The ‘khela’ in West Bengal will hold the nation in thrall, diverting attention away from polls in the other three states and the lone Union Territory. The challenger and the incumbent are such fierce fighters, they are certain to throw into this battle all that they have. And both have everything, plus some in their electoral arsenals to make it an epic fight.
A little snapshot of what we can expect in the next two months, till the votes are counted on May 2, was available on Sunday, March 7. Leading their respective troops field upfront, neither Prime Minister Narendra Modi nor embattled Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee left anything to chance. The almost simultaneous rallies, the one at the famous Brigade Ground in Kolkata and the other in Siliguri, vied for national eyeballs.
The TMC leader sought to highlight the growing misery of women due to the zooming prices of the LPG cylinder, walking through the streets of Siliguri with a replica of the LPG cylinder displayed at the head of the padyatra. There was no question Mamata was fighting with her back to the wall. Repulsing the challenge from the ruling party at the Centre might be far harder than it was to dislodge the Communists. They had run out of steam following 34 years of an unbroken misrule in the state.
‘Poriborton’, which expelled the Left Front from the Writers’ Building in 2011, might well yield to ‘Ashol Poriborton’ in 2021. As the mammoth and enthusiastic crowd at the Brigade Ground showed on Sunday, the bid to paint the BJP an outsider may have already faltered. A sea of humanity gathered for long hours to hear the Prime Minister sound the bugle for the battle of Bengal was certainly local. It was not outsider by any stretch of the imagination. Nor were those seated at the huge dais from outside. In fact, the leading lights in the front row on the stage were until very recently, Mamata’s close lieutenants.
So, if the Trinamool Congress persists with this line of propaganda, targeting the BJP as an outsider, it is bound to come to further grief. Besides, the star power on display on Sunday whom the BJP had snagged in its bid to have a prominent celebrity from the state was the darling of Bengal and not very long ago, a member of the TMC contingent in the Rajya Sabha. Mithun Chakraborty, the ‘Disco Dancer’ of the 80s and 90s, is probably expected to counter the regional star power that the TMC has marshalled both in the state legislature and Parliament.
How he connects with the voters remains to be seen, but, again, it would be wrong to single him out for shifting loyalties when the state BJP leadership is dominated by the leavers from the TMC. And the latter itself was able to eject the jaded but well-entrenched Marxists from power in 2011 by dint of the mass defections from the then ruling Left Front. In short, voters are indifferent to the frequent change of party labels by aspiring politicians. One correct way to read the exodus from the ruling party might be to figure out which way the electoral wind is blowing, though some may well have been persuaded by the fear of the Central investigating agencies.
Meanwhile, in the coming weeks, as the campaign gathers momentum, the Modi-Mamata exchange of barbs from the stump are bound to pep up the election scene. On Sunday, the PM put to use Mamata’s ‘Khel Hobe’, only to train the guns on her: “They are experienced players, people in Bengal know how they have looted them through corruption and scams… Didi, you have played so many games on corruption that an Olympics Games can be organised.” The sharpest and perhaps the unkindest barb concerned her nephew and political heir: “Bengal chose you in the role of Didi but you ended up being one nephew’s ‘bua’.”
Of course, the PM made promises of ‘sonar Bangla’ should his party win the mandate, talking of corruption-free ‘vikas’ jobs, ‘double-engine’ growth, jobs, women empowerment, etc., but, frankly, the Bengal voter may have already decided for whom to vote. Though as the polling day approaches, the ground-level polarisation might well further deepen people’s voting preference on religious lines, with the near one-third Muslim vote confused between the TMC and the Left-Congress-Indian Secular Front of the Furfura Sharif.
The BJP seems reconciled not to bank on the Muslim vote for winning elections, be it Bengal or any other part of the country. Meanwhile, Mamata’s SOS to various Opposition leaders to extend help would indicate that she senses trouble. Though the Congress is part of the ruling coalitions in Maharashtra and Jharkhand, but the NCP and the Jharkhand Mukti Morcha are lending support, for whatever it may be worth, to Mamata, and not to the Congress-Left-ISF alliance in West Bengal. Strange, isn’t it?