On Friday, soon after the Chief Election Commissioner Sunil Arora announced the assembly poll schedule for West Bengal, Assam, Kerala, Tamil Nadu and Puducherry, Trinamool Congress Mamata Banerjee alleged at a press conference that the Election Commission was acting in collusion with the BJP and the dates have been announced suit the saffron party.
The reason behind Mamata’s displeasure: Polling will be held in West Bengal in 8 phases, while in states like Tamil Nadu and Kerala, polling will be held on a single day. Mamata Banerjee alleged that even one single district has been divided into two or three parts for polling so that Prime Minister Narendra Modi would get more time for campaigning. Strangely, none of the other major political parties, Congress and CPI(M), in Bengal, did not object to the EC’s decision. Mamata Banerjee even went to the extent of alleging that the poll schedule for Bengal was already available in the state BJP office several days ago.
In the assembly elections five years ago, the main fight was between Mamata’s Trinamool Congress and the Congress-CPI(M) alliance, but this time the latter has been overtaken by the BJP, which is giving a stiff fight to the embattled West Bengal chief minister. From March 27 till April 29, West Bengal will go through eight rounds of polling and this has put Mamata in a quandary. However, on Friday, the Trinamool supremo said, her party was grassroot-based and it would deliver a thumping win over BJP.
In the 2016 assembly elections, Mamata had similarly raised objections when the EC had announced six phases of polling. Yet, her party scored a landslide victory, winning 211 out of 294 seats. The Congress could only win 44 seats and the BJP only three.
Mamata is undoubtedly a fighter, she always fights to the last and does not take political losses easily. Therein lies the secret of her victory. It is because of this that the people of Bengal gave Mamata 10 years to rule. But the present scenario is completely different. Many of Mamata’s old and present colleagues have deserted her, and have joined the BJP. In the 2016 assembly polls, BJP stood fourth winning only 3 seats, but in 2019 Lok Sabha polls, BJP won 18 out of a total of 42 parliamentary seats.
At that time, Trinamool Congress got 43.3 per cent votes, while the BJP garnered 40.7 per cent votes. TMC in 2019 got 2.47 crore votes, while BJP got 2.30 crore votes. This, coupled with mass desertion from her party, is giving Mamata sleepless nights. She is the single tallest leader in her party, who is going to begin a whirlwind campaign to counter the BJP election juggernaut. She is raising the issue of Bengali versus Non-Bengali, in order to pander to chauvinistic impulses.
Mamata is objecting to the 8-phase poll because she is the only leader in her party who has the power to draw crowds at election meetings. There is no other leader in TMC to match her crowd-drawing capacity. On the contrary, the BJP has a phalanx of leaders. Party chief J. P. Nadda and Amit Shah have already addressed several well-attended rallies, the Prime Minister has also addressed two rallies, Defence Minister Rajnath Singh and Textile Minister Smriti Irani are also addressing public meetings. UP chief minister and firebrand leader Yogi Aditynath is ready to jump into the high-decibel fray, which will last from the second week of March till the end of April, a whopping 45 days of campaigning.
Hours before the Election Code of Conduct came into force, Mamata Banerjee announced a big hike in the wages of contract labourers. She began her day with a special pooja at her home in Kalighat, organized by her blue-eyed nephew Abhishek Banerjee. The chief priest of Jagannath Temple, Puri, was brought to perform the pooja. This was good optics to pass on the message to the majority of Bengali Hindu voters in Bengal that she believes in Hindu rituals.
The BJP till now had been alleging that Mamata cares little for Bengali Hindus, and she dislikes Hindu gods and goddesses. BJP leaders at their meetings are reminding people how Mamata stood up at the Prime Minister’s meeting and objected to people raising the ‘Jai Shri Ram’ slogans. BJP activists are chanting this slogan at every available opportunity to corner Mamata Banerjee. In reply, Mamata has started reciting Durga Stuti, describing various forms of goddess Durga, at her public meetings, but, in the process, she has begun to alienate the Bengali Muslims.
Notable is the case of the Peerzada Abbas Siddiqui of Furfura Sharif, whose Indian Secular Front has ditched Mamata’s party, and has opted for an adjustment for 30 seats with the Left Front. In an interview with our reporter Archana Singh, the Peerzada said, an alliance was necessary to oust Mamata Banerjee from power. He says, for him, Didi and Modi are the same, and it was Didi who brought BJP to Bengal to counter the Left. The ISF has demanded 70 seats from Congress, but the latter has refused saying there can be no tie-up if the ISF allies with another new entrant, Asaduddin Owaisi’s AIMIM. Owaisi had met the Peerzada two weeks back, but the latter had opted for seat adjustment with the Left. Owaisi is still hopeful of a tie-up with the ISF.
The moot point is that the votes of 28 to 30 per cent Muslim voters in Bengal matter a lot to Mamata Banerjee. Without their support, she cannot dream of retaining power. In her nearly 40 years of politics, Mamata Banerjee has nurtured the Muslim vote bank with care, but times have now changed.
The BJP’s charge of minority appeasement has stuck in the minds of most Bengali Hindu voters. BJP activists are pointing out to voters how Mamata used to don a white ‘dupatta’ on her head and publish ads congratulating Muslims on the occasion of each of their festivals. They are reminding how the Mamata government gave precedence to Moharram ‘tazia’ procession over Druga idol immersions during Bijoyadashami. They are also reminding how her government raised the salaries of masjid imams, but never took care of Hindu temple priests. It is in this context, that at a time when Mamata is trying to prove her Hindu credentials, the Left is making serious moves to regain the support of Muslim voters.
Till now, Mamata’s forte in every election has been that she is an aggressive campaigner, but now she is on the defensive, and the BJP has taken aggressive postures. It now depends on how the BJP poll campaign led by the Prime Minister will evolve in the coming months. There is no doubt that the BJP, at the moment, is on a strong wicket, and Mamata is fighting with her back to the wall.
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