There is no opposition, we are our own opposition,” Mamata Banerjee sounded stern. A cold, sweeping glance around the podium and the warnings continued, while party leaders hung their heads, avoiding eye contact. “I know who is doing what and who is contacting whom. I will not allow anyone to disrupt Maa-Maati-Manush (the Trinamool Congress slogan).”
The ruling TMC in Bengal has been in a state of flux of late. There have been close to a dozen political murders, and every case seems to point to factional feuds within the party. Then there are the desertions, two sitting MPs being only the latest just two months before the election (see box: Open Season), and the possibility of a few more with ex-TMC strongman Mukul Roy on the prowl to poach for the BJP.
But these sort of troubles are unlikely to faze Mamata. She has faced heavier odds through the major part of her political career. As news trickled in of another turncoat, a party heavyweight, joining the BJP, she hollered that the onus was now on every TMC member to make sure the party symbol, the jora ghas phul (wildgrass flowers), bloomed in all 42 Lok Sabha seats in the state. Mamata stressed that voting for the party meant voting for her, strengthening her hand to take on the “communal rioters (Narendra) Modi-(Amit) Shah party”, the BJP. Names on the party’s list of Lok Sabha candidates include 17 new faces (13 of them defectors from other parties and four greenhorns, including two actresses). The CM knows there will be rumblings, and hence her next comment: “Whoever wants to go is free to leave. I don’t care, they are free to go…”
Three years ago, just before the assembly poll in 2016, when the odds were stacked against her and names of party candidates were popping up in the Saradha and Narada scams, Mamata had made a similar appeal to the people: “Mamata Banerjee is the candidate in all 294 seats. I am the candidate in all 294 seats and I request you to vote for me.” The party had won 219 seats then.
It’s now about winning all 42 LS seats (the TMC bagged 34 in 2014) to secure her position in national politics, and help her inch closer to the country’s top post. For that’s the new spin Mamata is giving this election-2019 is a make-or-break situation for the state to gift the country its first Bengali prime minister: “This is no ordinary poll battle… it’s a fight to save the country and its Constitution.” Party members have even created a new Facebook page-“Cholo bodlayi, ek Bangalee prodhan montri chayi.” Bengal had missed out twice before-Pranab Mukherjee in 1991 (P.V. Narasimha Rao was seen as a more pliant choice) and Jyoti Basu in 1997 (the CPI(M)’s “historic blunder” scuppering his chances). Here was a third chance and even though Mamata with all humility maintains she’s just an “LIP” (less important person) in the race among the aspirants, partymen are using the PM card to galvanise Bengal’s voters to not miss the bus a third time.
BENGALI VS HINDUTVA
With the BJP trying to consolidate Hindu voters in the East with demands for a National Register for Citizens and Citizenship Amendment Bill in different states, Mamata has been quick to build a Bengali narrative, stressing on linguistic and regional identity rather than religion. At every meeting, she talks of how “names with Bengali surnames, both Hindu and Muslim, have been excluded. This is nothing but a Bengali khedao or ethnic cleansing of the Bengali movement in the name of NRC”. The rhetoric only got louder as Assam burned and news came of Bengali-speaking ‘outsiders’ committing suicide over the NRC in the Northeast.
Alongside, Mamata and her party leaders keep branding the BJP as “outsiders”, a party essentially of the Hindi heartland, with little knowledge of the state’s culture, tradition and language. That the BJP has to fly in national leaders from the central headquarters for its party programmes, the lack of a prominent Bengali face from the state, everything is being tom-tommed as an insult to the state. Even the BJP’s demand to declare all Bengal poll booths super-sensitive drew flak from Mamata. “Tell them to call every Bengali sensitive,” she dared the BJP, even as the TMC women’s brigade staged a 48-hour dharna in protest.
The chief minister was initially a little worried about the BJP’s allegations of Muslim appeasement against her. She even tried playing to the gallery, chanting Hindu mantras at party rallies and announcing programmes and developmental work at Hindu pilgrimage centres like Ganga Sagar, Tarapith, Dakshineshwar and Kalighat. There was even an announcement of allowances for priests. “But she soon realised that hard-core Hindus can’t be swayed through dole gimmicks,” says Biswanath Chakrabarty, professor of political science at the Rabindra Bharati University. “The Hindus don’t vote en bloc the way Muslims do, so she is trying to secure her Muslim vote bank. Her reaction after Pulwama and the Balakot air strike was conscious and calculated, even though she also tried hard to hail the armed forces.”
Prime Minister Modi slammed her as a poster girl of Pakistan. Unruffled, she defended herself as a patriot, a true Hindustani who draws inspiration from her father, a freedom fighter. While wrapping up her speech at a state programme in February, she made it a point to end with “Jai Hind/ Vande Mataram… Inshallah/ Khuda hafiz” in the same breath.
Similarly, Mamata’s statements on the Balakot air strikes might have given the BJP ammunition to question her intentions behind “piping Pakistan’s lines”, but the TMC supremo is unfazed. In her scheme of things, patriotism is not a community-specific sentiment. “Mamata intentionally raised these questions because she was thinking of her 28 per cent Muslim vote bank,” says social scientist Prashanta Ray. “At a time when the political battle is between two big national parties such as the BJP and Congress and the question is whether or not we will have a secular government at the Centre, the Muslims will always stand by the Congress as a safe, reliable bet.”
