The 2021 Assembly election in West Bengal may well be the most crucial battle for Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee and her Trinamool Congress to remain relevant in the country’s politics. The party has the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) breathing down its neck at a time when it is plagued by internal feuds, large-scale defections by leaders and workers and allegations of widespread corruption. There is also a strong anti-incumbency sentiment working against it.
While Mamata Banerjee has been projected as one of the last few leaders standing up against a marauding BJP’s ambition to control all the States of the country, a possible four-cornered contest in an already polarised political environment will undoubtedly make this election one of the toughest challenges the ever-combative Trinamool supremo has faced.
Although she remains West Bengal’s tallest mass leader, who is extremely popular even after 10 years in power, the 2019 Lok Sabha election looms large on the psyche of Trinamool workers. The Trinamool could manage to win only 22 out of the State’s 42 Lok Sabha seats,12 fewer than what it had won in the previous election. What should be particularly worrying for the ruling party is that the 2019 election in West Bengal was not so much about a pro-BJP surge as it was about anti-incumbency sentiments working against it. In spite of Mamata Banerjee’s much-publicised development work in the districts, local issues worked against her party—the high-handedness of grassroots leaders and the alleged corruption at the lower levels of the party hierarchy. After the election results were out, when it became clear that the issues working against her party were far deeper and more complex than what her politics of dole could overcome, a visibly disturbed Mamata Banerjee said: “Maybe I have focussed a bit too much on administration instead of my own party.”
The party leadership is prone to dismiss the alleged instances of corruption as “stray incidents” or “creation of the media” fuelled by “lies of the opposition”. Yet, the election outcome in some Assembly segments in 2019 revealed breaches in several Trinamool strongholds. Even in Singur—a name synonymous with Mamata Banerjee’s rise to power—the BJP secured 93,177 votes against the Trinamool’s 82,758. A bitter grouse against the Trinamool across West Bengal’s rural belt was the manner in which it did not allow the panchayat elections of 2018 to take place in a free and fair manner. “They did not allow us to cast our votes” was the sullen, ubiquitous complaint.
In the months following the upset of the Lok Sabha election, the Trinamool appeared to have bounced back with its high-pitched agitation against the Citizenship (Amendment) Act (CAA) and the National Register of Citizens (NRC). It not only won the byelections to three Assembly seats, but also beat the BJP in its own strongholds of Kaliaganj and Kharagpur Sadar constituencies. However, though the anti-CAA protests continued, the crowds attending Mamata Banerjee’s rallies began to dwindle, while those organised by student bodies attracted more protesters. With the elections coming up, Mamata Banerjee has once again been referring to the CAA and the NRC in her campaign, though they have not been the main issues in her speeches.
If the anti-CAA agitation somewhat revived the Trinamool’s flagging political fortunes, subsequent events once again put her party on the back foot. The outbreak of COVID-19 exposed embarrassing gaps in the State’s health sector. Protests over irregularities in the disbursal of relief following Cyclone Amphan, which ravaged coastal Bengal and Kolkata on May 20, 2020, once again had the ruling party on the ropes.
Exodus of leaders
In the midst of all these, what has hit the party the hardest is the exodus of important Trinamool leaders to the BJP. The trend began soon after the 2019 election. The most spectacular defection came recently with Suvendu Adhikari joining the BJP in a public meeting attended by Union Home Minister Amit Shah on December 19, 2020. This was the biggest political development ahead of the forthcoming election, for the former Cabinet minister was arguably the most influential mass leader in the party after Mamata Banerjee. His influence is not confined to just his own constituency but stretches over several districts. Nine other Trinamool lawmakers and several district and block-level leaders joined the BJP along with him.
Suvendu Adhikari’s departure has symbolic significance. His constituency and stronghold of Nandigram is a symbol of Mamata Banerjee’s fight against the Communist Party of India (Marxist)-led Left Front. The movement in Nandigram followed the killing of 14 villagers, including women, in police firing on March 14, 2007, during an agitation against the Left Front government’s forcible acquisition of land for industrial use. It was arguably the most important mass movement Mamata Banerjee ever led, and it propelled her party to power in 2011. Yet, although the agitation took place in her name, it was Suvendu Adhikari who led it from the front. His departure means there is a risk of Nandigram, like Singur, slipping out of the Trinamool’s grasp.
