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West Bengal Assembly elections 2021: Mamata faces anti-incumbency, resurgent BJP looks to make big gains

From a fervent push to roll out the Citizenship Amendment Act to relentless attacks on the ruling TMC government over its alleged "minority appeasement" and political violence -- the BJP seems to have put in place a meticulously planned election strategy months in advance.

Written by Abhishek De | Kolkata | December 17, 2020 8:45:00 pm
pm modi kolkata visit, pm modi mamata banerjee, west bengal bjp, trinamool congress, mamata citizenship protests, latest news, indian expressPrime Minister Narendra Modi with West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee. (File)

“Those who aren’t being able to fight us democratically, they have opted for the route to killing BJP karyakartas to fulfill their desires. This dance of death can’t go on in a democracy…Read the writing on the wall.” The tacit remarks by Prime Minister Narendra Modi during a victory speech following the NDA win in Bihar left no room for suspense that it was directed at Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee and the importance BJP was attaching to the West Bengal elections scheduled in April-May next year.

From a fervent push to roll out the Citizenship Amendment Act to relentless attacks on the ruling TMC government over its alleged “minority appeasement” and political violence — the BJP seems to have put in place a meticulously planned election strategy months in advance. However, for the saffron party, which has had a limited presence in the state for decades, Bengal holds paramount importance since it is the missing link for its domination of the east and the northeast.

kolkata news, mamata banerjee nrc rally, Mamata Banerjee protest rally against nrc, Mamata Banerjee BJP, NRC in West Bengal TMC supremo Mamata Banerjee with state minister and leaders in Kolkata. (Express photo by Partha Paul)

Facing anti-incumbency, TMC looks for 3rd term

Well aware of the challenge at hand, the TMC, which has now been in power for nearly 10 years and faces anti-incumbency, has sought to turn the election narrative into an “insider vs outsider” contest — pushing the idea that the BJP has brought in “people from outside” who do not understand Bengal and its culture. Besides, the party, which has roped in political strategist Prashant Kishor to fine tune its campaign, has been stressing on development works done by the Mamata Banerjee government.

The BJP sprang a surprise by increasing its tally from two seats to 18 in the 2019 Lok Sabha polls. To check the saffron surge, the TMC has gone on an overdrive in announcing new schemes besides making sure that its previous welfare programmes stay fresh on the minds of the people.

TMC supremo Mamata Banerjee's anti-BJP rally will be held at Brigage Grounds on Saturday. (File) With BJP leaving nothing to chance, the run-up to the 2021 elections will see Mamata holding more than 600 rallies and meetings — doing her reputation of a street fighter no harm. (File)

Among them, the renewed ‘Swastha Sathi’ scheme has struck a chord among the citizens, with lakhs standing in serpentine queues to enrol themselves for the programme that will enable the insurance holder and his family to avail of treatment up to Rs 5 lakh. The decision came amid BJP’s charge that the TMC government was depriving the people of the state by not implementing the Centre’s Ayushman Bharat scheme.

The party has also launched the “Duare Sarkar” (government at doorstep) outreach programme, which will ensure people receive the benefits of 11 state-run welfare schemes. TMC leaders and workers are set to reach out to around 10 million households in the next few days to spread the word on the schemes.

However, internal rebellions and dissident voices from within the party have come as a headache for Mamata Banerjee, with just 4 months left for elections to the 294-member Assembly. While the suspense continues over Suvendu Adhikari’s political future after he resigned as transport minister last month, another state minister and TMC leader Rajib Banerjee has lashed out at the party leadership. Besides, party MLA Mihir Goswami also crossed over to the BJP.

After Roy switched sides in 2017, he brought with him several senior TMC leaders, including Saumitra Khan and Anupam Hazra, to the BJP fold.

Moreover, this will also be the first election for Mamata Banerjee without her second-in-command and trusted lieutenant Mukul Roy on her side. Being called BJP’s “trump card” in next year’s elections, Roy, a master strategist, has been made the BJP national vice-president recently. After Roy switched sides in 2017, he brought with him several senior TMC leaders, including Saumitra Khan and Anupam Hazra, to the BJP fold.

