she had not been sworn in as the chief minister.

She took over, gave compensation to the victims across the political spectrum, and ordered a complete end to the violence. The violence stopped, even while Bengal celebrated the incredible victory of the secular forces against hate politics, with a deep, quiet and discreet dignity, mostly indoors.

Soon after, two of her senior ministers and two top leaders were arrested by the CBI, for being involved in the Narada scam. Mukul Roy and Suvendu Adhikari, also accused in the same scam, were left untouched. This was followed by the hounding of her chief secretary by the Centre, post Cyclone Yaas, for what seemed like a whimsical revenge act. Even the Congress and the CPM in Bengal criticized this, and there were rumblings within the BJP that this is indeed a terrible move by the Centre.

All this has been reinterpreted in Bengal and the rest of India as a display of arrogance and power, even while the feisty and resilient ‘Didi’ emerged yet again as a mass leader, street-fighter and formidable adversary against Modi. The more they hounded her, the more she has become popular, emerging as a ‘national icon’ who decisively took on Modi – and defeated him in his own game.

Clearly, as of now, it’s a win-win scenario for Mamata Banerjee. In a country where the Constitution and its federal structures have been so deliberately weakened in contemporary India, her brave and steadfast reassertion from the East might mark the rise of a new dynamics in mainstream politics in the country.

Racing Ahead – In A Wheelchair

Her opponents brand her as a ‘drama queen’ and she has been trolled by BJP supporters after she suffered multiple injuries outside a temple at Nandigram on March 10. This followed a highly successful rally where she invoked the secular shared spaces of a syncretic society, even while chanting shlokas and mantras which are familiar and embedded in the Bengali consciousness. Her medical reports show she has suffered injuries and a fracture on her left ankle. Her leg is in a cast, even as she continues to campaign from a wheelchair.

In such circumstances, if a chief minister of a state suffers injuries in an accident, or attack, the least that should happen, even in the bitterness and heat of the elections, is that good wishes would be sent to her-him for a speedy recovery. This is the basic protocol of public decency and democratic fair play. For reasons too crudely apparent in contemporary India, that dimension seems to have altogether disappeared from the political arena of opponents, especially in the current battleground that is West Bengal.

Not heeding the doctor’s advice, as she said, of rest for 14 days, she joined in the memorial service of party supporters in Kolkata to the 14 martyrs of Nandigram in 2007. She was paying tribute to a mass movement against forcible land acquisition for a multinational company, which toppled the ruling Left Front government, led by the CPM, after 34 years. She then led a long march in Kolkata sitting on a wheel chair.

Since the Nandigram fiasco, the Left has depleted in strength, confidence and inspiration, while under the indisputable and formidable leadership of Mamata Banerjee, Trinamool Congress has consolidated its hold on power and mass support, despite allegations of corruption and promotion of dynasty.

Besides, her government has done extensive social welfare work among the people, especially among the poor, including the minorities. For instance, rice, dal, oil, etc, is still being given in substantial quantity to poor people across the state even months after the lockdown was lifted. This has helped thousands of people survive without jobs or daily wages, and restart their lives once again.

ALSO READ: Battle For Bengal Is The Election To Watch

The 43 per cent vote bank of Trinamool has remained intact even while the BJP scored almost 40 per cent vote share and 18 Lok Sabha seats in Bengal, from being nothing but a marginal figure in the state’s political scenario. Since then, it has been a straight contest between Mamata and all the heavyweights of the BJP combined, led by Narendra Modi, Amit Shah and JP Nadda, who have become regular visitors to Bengal, accompanied by all the paraphernalia, pomp and show, and media glare.

And, yet, in these assembly elections, despite pumping in money and media support, a lot of rhetoric and grand promises like ₹15,000 in every farmer’s bank account, backed by convoys of cars and rath yatras with slogans of Jai Shri Ram, the BJP is still not able to find its scaffoldings, or the right strategy. Seasoned political commentators are certain that there is no BJP wave on the ground. After the flop rally at the Brigade Ground led by Modi on March 7, with vast spaces empty and an unenthusiastic crowd, and practically no celebrity joining them except an ageing Mithun Chakraborty, observers say they will struggle to even cross the 100 mark in a 294-seat assembly.