On January 18, addressing a rally at Tekhali in Nandigram, Mamata Banerjee dropped a surprise: she said she would contest from Nandigram as well as from her old constituency of Bhawanipore in Kolkata. Proclaiming that Nandigram was a “lucky” place for her, she said: “What if I contest from Nandigram? How will that be? … I will tell Subrata Bakshi [West Bengal Trinamool president] that I want to contest from here and my name should be included from Nandigram.”
Suvendu Adhikari shot back by saying he would quit politics if he was not able to defeat his erstwhile leader by a minimum of 50,000 votes. As the two biggest mass leaders of the State square up against each other, the sleepy fishing hamlet in Purba Medinipur is once again in the news 13 years after the violence that had made national headlines.
If the BJP has not been choosy about those wishing to cross over from the Trinamool, accepting even tainted leaders and those with dwindling popularity, the Trinamool, too, has not been judgmental in its attempt to retain people who have been embarrassing the party in its time of crisis. Even in the face of evidence of betrayal by party members, the party is not in a position to expel those who tried to join the BJP but were rejected. While it is saying “good riddance” to those who have left to join the BJP, it has also made it clear that it is ready to welcome them back.
Shiraj Khan, an influential Trinamool leader from Purba Medinipur who joined the BJP in November 2020, was welcomed back into the Trinamool on January 17. He said he had made a mistake in trying to join the BJP. Earlier, Jitendra Tiwari, Trinamool MLA from Asansol, had also announced that he would join the BJP but was forced to stay on in the Trinamool because of opposition from the rank and file of the saffron party. He, too, said he had made a mistake. Rajib Banerjee, an influential and able party organiser from Howrah district, has repeatedly spoken out against the Trinamool leadership in public, but no steps are seen to be taken. On January 22, he stepped down as State Forest Minister, and according to sources he, too, will join the BJP. Rajib Banerjee has been saying that flatterers are being rewarded in the Trinamool, while honest and efficient workers are shunted to the back rows. Indeed, the spate of defections seem to have opened floodgates of grievances within the party.
The contradiction between what the party leadership says and what it actually does about disgruntled members is not lost on the foot soldiers and local leaders. A Trinamool source told Frontline : “This is not going down well among workers who are ready to bleed for the party. On the one hand, they are asking why big leaders are leaving us, and on the other, they want to know why those who are harming the party are being allowed to stay.” CPI(M) Polit Bureau member Surjya Kanta Mishra put it succinctly: “It was the Trinamool that first introduced the practice of defection in the State, and now they themselves are falling victim to it.”
Confusion and uncertainty
The direct fallout of all this is confusion and uncertainty among party workers. An atmosphere of suspicion and mistrust is prevalent among the higher-ups as well. Those known to be close to the defectors are seen to be shunted out of positions of responsibility and replaced by their rivals. Most recently, Sisir Adhikari, Lok Sabha member and one of the most senior and respected members of the party, was unceremoniously removed from his organisational responsibilities even though he had chosen to remain with the Trinamool and not follow his sons Suvendu and Soumendu into the BJP. On the other hand, the party has reinstated discredited leaders like Kunal Ghosh and Chhatradhar Mahato in important organisational positions. Kunal Ghosh, an accused in the multi-crore Saradha fund collection scam, had once accused Mamata Banerjee of being its “biggest beneficiary”. (The scam ruined lakhs of investors belonging to the lower-income bracket.) Chattradhar Mahato, a former Maoist, was in prison for 10 years before he was released in February 2020. Both were inducted into the Trinamool State Committee.
The opposition parties have interpreted these moves as acts of desperation. The Trinamool maintains it has nothing to worry about as far as the opposition is concerned, particularly the BJP. The party hopes that the success of its new outreach programmes—Duare Sarkar (Government at the Doorstep), Paray Paray Samadhan (Redressal in the Neighbourhood) and Swastha Sathi (free health insurance scheme for every citizen), and free ration until the election—will neutralise any anti-incumbency sentiment. (According to the State government, Duare Sarkar has reached over two crore people in the span of just over two months.) The party also believes that its constant attacks on the BJP’s national policies will wrest away some support from the BJP.