Interestingly, TMC was once the beneficiary of this “politics of defection” during its first term in power, when it ended the Left Front’s 34-year rule and formed the government by winning 227 seats in the 294-member Assembly in alliance with the Congress and Socialist Unity Centre of India (Communist). TMC itself won 184 seats. Soon after, several Congress MLAs joined the TMC ranks and Left leaders too joined the bandwagon following the party’s clinical show in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections, where it won 34 of the 42 seats. In 2012, Mamata withdrew support to the UPA government at the Centre, protesting against FDI in retail, increase in the price of diesel.

With BJP leaving nothing to chance, the run-up to the 2021 elections will see Mamata holding more than 600 rallies and meetings — doing her reputation of a street fighter no harm. It was this reputation and fierce agitation against the Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee-led Left government’s forcible acquisition of land at Singur and Nandigram that had propelled her to power in Bengal in 2011.

Singur anniversary, Singur 3rd anniversary, Mamata Banerjee, mamata banerjee in singur, kolkata city news On September 14, 2016, CM Mamata Banerjee had handed over land documents to farmers in Singur. (Express Archive)

Singur, Nandigram – Mamata’s springboard

Singur became the epicentre of protests by farmers over the then Left Front government’s decision to grant about 900 acres of land to Tata for its Nano factory. Mamata took the protest to Kolkata and held a fast for 25 days against the land acquisition at Singur, leading to the auto major abandoning the project in September 2008.

Similarly, a special economic zone (SEZ) proposed by the then Left Front government saw farmers in Nandigram erupt in protests in January 2007 led by TMC. At least 14 people were killed in police firing on agitators against land acquisition on March 14, 2007. In fact, it was Suvendu Adhikari who closely coordinated the TMC’s movement on the ground, earning his stripes and getting recognition within the party brass.

west bengal elections, west bengal assembly elections, west bengal assembly elections 2016, mamata banerjee west bengal elections, bengal elections 2016 mamata banerjee, mamata banerjee rally, mamata banerjee rally midnapore, midnapore rally, india news Mamata Banerjee at the rally in Chandipur village, 18 km from Nandigram. (Express Photo: Partha Paul)

The impact of the two agitations was felt two years down the line as TMC went on to win 19 seats in the 2009 Lok Sabha elections and the rest was history. Since 2012, TMC observes November 10 as “Nandigram Divas” and March 14 as “Krishak Divas” each year.

mamata banerjee, singur, singur verdict, singur land, singur farmers, singur farmer land, singur land regained, tata nao plant, supreme court, singur tata, indian express news, india news, kolkata Mamata Banerjee sprinkles mustard seeds in Singur. (Express archive photo: Partha Paul)

The 2016 Assembly elections saw the CPM and Congress campaigning aggressively but only to witness the TMC thundering back to power for a second term, increasing its seats to 211. The Left parties saw a massive erosion in their support bases, with most of their rank and file moving en masse to the TMC. The Congress too lost veteran leader Manas Bhunia, a former president of the West Bengal Pradesh Congress Committee, to the TMC.

Erosion of Left, Congress support gives BJP a sneak

The erosion in support for traditional parties in Bengal, especially the Left parties, provided the BJP an opening into the political arena, turning them into a formidable force.

Many in the saffron party consider Bengal the party’s birthplace since its founder Shyama Prasad Mookerjee hailed from the state. Besides, the Bharatiya Jana Sangh, the BJP’s predecessor, had won two Lok Sabha seats and nine assembly seats in Bengal in 1952.

The BJP’s recent rise in Bengal can be gauged from these numbers: In the 2011 Assembly elections, BJP garnered only 4.06 per cent votes and failed to open its account while in 2016, it won only three seats. Its vote share jumped to 10.16 per cent. It must be noted that the 2016 Assembly poll was held two years after the BJP stormed to power in the Centre on the back of a “Modi wave”.

