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Bengal 2021: A battle in the making

Debaashish Bhattacharya | Updated on December 03, 2020

I see you: Mamata Banerjee has repeatedly accused PM Narendra Modi and home minister Amit Shah of having harboured a “political vendetta” against her and her party and government   -  SANJOY GHOSH

Riding on the success of Bihar polls, the BJP is now confident of bagging Bengal next year. But Mamata Banerjee and her party are not ready to go down without a tooth-and-nail fight

* Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Union home minister Amit Shah have publicly said that a BJP win in Bengal will be like the party’s victory in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections — if not more

* Trinamool Congress has hired poll wizard Prashant Kishor, credited with Modi’s victory in 2014, to help it fight the BJP in 2021. The party is now in the middle of an organisational overhaul, especially in districts, in consultation with Kishor

* Meanwhile, the CPI(M) is trying to stage a comeback of sorts by stitching together an alliance of 16 political parties, including Congress, Nationalist Congress Party and Rashtriya Janata Dal

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Mamata Banerjee looks besieged. And not just by a buoyant Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) out to grab power in Bengal in the wake of its victory in Bihar and elsewhere in the country in recent Assembly polls and bypolls. Several disgruntled Trinamool Congress (TMC) leaders, the party Banerjee floated after she left the Congress in 1997, appear equally determined to checkmate the feisty Bengal chief minister in the state elections barely six months away.

Transport and irrigation minister Subhendu Adhikari — a powerful leader from south Bengal who was reportedly “upset” with the party leadership after he was removed from an organisational position — resigned from her Cabinet on November 27. That very day Mihir Goswami, a senior TMC legislator from north Bengal, joined the BJP in Delhi, saying that he could no longer stand being “humiliated” in the party. Adhikari rejected the Trinamool's “patch-up” proposal barely a day after the party claimed the crisis was over. “It’s impossible now to work together,” he said in a WhatsApp message to TMC leader Saugata Roy.

TMC insiders acknowledge privately that this is no longer a question of a few top leaders leaving the party. A number of key leaders have already left or are on the verge of leaving at block and district levels, says a party MLA. “This worries us more.”

“Many more will join us from TMC in the days to come,” BJP state president Dilip Ghosh told reporters recently, calling Adhikari’s resignation “the beginning of the end of the Trinamool rule in Bengal”.

Clearly, all eyes are all on Bengal polls, expected to take place in April or May next year. Both Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Union home minister Amit Shah have publicly said that a BJP win in Bengal will mean the same as the party’s victory in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections — if not more.

So for now, it is BJP’s “Mission Bengal”, a poll effort the party has launched under the direct supervision of BJP chief JP Nadda and Shah. An 11-member team, packed with two national general secretaries and five national secretaries including BJP IT cell head Amit Malviya, has been formed to oversee the election effort. These leaders will virtually camp in Bengal and oversee the Assembly constituencies split into four zones.

As Assam BJP leader Himanta Biswa Sarma puts it, the BJP’s Bihar victory — the party won 74 seats against Nitish Kumar’s Janata Dal (United)’s 43 to emerge as the “big brother” in the coalition for the first time — will have a “psychological” impact on party workers in poll-bound Bengal and Assam.

Bengal BJP leaders agree. “The Bihar victory is certainly a morale booster. The political situation in Bengal is quite favourable for us. People in rural areas are fed up with the corruption and loot of public money by Trinamool leaders. They are looking for a change,” says former Bengal BJP president Tathagata Roy.

Although the BJP revels in the Bihar poll glory, the result hides a stark reality the party may find hard to stomach in Bengal. Some argue that the return of the incumbent Nitish Kumar government means Banerjee stands a fair chance to be re-elected in Bengal in 2021, if the Bihar trend holds.

“Bihar results clearly show that a ruling party or an incumbent government can return to power if it delivers and has credibility in the state,” says analyst Maidul Islam of the Kolkata-based Centre for Studies in Social Sciences. “This has happened in Bihar and in Odisha, where Naveen Patnaik has won a fifth term, based on the developmental works he has carried out,” Islam adds.

Moreover, the Bengal BJP is a divided house with frequent reports of power tussles among the top leaders appearing in the local media. This is one of the reasons why the central leadership has chosen to run and monitor the state election rather than hand it over to the state unit, party insiders say. “This is a golden opportunity for us but we clearly need to get our act together,” says Tathagata Roy.

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The Bengal chief minister has been at loggerheads with Modi and Shah, also the former BJP president, ever since the BJP came to power in 2014.

When a number of senior TMC and Bengal government functionaries were probed by the Central Bureau of Investigation and enforcement directorate in various chit funds scams in the last few years, Banerjee — once a minister in the BJP-led NDA government at the Centre — repeatedly accused Modi and Shah of harbouring a “political vendetta” against her and her party and government.

As the BJP increased its influence and vote share in Bengal — from 4 per cent in the 2011 Assembly polls to 40 per cent in the 2019 Lok Sabha elections — Banerjee and her party saw red. It has now hired poll wizard Prashant Kishor, credited with Modi’s victory in 2014, to help it fight the BJP in 2021. The party is now in the middle of an organisational overhaul, especially in districts, in consultation with Kishor.

Domestic affairs: With the elections barely six months away, chief minister Mamata Banerjee faces a stiff challenge from disgruntled Trinamool Congress leaders who seem to be strengthening BJP’s position in the race   -  PTI

 

On his advice, the TMC has launched campaigns such as Didi Ke Bolo (Tell Didi, or the elder sister), a helpline that connects people directly with the chief minister. On December 1, Banerjee’s government started an innovative campaign Duare Sarkar or government on your doorstep, another Kishor brainchild. Under this, government officials will camp in different panchayats and municipal wards until January 30 next year to provide the people with services under schemes such as Swasthya Sathi (health), Kanyashree (girls’ education), Tapashili Bondhu (old age pension for scheduled castes), Aikyashree (scholarship for minority students) and Jai Johar (old age pension for scheduled tribes).

Meanwhile, the CPI(M) is trying to stage a comeback of sorts by stitching together an alliance of 16 political parties, including the Congress, Nationalist Congress Party and Rashtriya Janata Dal. “It’s no longer the nine party-Left Front. We are trying to make sure that besides the leaders, Congress and CPI(M) workers act together, which didn’t happen in 2016,” CPI(M) Politburo member Mohammad Salim says.

While the Left-Congress alliance could help the parties win a few more seats in 2021, the division of “secular, democratic” votes could help the BJP in its bid to drive the TMC from power.

In what could be a game changer in the pandemic, Banerjee last week announced that all families in Bengal will be brought, irrespective of income, under her pet Swasthya Sathi health scheme. Under the scheme, effective from December 1, every family will be given cashless hospitalisation benefits up to ₹5 lakh in private hospitals.

TMC leaders say they are confident the party, which won 211 of the 294 seats in 2016 Assembly elections and polled more than 44 per cent votes, will win again. “A few turncoats won’t affect us electorally. People vote for Mamata Banerjee, no one else,” says a party MP.

Analyst Islam agrees. “Trinamool still holds a solid 43-odd per cent vote, more than any other party in Bengal, as the 2019 Lok Sabha results show. I don’t think the party has done anything drastically wrong in the last few years to have its real base among the poor and marginalised disintegrate in 2021,” he says.

The result will tell.

Debaashish Bhattacharya is a Kolkata-based journalist

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Published on December 03, 2020
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