‘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.

‘Centre Did Little To Help Businesses Amid Covid’

Biplob Basu, 34, a food entrepreneur, says small businesses suffered due to demonetisation, GST and there was little help during pandemic from the BJP-led government at the Centre

My story is one for the books. Both my parents are doctors but I pursued Hotel Management and chose to be a food entrepreneur. And it hasn’t been a smooth ride. The year I opened Petuk, a home-based eatery with a catering division in Kolkata was also the time when politics began over the palate. What you were eating and serving came under scanner.

People with no understanding of Bangla food, wanted to dictate what others should or should not eat. I would therefore prefer a government which is open-minded and understands plural cultures and cuisines.

There are other reasons too why I would choose Mamata Didi’s Trinamool over the BJP. My food venture had just about begun to break even in 2016 when the Centre announced demonetisation. It was taxing time as people queued before ATMs and eating out was not a priority. Just about when that phase was over, the GST (goods and services tax) was rolled out. My expenses (taxation) rose but not my earnings.

I was barely able to understand the nitty gritty of GST when rumours spread in Kolkata that many eateries were serving carcass meat. People in food business came under stress for two years (2018-19).

Biplob Basu is against mixing politic and palate

I waded through all this and stepping ahead of home-based catering, I opened a restaurant at Hazra (Kolkata) in 2018. A little over an year, and I managed to open another restaurant in Jadavpur in December 2019. And then the pandemic struck, strict lockdown was announced.

The new restaurant was at a rented property. I had to pay the rent, salaries of the staff, while there was no income. That broke my back. I am sure other MSMEs like me suffered a lot too, but Bengal also faced a cyclone (Amphan) during lockdown.

ALSO READ: ‘How I Turned The (Dining) Tables On Covid’

Even when the ‘Unlock’ began in phases, the business did not pick up. I was forced to shut one of the restaurant. I read about Central assistance to small and medium businesses so I went to apply for an MSME loan, only to realise that the process was lengthy and cumbersome, not beneficial for ventures like ours.

Now, with elections upon us, it is payback time. I want a party in power which understands that their decisions taken at the spur of the moment can adversely impact lives of people for years to come. I want a government that can create both a good social and business environment. I want a government that understands people as individuals and not a homogeneous groups with a single story. Clearly, my choice is the incumbent party. I am very happy with the way the Mamata government handled the pandemic.

There were strict checks at regular intervals to see if business units were following all due measures from face masks to hair masks, to regular sanitization of the premises to temperature checks. My entrepreneurship spirit is still alive and kicking and I will definitely steady myself up; all we need is a government that can put a spark into the hospitality sector again.

As Told To Yog Maya Singh

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!!)

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.

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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.