West Bengal BJP Mahila Morcha Chief Locket Chatterjee holds a ‘trishul’ during a religious procession to celebrate Ram Navami in Birbhum. (PTI)

The foothold by BJP encouraged organisations such as the RSS, the VHP and the Bajrang Dal, which had little presence in the state earlier, to become more assertive. Around April 2017, the RSS-BJP combine started organising Ram Navami celebrations across districts — slowly making their way into the political space.

Over the next two years, the state witnessed unprecedented “armed processions” for Ram Navami, with several of them marked by clashes and arson — Hooghly in 2017, Raniganj and Asansol and Purulia in 2018. TMC also started taking out its own Ram Navami processions.

The first indications of BJP’s work paying off came in the 2018 panchayat elections, where it won 18 per cent votes, despite the TMC’s uncontested wins in 33 per cent of the panchayats.

2019 LS election turns BJP into formidable opponent

It was the 2019 Lok Sabha elections that saw the saffron party making massive electoral gains, relegating the Congress and once-powerful Left Front to the fringes. The BJP, which had won two seats five years ago, won 18 of the 42 constituencies, seeing its vote share rise to 40.64 per cent, just 3 per cent less than the TMC’s, and bagging seats all the way from North Bengal to Jangalmahal. Analysis showed that the votes came principally from Adivasis, backward castes and Dalits.

From the outset, the BJP has mounted a formidable social media campaign to paint Mamata Banerjee biased toward the Muslim community. In 2019, a video of her angry response to BJP workers chanting “Jai Shri Ram” at her went viral.

TMC has a strong support base among the minorities in Bengal, who constitute 27 per cent of the total population. With talks around CAA and NRC resurfacing in recent days, courtesy BJP leaders like Kailash Vijayvargiya and party chief JP Nadda, the minority vote is likely to rally behind Banerjee even though Asaduddin Owaisi’s AIMIM may turn to play spoilsport for the TMC. In order to counter the Hindutva narrative, Mamata Banerjee has started giving stipends to purohits in crematoriums.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi receives a memento at an election campaign rally in support of the BJP candidates, ahead of the 2019 Lok Sabha elections at Rash Mela Ground in Cooch Behar district of West Bengal. (PTI Photo)

The CAA narrative is being seen as BJP’s bid to appease the influential Matua community voters — who dominate nearly 90 Assembly segments, concentrated mostly in the North and South 24 parganas, and form 17 per cent of the electorate. The Matuas, who are Namasudras, a Scheduled Caste group, trace their ancestry to East Bengal, and many of them entered West Bengal after Partition and after the formation of Bangladesh.

After Home Minister Amit Shah had lunch at a Matua refugee’s home recently, Mamata has tried to revive her “lost connect” with the community by saying that Matuas had already been identified as Indian citizens and there was no question of giving them “new citizenship”.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi addresses BJP’s ‘Save Democracy’ rally at Durgapur in West Bardhaman district of West Bengal in 2019. (PTI Photo)

The BJP, of course, has a weak spot: lack of a chief ministerial face. Party leaders have hinted that it will again rely on Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s charisma to counter Mamata Banerjee’s popular appeal, which seems to have remained intact despite Saradha and Narada corruption scams rocking the TMC boat.

The saffron party has made the political violence allegedly instigated by TMC against its workers an election issue, coining slogans like “Ebar Bangla, parle shamla” (Save Bengal if you can this time).

The recent attack on BJP national president JP Nadda’s convoy didn’t help Bengal’s reputation and the party seeking to ratchet the issue up in the coming days. BJP state president Dilip Ghosh has claimed that “more than 120 party activists had been killed by TMC-sheltered goons” in the state in recent times.

As the pace of campaigning heats up, it remains to be seen if the BJP, which has set itself a target of 200 seats in next year’s elections, can herald a new era in West Bengal politics or will Didi (as Mamata is fondly called) be back for a third consecutive term.

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