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…” 

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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.

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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.

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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!!)

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.

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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.

Opposition Still In Disarray To Counter Modi-Led BJP

While the Bharatiya Janata Party has managed to placate its sulking partners and finalized alliances with them well ahead of the upcoming seven-phase Lok Sabha polls, the dates for which were announced on March 10, opposition parties are still struggling to sink their differences and build a strong coalition to take on a resurgent BJP.

This is despite the fact that there is a sense of urgency in the opposition camp about the need to put their house in order as the BJP has a distinct political advantage over it after the Pulwama attack and the subsequent air strikes launched by India on terror camps in Pakistan.

As the biggest component of the opposition bloc, having a pan-India presence, the Congress is under pressure to demonstrate greater flexibility in forging alliances with regional parties, especially in view of the changed political scenario. Both Nationalist Congress Party chief Sharad Pawar and Andhra Pradesh chief minister N.Chandrababu Naidu had recently urged Congress president Rahul Gandhi to sort out outstanding issues with the Mamata Banerjee-led Trinamool Congress in West Bengal and the Aam Admi Party in Delhi. Besides these two states, the other trouble spot for the Congress is the politically-crucial state of Uttar Pradesh which sends 80 MPs to the Lok Sabha.

Though the Pulwama attack has led to a rethink among the opposition leaders about alliances, they are still reluctant to cede space to each other as they see this as an opportunity to drive the best possible bargain in seat-sharing negotiations. In some cases, disputes between parties have come in the way of sealing a partnership and in other instances, resistance from within the ranks has stalled the formation of an opposition alliance.

Well aware that the pressure is on the Congress to accommodate its smaller partners, regional parties are playing hardball. Even parties like the Janata Dal (S) in Karnataka and the Rashtriya Janata Dal in Bihar have negotiated hard to get the maximum number of seats from the Congress.

While the Congress has sealed an electoral pact in Karnataka, the party backed off from an alliance with Arvind Kejriwal’s Aam Admi Party in Delhi. The AAP leadership was keen on a partnership but the Congress party’s local unit did not favour an alliance with Kejriwal as it has not forgiven him for leading a campaign against the United Progressive Alliance government which eventually led to its humiliating defeat in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections.

Besides this trust deficit, the two parties were unable to arrive at a satisfactory seat-sharing formula. The AAP was not willing to give more than two of the seven Delhi Lok Sabha seats to the Congress but the grand old party wanted three which was not agreeable to Kejriwal. As a quid pro quo, the AAP wanted the Congress to accommodate it in Punjab and Haryana. This was not acceptable to the Congress which believes it can ill-afford to part with seats in these two states where it can do well on its own.

Uttar Pradesh and West Bengal are the two big challenges before the Congress. Bahujan Samaj Party chief Mayawati and Samajwadi Party president Akhilesh Yadav have set aside their old rivalry and forged an alliance for the Lok Sabha election in Uttar Pradesh. It has set aside three seats for the Ajit Singh-led Rashtriya Lok Dal and two for the Congress. Angry over this unilateral announcement, the Congress declared that it would contest all the 80 seats in the state and then followed it up by roping in Priyanka Gandhi to manage party affairs in Eastern Uttar Pradesh.

Post-Pulwama, Akhilesh Yadav is said to have realized that a split in the anti-BJP votes would end up helping the saffron party and has been in touch with Congress leaders about a possible understanding. However, Mayawati is adamant about not doing any business with the Congress. The BSP chief fears that the Congress can disturb her Dalit support base and she does not want to provide an opportunity to the Congress to revive itself in a state where it has been reduced to a bit player.

Moreover, Mayawati nurses Prime Ministerial ambitions. Unlike other regional players like Mamata Banerjee, Mayawati’s support base is not confined to one state as she believes she has the potential to tap into the Dalit sentiment across the country. Mayawati may be over-estimating her strength, given that her vote share has been on a decline over the years, but this has not stopped her from making a pitch for the top slot. In any case, she would not like to facilitate Rahul Gandhi’s ascent to power.

If Mayawati is proving to be a tough customer, it is not any easier to do business with the feisty Trinamool Congress chief  Mamata Banerjee. Like Mayawati, the West Bengal chief minister also has national ambitions. But unlike the BSP supremo, the Trinamool Congress chief has acknowledged that all opposition parties need to put up a united fight to battle the BJP. However, there is no clarity about how she plans to move ahead in that direction.

A little over a month ago, Mamata Banerjee declared that she was willing to align with the Congress and the Left parties at the national level to defeat the BJP. But at the same time, she said they would also compete against each other in the state. The Trinamool chief has suggested that the combined opposition field one candidate on each seat from a party which is best placed to defeat the BJP. However, others are not taken up with this idea. The West Bengal unit of the Congress has vehemently opposed an understanding with the Trinamool Congress as the two parties are locked in a bitter battle in the state.  

At the same time, the Communist Party of India (Marxist) has offered a seat-sharing formula to the Congress in West Bengal. It has proposed that the two parties mutually agree not to fight each other in the six Lok Sabha seats currently held by the Congress and the Left party. However, the Congress is quibbling over the Raiganj constituency which was won by the CPM last time. Clearly, the opposition parties have a long distance to cover before they can iron out these glitches and be seen as a serious challenger to the BJP-led alliance. But with the general election round the corner, they do not have the luxury of time to sort out their differences. The disarray in the opposition camp stands out as a sharp contrast to the BJP which is far more organized and battle-ready for the upcoming all-important election.

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