In contrast, Mamata seems to have touched the right chord. “I am hurt and unwell, but my goal remains the same. My pain is not greater than the suffering of the people whose rights in a democracy are being trampled upon by a dictatorship,” she said, sitting on the wheel chair, before the start of the march in memory of the Nandigram struggle on March 10. “I will continue to go around Bengal on this wheelchair. If I go on bed rest, who will reach out to the people of Bengal? …A wounded tigress is more dangerous.”

Street shows and rallies usually do not translate into votes. The Left-Congress alliance organised a massive rally at Brigade Ground in Kolkata with the crowd spilling over on February 28. In 2019 also, the Left had organised a massive rally at the venue. But, the Left scored zero.

It is believed in Bengal that large number of Left supporters, who obsessively hate the Trinamool, voted for the BJP in the last Lok Sabha elections. The Left-Congress alliance in the last assembly elections had trouble on the ground with the CPM getting less seats than the Congress because it was alleged that the Congress votes were not transferred to the Left.

ALSO READ: ‘Muslims Will Vote Bengal’s Didi, Not Owaisi’

However, processions and rallies have also been a catalytic indicator of mass support, and Trinamool has been able to translate it on the ground with its organisational strength, much of it refurbished on the erstwhile Left model. Hence, the failure of the BJP’s ‘Poribortan Rath Yatra’ across the five points of Bengal is significant. Besides, Jai Shri Ram did not resonate with the people who are worshippers of Durga, Kali and Krishna (Hari), and followers of the Bhakti-Vaishnav tradition of Chaitanya Mahaprabhu, as much as the secular spiritual inheritance of Ramakrishna Paramhans and Vivekananda. Clearly, the Hindutva card of the Hindi heartland might not click in Bengal.

On March 15, Amit Shah had to cancel his rally at Jhargram in the crucial Jangalmahal area. The BJP said there was a helicopter snag. The ground reality is that the rally ground was virtually empty. The seven-minute virtual speech made by Shah saw the crowds walking off, in a state where Hindi remains an alien language. Shah’s short speech was too short, an indication that the BJP is losing the plot in Jangalmahal. Jhargram had earlier witnessed a similar flop-show with JP Nadda reportedly refusing to even visit the venue because of low audience strength. Earlier, Nadda’s rath yatra was jinxed in Barackpore too. Even Yogi Adityanath’s much-hyped rally at Balrampur in Purulia on March 16 saw a very poor turn out.

In fact, the low turn-out at BJP rallies have become a big worry in the party, as much as the internal tussle for tickets. Amit Shah had to rush from Guwahati to Kolkata to sort out matters even as BJP workers broke barricades at the Hastings party office in Kolkata. While a few Trinamool MLAs have crossed over to the BJP, there is resentment in the party against tickets being given to turn-coats or ‘outsiders’.

The question is: if the BJP has mass support, why is it not showing up in public spaces? Or, is it banking on its silent support base, as in the unprecedented Lok Sabha elections in 2019, especially among the economically deprived Hindu refugees who arrived from Bangladesh in the 1980s, migrants from UP and Bihar, and sections of the middle class? Is it still banking on the botched-up and sectarian Citizenship Act plank to woo the Hindu refugees and other backward and indigenous communities like the Matuas and Rajbongshis?

While, the BJP is still struggling to find a strategy, Mamata Banerjee, on a wheel chair, is moving from one rally to another of the 130 scheduled. As the battle unfolds, even a neutral referee would say, it is Advantage Mamata, as of now! In fact, nothing describes the current political situation in the state better than the Trinamool’s catchphrase which says: Khela Hobe! Bhaanga Payein Khela Hobe!! (The game is on! With a fractured foot, the game is on!!)

‘We Will Choose Bengal’s Didi Over Muslim Owaisi’

Maulana Shahidul Qadri, 45, from Dhankheti, Metiaburj in Kolkata, says local issues hold key to assembly elections and therefore he will prefer Trinamool candidate than a divisive BJP or AIMIM

At a time when many people around the country have given in to the politics of division and polarity, people in Bengal are still standing united, strongly. We Bengalis form an opinion after a lot of deliberation and in-depth understanding and analysis of a matter, and thus one cannot divide us so easily.

As a Maulana and also as an Imam of the masjid at Dhankheti (Metiaburj), I tell people not to fall prey to the politics of hate; firqakaparasti wali baton me mat aaiye. We also tell people through editorials in various newspapers that we should not forget local issues while state elections are underway.