Party spokesperson Om Prakash Mishra told Frontline : “There is a deep disconnect between the macro aspects as projected by a section of the media and the micro picture. At the macro level, the national media are projecting a favourable picture for the BJP, but at the micro level we see it is completely in favour of the Trinamool. We have not only been able to reach out to people with programmes like Duare Sarkar, but have also galvanised our workers through the programme ‘Banga Dhani’ [Call of Bengal].”
According to Mishra, defections from the BJP to the Trinamool are also taking place in a big way. “The entire association of retired police officers of the BJP has joined the Trinamool Congress, and so have thousands of BJP supporters, mainly from Scheduled Castes and Other Backward Classes in the rural areas. Since the Trinamool controls the entire spectrum of representation at the panchayat and municipal levels, a few people leaving for the BJP make big news,” he said.
One defection from the BJP to the Trinamool made big news. Sujata Mandal Khan, wife of the high-profile BJP Lok Sabha member from Bishnupur, Saumitra Khan, quit the BJP saying it was difficult for her to continue when people like Suvendu Adhikari were being welcomed into the party. “People who have shed blood for the party are being ignored and undeserving people coming from the Trinamool are being given prominence,” she said. Saumitra, who himself had defected from the Trinamool in January 2019, accused the Trinamool of having “stolen” his wife and announced he would divorce Sujata for what she had done. Interestingly, Sujata played a crucial role in Saumitra’s Lok Sabha victory. A High Court order prevented Saumitra from campaigning in his constituency before the election. Sujata led the campaign in Bishnupur on his behalf.
The Trinamool has the upper hand in the tug-of-war over the issue of who represents Bengal’s culture and identity best. While the Trinamool has labelled the BJP as a party of “outsiders” with little in common with Bengal’s heritage, central leaders of the BJP have been struggling to establish themselves as representatives of Bengal’s culture. The fumbles with Bengali pronunciation by central BJP leaders and confusion over facts are quickly pointed out and highlighted by the Trinamool.
Worry over Muslim votes
Notwithstanding its stronger organisation at the booth level, a polarisation of Hindu votes toward the BJP requires the Trinamool to hold on to its Muslim support base. The new Muslim platform, which includes Asaduddin Owaisi’s All India Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen and influential local Islamist leader Abbas Siddiqui’s recently formed party Indian Secular Front, threatens to divide the minority vote. Even though the Trinamool has dismissed the new front as a marginal player that will not be able to make much headway with Muslim votes, it cannot afford to ignore the Left-Congress combine. The alliance can cause considerable damage by attracting anti-BJP voters who are disillusioned with the Trinamool.
THE PRASHANT KISHOR FACTOR
The coming to the fore of constant conflicts within the party is perhaps what worries the Trinamool the most ahead of the election. Not only has it been unable to contain violent factional fights, it is also having trouble smoothening out ruffled feathers across the party structure. The overt dependence on the political strategist Prashant Kishor (PK) has also not gone down well with a section of party workers. From being a political strategist who remained unnoticed in the background, PK has been seen increasingly in the forefront, be it restructuring the party or negotiating with disgruntled party leaders; he has even put his reputation on the line by claiming on social media that he would quit Twitter if the BJP did not “struggle to cross double digits” in the election. An aggrieved Trinamool activist told Frontline : “He is not our leader, and yet we are expected to do as he and his team of youngsters order.” Many party leaders are also unhappy with the powers that have been given to PK and his team, even though they have been tight-lipped about it in public so far. Mihir Goswami, the Trinamool Congress heavyweight from Cooch Behar, spoke out against Kishor before joining the BJP.
For all the pressure her party may be in, Mamata Banerjee still retains her combative street-fighter instincts and her canny counter-punching abilities. She is still projected as the strongest voice against the BJP in the country. In the 2016 Assembly election, with her party reeling under the multi-crore Saradha scam and the sting operation that exposed top Trinamool leaders accepting cash on camera, Mamata Banerjee appealed to the people to believe that she was the candidate in all 294 seats. It worked, and her party secured 211 seats. But can the same trick be performed twice for the same audience with equal success? It now remains to be seen whether her personal appeal, along with the late burst of reach-out programmes, will ultimately prevail over all the odds and bring back the Trinamool for its third consecutive term in power.