It's Modi vs Mamata in battle for West Bengal

West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee leads an election procession in Kolkata.
West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee leads an election procession in Kolkata.

Kolkata - Chief minister Mamata is on the toughest fight of her career against BJP as even senior leaders of her party are joining the Modi brigade.

By Joydeep Sen Gupta

Published: Wed 10 Mar 2021, 12:50 PM

Last updated: Wed 10 Mar 2021, 3:07 PM

West Bengal is in the grips of a poll fever. The raging Covid-19 pandemic, which has claimed around 20,000 lives, appears to be a thing of the distant past in the eastern Indian state, which shares a long border with neighbouring Bangladesh.

Masks, social distancing and other Covid-related precautionary measures have been given a heave-ho as rallies and processions hold centre stage.

Battlelines have been firmly drawn between the two-time Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee’s ruling All India Trinamool Congress (AITC) and Prime Minister Narendra Modi-led Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).

The BJP, which considers Bengal as one of the key frontiers to breach in its bid to expand the saffron footprints across the country, is going for the broke in the unprecedented eight-phase election for the 294 assembly seats that will be held between March 27 and April 29. The challenger is awash with cash, Central government’s paramilitary forces, and an alleged pliant Election Commission of India (ECI) and federal investigative agencies to set the poll narrative in its favour.

The BJP has been assiduously wooing AITC leaders, members of legislative assembly (MLAs) and members of Parliament (MPs) to jump the ruling party’s ‘sinking’ ship.

Scores of AITC MLAs and leaders across Bengal’s 23 districts have been deserting the ruling party for the BJP with unflinching regularity on a daily basis.

Also read: Modi and others take a Covid-19 shot at elections

Though opinion polls, which come with a mandatory health warning because of its proven margin of error in the past, are giving the Bengal CM a slender edge — the half-way mark in the state assembly is 148 — against an aggressive BJP, the ground realities tell a contrarian tale.

Banerjee is up against the toughest fight in her long and chequered political career, where she has won many a political battle single-handedly. However, the BJP has been hitting her hard and social media has emerged as the most potent campaign weapon of its choice.

The party is targeting some of the prominent disgruntled AITC leaders such as Suvendu Adhikari, 50, an efficient organiser and a former Central and state minister, who had catapulted to prominence during Banerjee’s high-pitched Nandigram agitation in 2007. And many like Adhikari are likely to switch sides as the poll battle intensifies.

Banerjee’s good governance and inclusive schemes for people from all walks of life — especially for women, Scheduled Castes (SCs), Scheduled Tribes (STs) and minority Muslims, who make up over 30 per cent of the state’s 100 million population — appear to have come unstuck, because of her alleged blind faith in nephew Abhishek Banerjee, 33, the AITC’s youth face and an MP.

Majority of the disgruntled AITC leaders have been abandoning the party for the BJP because of the nephew’s alleged high-handedness in cahoots with an indulgent aunt.

The advent of Prashant Kishor, 44, as a campaign strategist for Banerjee has further deepened the crisis in the ruling party. Kishor, who had made a mark as PM Modi’s campaign strategist in the 2014 parliamentary polls, heads Indian Political Action Committee (I-PAC), which is touted as the platform of choice for young professionals to make meaningful contributions to the country’s political affairs.

Kishor, who has also been enlisted by MK Stalin’s All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) in the upcoming Tamil Nadu elections, has unpacked a high-voltage campaign for Banerjee.

Bengal is awash with life-size posters and buntings of Banerjee, who seeks to stop the Modi poll juggernaut on its tracks.

The poll debate is intensifying around polarisation on religious lines and a lack of development in Bengal since 1977 when a Communist coalition government had come to power till Banerjee ousted it from office a decade ago.

Also read: Five Indian states to go to polls from March 27

Indian expats in UAE lose hope as no postal ballots in sight

But a decade is a long time in politics, especially for an undeveloped and overpopulated state like Bengal, where job opportunities have been few and far between and corruption such as Saradha and Rose Valley chit funds scams have been as endemic as SARS-CoV-2, which causes Covid-19.

In a pitched and shrill battle between the AITC and the BJP, which has taken an insider vs outsider political overtones, tinged with majoritarian Hinduism propaganda, PM Modi has been going for Banerjee’s jugular to foist a ring-wing government in a state known for its Leftist and left-of-centre leanings.

However, political observers maintain there is little to choose between the incumbent and the challenger. They quote economist-turned journalist-turned-BJP dissident Arun Shourie’s pithy summation of modern-day BJP: The Congress plus the cow, which symbolises the Hindu mascot.

Can Banerjee stymie PM Modi’s advances? The PM is set to address a record 20 election rallies in Bengal, as the party grapples with a lack of CM face (see box).

The moral aphorism suggests victory shall come to the worthy. But in Bengal, nothing’s fair in love, war and election.

And come May 2, when the election results will be declared, Bengal voters will know, whether winds of change have blown, or Banerjee had the last laugh yet again.

BJP unleashes Mithun Chakraborty to pile on Banerjee's miseries

The BJP was working overtime to rope in a popular Bengali face to counter CM Banerjee’s charisma. The party’s plan came to fruition at PM Modi’s massive rally at the Brigade Parade Ground in Kolkata on Sunday (March 7). It showcased actor Mithun Chakraborty, 70, whose political leanings have come full circle from die-hard radical Leftist, to Communist sympathiser to AITC Rajya Sabha MP to a BJP ‘worker’, as Bengal’s Son.

Chakraborty, in a signature BJP saffron dress, worked on the crowd, often considered as déclassé, by Bengal’s fast-dwindling elites, with some of his choicest dialogues from his box-office hits. He called himself a “cobra that can kill with one bite”, regretted joining the AITC as a “bad decision” and vowed to “serve the poor” under the “able leadership of PM Modi”.

The popular actor, known for his eclectic roles and the only individual from Bengal to make it big in Bollywood, is under the pump.

Was he under pressure to join the BJP?

Recent incidents strengthen the perception.

His eldest son Mahaakshay has been implicated in a sexual assault case and the veteran actor, too, had had trouble with federal investigative agencies for his alleged involvement in the Saradha scam.

Can he cast his box-office spell at the hustings?

The BJP is confident that he can. But Chakraborty will need more than the support of his déclassé fan base to emerge as the metaphorical cobra, whose lethal bite will snuff out Banerjee re-election ambitions for good

More news from Asia