I wonder why BJP makes every election, right down to even the civic body elections, about national issues. Wasn’t our election system created and upgraded so that issues at every level could find adequate voice and be solved subsequently?

BJP might try bringing in the big guns for the elections, but Mamata Banerjee will once again become the CM. We have chosen to support Didi even over a Muslim candidate, AIMIM’s Asaduddin Owaisi. It is not about Hindu-Muslim leaders, but rather on who as a leader has an understanding of local issues.

ALSO READ: Battle For Bengal Is The Election To Watch

The BJP-TMC face-off means everyday there’s some new statement from either side, but the electorate is noticing everything. The pandemic has shown us how important it is to have robust local leadership and we will keep focussing on that.

Bengal was a more peaceful place earlier, but now you hear news of BJP-TMC or BJP-Left clashes. I condemn incidents like attacks on JP Nadda; violence shouldn’t have any place in a democracy. We are Bengalis and Indians too, apart from being Hindus and Muslims.

Sometimes I wonder if like Assam, madarsa education will be banned in West Bengal as well! How will we then understand the basics of the faith we practise? There are many other ways in which the Muslim identity and the country’s Constitution and the institutions are being chipped away by the BJP but we have faith in both Mamata Didi and Allah.

NRC-CAA, Shaheen Bagh, illegal Bangladeshi immigrant, purportedly for whom the bill was brought in… was a burning issue just an year ago, do you hear as much of it during Bengal elections? Why? We can see through everything. The Prime Minister is not the leader of a party alone and not only of a particular party or community. He must take the whole country together and walk.

ALSO READ: It’s Bengal Trinamool Vs Outsider BJP

The first term of this government was all about sowing seeds of mistrust between communities that had been mostly living peacefully for so long. The second term was all about interpreting law in such a way that that hatred was normalised. Even though we respect the Ram Janmbhoomi verdict, it would have been nice if the bhoomi-poojan had been a calmer affair.

Triple talaq, Delhi riots, NRC and now the love jihad (which the Supreme Court has said doesn’t hold true because relationship between two consenting adults is their choice), I wonder when will all this stop and when will we begin focussing on issues that really matter for us as a country?

No leader is perfect, and Mamata Banerjee gets angered easily, but we feel ke unka dil saf hai aur hausla buland. She has our interests at heart. We hope in the coming years she will mature into a calmer leader and learn to strategize better, Bengal and the country can truly benefit from that.

The Battle For Bengal Is The Election To Watch

Of the four states where there will soon be assembly elections in April-May, West Bengal’s will be the most keenly watched. It is the state where the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is the biggest challenger to the incumbent All-India Trinamool Congress (AITC) government, which, led by chief minister Mamata Banerjee, is completing 10 years in power.

For several years, the eastern state has been a hard nut to crack for the BJP but in the last parliamentary polls, the party managed to win 18 member of parliament seats from Bengal, which was a feat considering that the party has traditionally managed to get no more than two MPs elected from the state. In the West Bengal assembly, the BJP currently has just 27 of the 294 seats (the AITC and its allies have 211).

The BJP’s formulaic approach to winning in the states – the party enjoys power in 18 of India’s 28 states – thus far has been a combination of caste and religion based politics. In the Hindi belt states as well as in the western states this has worked well. But in Bengal, caste politics and religious issues have mattered less in the past. That, however, could change. The Muslim population in Bengal has grown steadily and is estimated now at nearly 30% compared to the all-India proportion of a little more than 13%.

This has two implications. A larger proportion of Muslim voters has stood in the way of the Hindu nationalist-leaning BJP becoming popular in the state. But it has also created a sort of backlash among Hindu voters many of whom perceive Ms Banerjee’s government as being one that appeases the minority community. The BJP wants to turn that sort of backlash to an electoral advantage.

The BJP is also following a strategy that challenges Ms Banerjee’s government with charges of corruption, particularly against her nephew Abhisek Banerjee, who is an MP and a powerful member of her party. The party has also managed to chip away at the AITC by getting some of its prominent leaders such as former railway minister Dinesh Trivedi, former state ministers Subhendu Adhikary and Rajib Banerjee to defect to the BJP. Although these leaders have limited mass following in the state, their exits have triggered some dissension within Ms Banerjee’s party.

