The bored faces lit up as soon as her helicopter appeared on the horizon. Cheers greeted Mamata Banerjee while she was still in the sky as she kicked off her tricky tour of North Bengal on Sunday morning. People roared in appreciation when the Trinamool chief appeared on stage. She returned their cheers with a huge grin and waved to the not-so-big crowd of villagers at Habibpur, 25 km from Malda town.
Behind her smiles, however, were all the worries that have been crowding the minds of Trinamool Congress leaders since elections were first announced in Bengal. The party has very little influence on the politics of North Bengal. In fact, in major parts of the six districts that will take part in the first phase of polling on April 18, the Trinamool has a limited support base because the Congress effectively holds sway in all of the area’s anti-Left zones, particularly Malda and North Dinajpur.
This is first time while campaigning in Bengal that Banerjee has been forced to play the Congress card in wooing voters in these two districts. ‘Big Brother’ of Bengal politics, the Trinamool Congress, seemed to have adopted a new avataar, making vows in the name of the alliance and urging people to cast their votes for the official symbol of the Congress, the ‘hand’.
Banerjee’s irritated looks at the very mention of the Congress were missing. Indeed, at Itahar, she was all smiles when youths and senior Congress leaders crowded her dais and pledged their support.
She held hands with all the Congress leaders in a show of solidarity and urged voters to back the united opposition. At her meetings in Malda, where she addressed three rallies — at Habibpur, Manikchak and Malatipur — she sought votes in the name of “Barkatda” (ABA Ghani Khan Chowdhury), describing him as “an iconic Congress leader who fought for development.”
“I am beginning my campaign in Barkatda’s district. I need your blessings,” she said.
In Malda, the Trinamool chief knew from the outset that 70% of the crowd cheering her on were staunch supporters of the Congress and not necessarily happy that a Trinamool Congress candidate was representing them. In most of the Trinamool-contested seats in the town, disgruntled Congress leaders have filed nominations as Independents. In North Dinajpur, these Independents have been receiving overt support from the district’s Congress MP, Deepa Dasmunshi. Banerjee, aware of the danger, issued a stern warning. “Don’t vote for the fake Congress, vote for the original one,” she said at a meeting at Hematabad, in Dasmunshi’s constituency.
Banerjee knows all about the pitfalls of a division of votes and she reached out to the Congress for help at each meeting. At the same time, she tried to sell her dreams to the people of North Bengal, who have been a deprived lot under all previous governments.
“If you don’t elect me, how can I work for you? I have many plans for this region. Give us a chance,” she appealed. At all the five meetings she addressed, she spoke as if she was the person in charge of Bengal’s destiny and her speeches were laced with sarcasm against the CPI(M)-led government. She punched together humour and rhymes to paint a clearer picture of the 34-year-old Left Front government’s imminent departure.