Hence, in order to not split Muslim votes in the state, Mamata is deliberately raising the decibel level against the Centre’s intelligence failure in Pulwama, rather than holding Pakistan responsible for the terror attack. “You cannot play politics over spilt blood. I condemn them (the BJP) for trying to win votes over the death of jawans,” she has been saying, driving home the point that the party is taking credit for the sacrifice of the soldiers.
The Congress and the Left (part of the three-cornered opposition, along with the BJP) had planned an electoral understanding in the state, but it fell through. Mamata, though, keeps insisting there’s a secret understanding between all three (the Jagai-Madhai-Bidai, the first two being the sinner brothers of Bengali lore while ‘Bidai’ stands for a past-its-expiry date BJP). “A pre-poll pact between the Congress and Left would have hit the BJP,” says Chakrabarty. “Anti-incumbency votes tend to back the party with the best chance of upsetting the ruling regime. The BJP is now emerging as a possible contender in this scenario.”
Amid all this, Mamata has also been pegging away against the Rafale scam, the use of official agencies for political vendetta, to pander to Congress supporters who might be having problems over the reconciliation with the Left. She has also sent feelers to the state Congress leaders who were against the surrender of two crucial seats, Raiganj and Murshidabad, to the CPI(M) to seal the alliance. “The way Rahul Gandhi ignored our sentiments on the two seats is likely to benefit the TMC or the BJP, not the jote (alliance). Perhaps Mamata is thinking on similar lines,” says a veteran Congress leader who refused to be named.
ISSUES FOR ALL SEASONS
Mamata uses every occasion to make her point. It was supposed to be a walk to mark International Women’s Day, but with Mamata leading it, it turned into a political walk-the-talk. Soon, there were slogans of “Modi hatao, desh bachao” as Mamata waved and egged on the crowds. She even made the women at the gathering take a pledge: to oust Modi once and for all. It didn’t take long for the audience to have enough reasons to wish away Modi. Soon, the whispers grew loud: Modi had even deserted his wife. Mamata wrapped up her speech with a few impromptu war cries-“Gali gali mein shor hai, Modi babu chor hai/ Rafale mein shor hai, Modi babu chor hai….” Soon, other similar couplets were floating around.
While announcing the list of candidates, she again highlighted women’s issues, saying 41 per cent of her candidates were women. “It’s giving me goose bumps,” she said, growing emotional. Mamata has always had an eye out for women voters, and it’s no different this time. So if it’s elections, it’s more representation; if it’s teacher’s day, it’s shiksharatna awards. She has doles or some kind of token appreciation for women in all walks of life.
Riding on the success of the dole politics in her first term in power (2011-2016), Mamata has continued with it, even increasing the scope and quantum of assistance. So Kanyashree, which started as a financial assistance to stop child marriages among the economically weaker sections, now covers all girl children, irrespective of family income. In fact, it has been extended to cover girls studying in colleges and universities. The same is true for medical treatment in Bengal. Mamata has made medical treatment free in government hospitals for both above and below poverty line families. “It’s like a Santa’s bag where there’s something for everyone, be it Bauls (folk singers), jatra actors, unemployed youth, tea garden workers, schoolgoing children, pregnant mothers, unmarried girls, old age pensioners, there are even doles for performing last rites,” says TMC minister Partha Chatterjee. “We cover every individual from birth to death and each household on an average gets a financial benefit of at least 5,000 a month.”
Budgetary expenses for social welfare schemes have hit
However, Mamata is hardly one to get bogged down by such criticism. She has already dispatched development cards to every household with details of what her government has done for the people, and that too in seven languages. This is to counter the Modi report card the BJP is distributing to inform Bengalis about the central share in some of the schemes.
A MIXED BAG
Mamata has all along been stressing on familiar faces with social and political acceptability, but when the candidates’ list came out, even the TMC’s top leaders were stumped. Ten sitting MPs had been dropped, but the replacements were in no way better. “We are more shocked than surprised,” said a party leader on condition of anonymity. “Already the opposition (the Left) is harping about a ‘Modi-Didi’ understanding as she has given a virtual walkover in as many as 10-12 seats.” Even Mamata, while announcing the names, mentioned that some party leaders are likely to act against the party’s decision. But she is confident her glam girls will cast a spell. Bengali heroine Nusrat Jahan, who warmed up to the TMC first in 2012 after ex-boyfriend Kadir Khan was indicted in the infamous Park Street rape incident, is one such. Jahan is Didi’s trump card in Basirhat, a constituency ridden with frequent communal flare-ups and, consequently, strong Hindu polarisation. Indeed, sitting MLA Idris Ali was dropped because of his alleged involvement in the incidents. The actor, though from the minority community, can sway a portion of the Hindu votes given her star appeal.
Mamata’s candidate selection is final, a message for party workers that each seat bearing the supremo’s stamp of approval will have to be won at any cost. Going by her conviction that she still has the voters in thrall-the famed “Mamata magic”-she is confident of pulling off a win this Lok Sabha election too.