ALSO READ: It’s Bangla Trinamool Vs Outsider BJP

There are other factors that might help the BJP. A large part of the urban population comprising middle-class could be a bit restive about Ms Banerjee’s government, which despite promises has not really been effective in ensuring the state’s economic progress at a more rapid pace. The continuing impact of the pandemic has not helped either.

But yet, the AITC led by the feisty Ms Banerjee has many strong advantages in the state. For instance, the BJP really doesn’t have a credible face to project as its chief ministerial candidate for the state. Also, the backlash against Muslims may have grown but the fact remains that at in 100 of the 294 constituencies, Muslim voters will be the ones who will decide who wins. And the BJP is unlikely to get their favour.

The AITC has also employed the services of a poll strategist with a good track record – Prashant Kishor, who has worked with several Indian parties and leaders, including his efforts in Gujarat where he is believed to have played a key role in ensuring that Narendra Modi got a third term there as chief minister in 2011. The other niggling factor that might affect the BJP is the first ever formal seat-sharing arrangement in the state between the Congress and the Left parties. Both are not significant players anymore (both have just 46 seats between them) but an alliance could dent both, the AITC as well as the BJP’s fortunes in the elections.

The other states that will go to the polls are Tamil Nadu, Assam, Kerala, and Puducherry. In Tamil Nadu it will be a repeat of the traditional battle between two regional parties, DMK and AIADMK. The BJP, which is likely to have an alliance with AIADMK (in power now), hopes to piggyback on that party if it manages to be re-elected. But early analyses show that DMK may have an edge this time. The Congress and Left parties in the state are allied with the DMK.

ALSO READ: ‘Sreedharan Entry Into Politics A Boon For Kerala’

In Kerala, the pattern has traditionally been one where every five years the fortunes swing between the Left and the Congress. In other words, the opposition gets elected to power. By that logic, the Congress-led alliance may come back to power, dislodging the Left alliance which forms the incumbent government. The Congress is hoping that the fact that Rahul Gandhi represents Wayanad (he was elected MP from that constituency in Kerala) will give it more of an edge.

Meanwhile, the BJP looks confident in being able to retain power in Assam but the Congress party there is focussing its strategy on opposing the National Registrar of Citizens and the Citizenship Amendment Act, two thorny issues that have divisive effects in the state. In Puducherry, a union territory, the Congress government has collapsed recently and although this has created uncertainties, it could well work to the advantage of a BJP-backed alliance if that can be formed.

But it is West Bengal that will steal the show during the state elections. The battle for Bengal could be one that is fought tooth and nail by both, Ms Banerjee who wants to come back for a third term; and the BJP, which wants to wrest control of a state that has always posed formidable challenges to it.

It’s Bangla Trinamool Vs Outsider BJP In Bengal

The Poush Mela’, the famous winter festival at Viswa Bharati University in Santiniketan, was started by Devendranath Tagore, father of Rabindranath Tagore, in 1894. Over the years, it transformed into a collective celebration of arts, culture, music, craftwork, folk and oral traditions, dance and poetry. It would be held in an open ground on the campus where locals, adivasis, people from rural Bengal, and others, even from abroad, came over to participate, showcase their work, and sell their craftwork. The Mela is an annual event eagerly awaited by all those who celebrate the intrinsic beauty of ‘life and learning under the open sky’.

The current vice-chancellor of this central university, in which the Prime Minister is the chancellor, has stopped the festival. A wall has been constructed on the traditional ground which was open to all those who live in the neighbourhood. There have been protests against the wall by local residents and students of Santiniketan, but the VC has not budged. “It was both a tribute to Tagore as much as a reassertion of Bengali culture,” said Samirul Islam, president of the Bangla Sanskriti Manch, which commands a strong support base among the intelligentsia and locals, especially in this region of Birbhum. “Blocking the festival is an attack on Bengali culture and its secular ethos. This is just not acceptable.”

This refrain finds echo in Mamata Banerjee’s political campaign. You cannot undermine Bengali culture and Tagore in a land where both are deeply revered. On Thursday, the Chief Minister urged people to expel “outsiders” from Bengal. “BJP is a party of Delhi and Gujarat. They should return to those states… If you want to fight elections in Bengal, do it without bringing outsiders,” she said.

