In March 2001, the Indian cricket team was engaged in an epic battle with invincible Australia. India was following on and Australia seemed to be cruising to a facile win. But a gem of a partnership between VVS Laxman and Rahul Dravid, regarded as one of the very best in cricketing history, coupled with a sterling performance by Harbhajan Singh, won the day for India.
The venue of the khela was Eden Gardens, Kolkata.
The Left Front was in power and Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee was facing his first election as chief minister a month later. The buzz in the distant Delhi newsrooms was more about his challenger, Mamata Banerjee. But that buzz was misleading as Buddha Babu scored an easy victory. Formed in 1998, Mamata’s Trinamool Congress could win only 60 out of 294 seats. Buddha Babu repeated the feat in 2006 by winning a bigger mandate. The TMC, which had contested the polls in alliance with the Bharatiya Janata Party, managed 30 seats. The BJP got 0.
The street fighter in Mamata did not give up. Singur and Nandigram provided her with the opportunity and she made the most of it. Mamata’s poriborton, or change, and Maa, Mati, Manush slogans caught the people’s imaginations as the TMC delivered a body blow to the Left Front government, ending its 34-year rule in Bengal. Mamata won a massive 211 seats the second time, in 2016, despite the Saradha scam and Narada sting operation, where TMC leaders were seen allegedly receiving kickbacks. In the 2014 Lok Sabha polls, the TMC won 34 seats out of a total of 42, and the BJP two. The going was very good for the TMC until the end of 2018.
The BJP had put up an abysmal show in the 2016 assembly elections by winning a mere three seats. But it quickly filled the vacuum created after the Left and the Congress ceded ground, and started breathing down the TMC’s neck. In the 2019 parliamentary polls, the BJP stunned everyone by winning 18 Lok Sabha seats. Mamata had posted a video of her awkwardly playing the Rabindra Sangeet Prano Bhoriye Trisha Horiye, a prayer, on the keyboard while waiting for the Lok Sabha results on the counting day. That day The TMC was restricted to 22.
So how did Bengal, a reliable TMC bastion, turn into a political ground zero?
A BJP leader says there is no stopping the party this time and it is all set to sweep to power. She says it doesn’t matter if the party doesn’t have a face that can match up to Mamata’s towering personality; Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s ever-rising popularity in the state is more than enough. She feels the primary reason is that the people of Bengal have already made up their mind. They are fed up with what she calls the “institutionalised corruption” of the TMC and are ready for ashol poriborton, or real change.
The BJP, she said, sensed the change in mood when it reached out to over 80 lakh households during its Ek Mutho Chaal (a handful of rice) campaign, Krishak Suraksha Yatra and community lunch programme led by party president JP Nadda. The groundswell of support was even more pronounced during Amit Shah’s Poriborton Yatra in rural Bengal. The beneficiaries of central social welfare schemes like Ujjwala and Saubhagya added to the BJP’s supporter base. They see hope in Modi, she said.
After the 2019 Lok Sabha show, an enthused and proactive party cadre, led by state unit president Dilip Ghosh, launched one of their fiercest campaigns. Central leaders provided the much-needed impetus. The carpet-bombing campaign, which was amplified by the digital media, has created a massive buzz that a BJP victory is most likely.
The party tapped on each and every touchpoint. Leaving no stone unturned, it has reached out to the marginalised Matuas, Rajbongshis, tea garden workers, Dalits, tribals and as many diverse caste and cultural identities as possible. The BJP’s desperation to win the politically and ideologically significant state of Bengal is understandable. It’s a prestige battle that the BJP wants to win at any cost.
For the TMC, if perception matters in politics, then it somehow seems to be falling short on this count. Mamata is seen to have done nothing to contain the ‘cut’ money culture which directly affects the general public. Many hold Mamata responsible for the TMC’s politics of intimidation and coercion. Then the Bhaipo factor, her love for nephew Abhishek Banerjee, is also seen as a symbol of institutionalised corruption.
Also, it’s not certain if the TMC insider-outsider barb will play out in its favour. The Bengali bhadralok may feel discomfited, fearing an imminent UP-fication of his state, but a large number of Bengali youth are already working outside the state, doing all kinds of jobs, both big and small.
But the major reason is Mamata’s blatant appeasement of the Muslim minority for vote-bank politics. Mamata tried a course correction by providing Rs 180 crore in aid to Durga Puja pandals during last year’s lockdown. But it was too little, too late. More than the caste combination, it’s polarisation that will eventually determine the election results.
The second trigger for people’s anger was the mishandling of last summer’s cyclone Amphan that wreaked havoc in the Sundarbans and plunged Kolkata into darkness for three to four days. The Amphan relief money did not reach the Sundarbans fishermen and Midnapore villagers, many complain.
The exodus of TMC leaders to the BJP has not helped Mamata’s cause either. The first blow came in 2017 with the exit of former railways minister Mukul Roy, followed by former Kolkata mayor Sovan Chatterjee in 2019, both known for their strong organisational skills, and regarded as Didi’s left and right-hand men. The last straw, of course, was the departure of her once-trusted lieutenant in Midnapore, Suvendu Adhikari. Many blame it on the Bhaipo factor that stymied the growth of other TMC talents.
But we don’t know if these accusations against Mamata will stick. TMC leaders continue to assert that these turncoats will have no impact on the poll prospects of the party.
A TMC supporter says the BJP blitzkrieg is a media creation and Didi is well set for a hat-trick. Lok Sabha polls are different, he points out, with what happened in the 2019 Odisha elections set to happen here in Bengal. Naveen Patnaik won big in the assembly elections, but the BJD’s Lok Sabha tally came down. Another TMC supporter says except for the Modi factor, Didi has nothing else to fear. He insists the BJP’s inability to name a CM candidate against Mamata is a huge factor working in TMC’s favour. The rebellion in the state BJP ranks following ticket distribution has further improved the TMC’s chances, he says.
Predicting numbers is always a risky affair in close contests and depends on who you are speaking to. While the BJP is confident that victory is in sight, Mamata’s strategist Prashant Kishor took to Twitter saying, “On 2nd May hold me to my last tweet.” We don’t know yet if Jai Shri Ram will do for the BJP what Maa Mati Manush did for the TMC.
But without a doubt, Mamata faces the toughest battle of her political career. This time the TMC will need more than the images of Mamata’s campaigning in a wheelchair or chandipath as the state goes to polls from March 27.
It’s a do-or-die, an epic battle like the India-Australia Test at Eden in March 2001. Mamata, the only woman chief minister in India now, has to fight single-handedly. If she manages to secure her citadel against all odds, she will emerge as the tallest leader of Bengal after Jyoti Basu. On the other hand, it will be truly historic if the BJP wrests control of the state. But no matter what the outcome on May 2, poriborton or not, Bengal’s political landscape will never be the same again. Till then it’s game on.