Lok Sabha elections 2019: Mamata Banerjee looks to counter challengers on home turf Bengal
Fading photographs in Siliguri’s Kanchenjungha stadium feature every sporting hero who has visited the largest stadium in this north Bengal town, known as the gateway to Darjeeling and the Himalayas.
In almost every frame, former state minister and Communist Party of India (Marxist) [CPI(M)] Ashok Bhattacharya is beaming – underlining the might the Left Front once enjoyed in the state. But the party office is rundown, there is only a trickle of visitors and local leaders privately aren’t hopeful of a victory.
Across town, Abhijit Roy Chowdhury is relaxing in his living room after a hectic day of campaign. He is the Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) district president since July 2018 but a cupboard still proudly showcases his picture with former president Pranab Mukherjee, when the latter was with the Congress. Every few minutes, he fields calls from workers on the ground, who sound upbeat about the party’s chances.
In a way, these two frames encapsulate the political reality of West Bengal, the third-largest state in the country in terms of Lok Sabha seats. The BJP aims to grow as the principal opposition party in a space vacated by the Congress, which is facing an erosion of support, and the Left, whose iron grip on the state is already a fading memory. And it is here in north Bengal, where the saffron party is hoping to give the ruling Trinamool Congress its toughest fight yet.
West Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee is no stranger to the ups and downs of politics. The 64-year-old won her first election in 1984 from Jadavpur, defeating Left stalwart Somnath Chatterjee, and went on to become a Union minister. But disappointed at the state unit of the Congress, she left the party to form her own party in 1998 and won seven seats in the elections that year.
After the 2004 election, she was the lone member of her party in Parliament but the Singur land agitation two years later gave her party a new lease of life. Riding high on the farmers agitation and discontent after three-decades of Left rule, her party won 19 seats in 2009 and dislodged the Left Front in a historic victory in 2011. Five years later, she won a resounding victory, increasing her majority in the 294-member assembly.
Halfway through her second term, Banerjee remains the most popular mass leader in the state. Privately, even her rivals acknowledge her feisty fighting spirit and sharp political instinct. In governance, she is a populist with a number of welfare schemes and doles, such as fixed sums of money to neighbourhood clubs.
This election, Banerjee is said to nurture ambitions of a larger role in national politics; for that, she has to maximize her party’s tally in West Bengal. The BJP’s best efforts to project a face to rival Didi, as she is known to her supporters, have failed miserably so far.
Banerjee has quite a few things going in her favour. West Bengal has around 27% Bengali-speaking Muslims, 3% Hindi or Urdu-speaking Muslims and around 2% other non-Hindu votes. The 32% minority votes are expected to rally behind Banerjee. As one of her aides said on condition of anonymity, “She will start the race with 30% assured votes in hand.”
Her party has the best organizational presence on the ground – with party offices in every village and block that sometimes run as parallel administration centres. And, with the Left and Congress in decline in the state, Banerjee’s party is also eyeing some Left or Congress votes.
The unprecedented seven-phase polling in the state should also help her. Being the sole star campaigner, Banerjee can afford more time to campaign in each constituency. And, finally, there is her carefully curated image of the neighbourhood elder sister and mass connect, bolstered by her image of austerity.
BJP’s best chance?
A good performance by the BJP in Bengal can offset some of the losses the party is expected to suffer in north India, and the saffron party is determined to emerge as a serious choice to voters who are unhappy with the seven-year Trinamool Congress rule.
The party commanded an admirable 17% vote in the last Lok Sabha election – though far behind the Trinamool’s 39% -- and stood second in a number of seats, including Banerjee’s pocket borough of Kolkata South. Then, it emerged as the largest opposition force in the 2018 panchayat elections, doing especially well in the western, tribal-dominated districts.
This time, the BJP is aiming for a higher share with party president Amit Shah announcing his party would bag 35-40 seats from Bengal, Odisha and the north-east.
“A large section of the people is fed up with the Trinamool. If they see a viable alternative, they will definitely vote for them,” said political analyst Debabrata Chaki in the northern Bengal town of Cooch Behar.
BJP Cooch Behar district chief Malati Rava emphasised that law-and-order is a pet plank for them. “Also her politics of appeasement has isolated a large section of the voters. They will vote for us,” she added, referring to a key BJP campaign theme: Banerjee’s alleged policy of favouring the sizeable Muslim population.
The Trinamool’s key strategist Mukul Roy has shifted to the BJP, and at least three MPs and a host of local leaders have followed suit in the past three months.
Veteran Congress leader Abdul Mannan also echoes similar sentiments. “If we had the pact between the Congress and the Left, we could have given both the Trinamool and the BJP a tough fight across the state. But we lost that opportunity,” he said.
The saffron party is pulling out all stops -- from the National Register of Citizenship (aiming to drive out illegal Muslim migrants) to the Pulwama attack.
In Siliguri, Roy Chowdhury said this time, the BJP would be a different ball game for Banerjee. “Many non-Muslim Congress and CPI(M) votes will come to us. Remember, there is not just an anti-Trinamool sentiment but also a pro-Modi wave.”
But this is easier said than done. The state BJP is no match against the Trinamool’s powerful organisation. It still lacks grassroot-level workers in large parts of the state.
“Our government has given far better schemes than the Centre in the last four years. We started a package for farmers much before the Centre announced PM Kisan. Our Kanya Shri (a welfare scheme for girl children) won international accolades while their Beti Bachao, Beti Padhao is nothing but a PR exercise. We have provided millions of jobs, the BJP has taken away jobs from the young people,” said Trinamool Congress’s North Bengal development minister Rabindranath Ghosh.
Congress and CPI(M)
The two erstwhile rivals have one thing in common: both are scrambling to stay relevant in state politics, especially after failing to stitch together an alliance.
Last time, the CPI(M) received close to 30% votes and Congress around 10%. In theory, a tie-up should have been able to put up a fight – especially in pockets of north and central Bengal.
At his ancestral home in Siliguri, Bhattacharya admits, “It is true that a section of the people have started looking at the BJP as the real alternative to the TMC. If the Congress and CPI(M) reached an understanding, these voters would have returned to us.”
Mannan said, “We wanted an open alliance, not just some hazy seat sharing. We wanted a mix of Left and Congress candidates in every district, but Left refused to give seats in entire north Bengal”.
As the fight between the BJP and Trinamool intensifies, Bengal’s votes are likely to be more polarised among the two parties. The Congress is also facing factional frictions. The most powerful state Congress leader, Adhir Chowdhury, failed to take others along with him. Now, under the reigns of veteran leader Somen Mitra, discontent is brewing among senior leaders. Mannan even refuses to go to the Congress office as long as Mitra is the state unit chief.
With the first phase of the staggered election less than a week away, the fight in Bengal appears to be between the Trinamool, looking to extend its dominance and the BJP, raring to expand in a state that has traditionally shunned the saffron party. Will Didi’s street-smart politics triumph or will the BJP be able to exploit anti-incumbency – on this question will depend the results in the eastern state.