The call came hours after BJP president JP Nadda’s convoy had come under attack while he was on his way to Diamond Harbour in Kolkata. He escaped unhurt. The Trinamool Congress called it a stage-managed show. An adverse report by the Governor has triggered a Centre versus State conflict scenario yet again. In the uproar, BJP leaders are pointing fingers at the law and order situation in Bengal and at its ruling party.

Meanwhile, the Bengali-versus-outsider exhortation continues to be played by the TMC. A few recent faux pas made by BJP leaders have only given credence to the campaign. Amit Shah, in one of his recent visit to Bengal, garlanded a tribal’s statue thinking that it belonged to great tribal revolutionary, Birsa Munda, a highly revered figure among the adivasi community in Bengal. The TMC was quick to criticize Shah on this goof-up. Nadda too erroneously posted on a social media site that Tagore was born in Viswa Bharati. Tagore was born in his famous ancestral house Jorasanko in Kolkata, and the whole of Bengal knows it.

Indeed, the TMC’s constant targeting of the BJP proves that the saffron party has moved from the margins into the mainstream, appropriating both CPM and TMC supporters, while trying to position itself as the main opposition force. Some of its top leaders now were big shots in TMC. On December 9, in a typical local street corner rally in the bustling Garia market in South Kolkata, a local BJP leader equated both the CPM and the BJP as birds of the same feather, while glorifying Narendra Modi. He claimed, in a dark irony, that the Indian economy is booming, and so is the GDP and Sensex.

With a strong rhetoric against the minorities, and accusing Mamata Banerjee of appeasement, the BJP is tapping into the incipient communal polarization still festering in the post-Partition political unconscious of Bengal, especially among those who arrived here as refugees from East Bengal. This is a wound which the BJP wants to capitalize in a state which prides itself for its inherited secular, progressive and enlightened ethos.

ALSO READ: Winds In Bengal May Be Blowing Against Didi

The CPM is in a disarray. Its leadership, seems to be living in a warped time zone. Their position is best described in the words of Biplab Mukherjee, social activist, who said: “The theory, which seems to have gone down in its rank and file, is that let the BJP come to power, then the Left will automatically follow. Aage Ram, Pore Baam… (first Ram, then Left). This is a suicidal line. The BJP will totally decimate them.”

The CPM leadership seems to have rejected the appeal by Dipankar Bhattacharya, general secretary of the CPI-ML (Liberation), which did very well in the Bihar assembly polls recently. Bhattacharya declared that the Left should position the BJP as enemy number one, and, thereby, first and foremost, the fight should be against the politics of the BJP. If the BJP comes to power in Bengal, the Left, already extremely fragile, will be finished in the state.

Political observers are sure that the TMC is still the main scaffolding against communal forces in contemporary Bengal. Even on December 9, in a massive rally among the Scheduled Caste community of Matuas, Mamata Banerjee declared her total opposition to the NRC-CAA, and in rally after rally, she has declared support to the farmers’ struggle against the central laws. Her attack on the BJP is frontal and forthright, and despite the BJP’s gains in the last Lok Sabha polls, she remains the most formidable and popular leader in Bengal.

Indeed, among other measures during the pandemic and the lockdown, her scheme of free ration and rice to the poor across the state, and the relief operations in the Sunderbans after the cyclone, has endeared her to the masses, though her ‘Government at your Door’ scheme, apparently a brainchild of Prashant Kishore, is still a work in progress.

In this context, the weak alliance between the Congress and CPM, with the CPM playing second fiddle, is yet again making the tactical mistake of equating both the TMC and the BJP as two sides of the same coin. This is bad politics. By taking this line, the Left is only helping the BJP to gain a stronghold, even while a large chunk of its erstwhile support base is voting and supporting BJP.

The TMC too, despite the strong hold and charisma of Mamata Banerjee, is reportedly full of internal factionalism. The fissures are there for all to see. However, not all its leaders, like Mohua Mitra, for instance, will jump ship to the BJP.

The fissures inside TMC are directly linked to the parallel power apparatus being wielded by Abhishek Banerjee, Mamata’s nephew. His opulent lifestyle and alleged ‘authoritarian’ behaviour, and his apparent control on the party organization and its resources, with Mamata looking the other way, seems to have alienated sections of the young vanguard, as well as the old guard.

The party’s rebels are calling it ‘dynasty politics’, while choosing to join the BJP, or waiting for a tactical time to jump ship, as its East Midnapur strongman Suvendu Adhikari seems to be doing right now. With Abhishek, without a mass base or a history of political struggle at the grassroots, literally calling the shots, the future of TMC remains a conjecture.  However, as of now, Didi is still on a strong wicket, though it might not be all hunky dory for her in these assembly polls.

Winds in Bengal May Be Blowing Against Didi

The next big state assembly election after Bihar’s will be in four states—Assam, Kerala, Puducherry, Tamil Nadu, and Bengal. In Assam, a BJP-led coalition is in power; in Kerala, it is a coalition of left parties rules; in Puducherry, a tiny union territory, it is a Congress government. But of those elections, the one that will be watched most keenly are the elections in West Bengal where for the second term, it is the Trinamool Congress (TMC) that is in power, led by its feisty chief minister, Mamata Banerjee, fondly called “Didi”, by her supporters.

In the wake of the Bihar elections where the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) has won the recent elections, the focus on what happens in Bengal has turned sharper. But first, a quick rewind on Bihar.

Although Bihar’s incumbent government before the elections was an NDA one, it wasn’t meant to be when the 2015 election results were announced. Then, it was the coalition opposed to the BJP that got the winning numbers. But, famously, after the Nitish Kumar-led Janata Dal (U) quit that coalition and crossed over to support the BJP, the tables turned and Nitish Kumar became chief minister of a NDA government in Bihar. Before this year’s elections, there was much speculation about whether the BJP and Kumar would part ways (the latter has had a love-hate relationship with Prime Minister Modi and his party in the past). That did not happen and Kumar was sworn in as chief minister for a second term.

In Bengal, things are quite different. Ms Banerjee whose party won 222 of the 294 seats in the assembly in 2016 could look like she will contest the next elections, scheduled in 2021, from a position of strength. The Left parties in the state, which was run by a leftist alliance for more than three decades, have been decimated in the past decade—they have just 24 seats in the assembly—and the Congress with 23 fares no better. But all eyes are on the BJP. From virtual non-existence in Bengal, the nationalist party won 16 seats in 2016, and in recent years it has been trying to bolster and grow its support base in the state.

ALSO READ: BJP Now Dominant Partner In Bihar

The BJP’s main issues in its campaign will likely be charges of non-governance against Ms. Banerjee’s government, and allegations that it has been overly appeasing minorities in the state. The BJP has been fanning these sentiments for a while in its efforts to garner voters. If elections in Bengal are held as scheduled (in May), there is barely five months left before voters cast their ballot. The BJP has already ramped up their campaigning. Home Minister Amit Shah, and the party’s president JP Nadda have planned frequent visits to Bengal, to address rallies and strengthen the party’s state-level organisation.

The thing that stands in favour of Ms Banerjee, however, is that unlike the BJP or other opposition parties in the state, in her (as the two-time chief minister), the Trinamool Congress has a face and, obviously, a clear chief ministerial candidate for the election. The BJP doesn’t. At least not yet. But opposition parties, including the BJP, hope that anti-incumbency sentiments may finally begin to stir up against Ms. Banerjee and her Trinamool government.

Earlier this month, a small organisation, Crowdwisdom360 (it calls itself India’s first Political Prediction Market) carried out small on-the-ground polls to get a feel of the political mood in Bengal’s districts. Crowdwisdom360 claims that in the recently-held Bihar elections, its seat-level accuracy was 70%. In Bengal, its surveys appear to show that the BJP’s dual messaging against the Banerjee regime (poor governance; and minority appeasement) has been working better than the incumbent government’s absence of positive messages. Crowdwisdom360’s surveys have shown that voters are unable to zero in on concrete reasons why they should vote for Trinamool candidates.

There are problems with such surveys, of course. First, there could be sampling errors that let biases creep in; and second, in India’s electoral politics, things change sometimes quite mercurially. But even if such surveys are disregarded, the mood in Bengal as it heads for another election is quite different from what it was when Ms. Banerjee steered her party to victory for the second time in 2016.

There is discontent among rural voters, largely fuelled by what is perceived as minority appeasement; the COVID-19 pandemic has not helped matters; and the opposition’s campaigns, particularly the BJP’s, have been having an impact. In 2021, for Ms. Banerjee and her party, returning to power for the third time may not be a cakewalk.