The party believes that Mamata's poor handling of the pandemic and the devastation brought on by Cyclone Amphan will provide it the political fillip it needs, reports Radhika Ramaseshan.
Weighed down by the Covid-19 pandemic and devastated by the Cyclone Amphan, Mamata Banerjee, West Bengal Chief Minister and Trinamool Congress president, recently spoke with her party’s elected representatives in a video conference to elicit their feedback on the impact of the crises. It is reliably learnt that those who chipped in gave a buoyant account of the ground situation.
Prashant Kishor, political consultant hired by Mamata to help strategise and form a plan of attack on the Bharatiya Janata Party in the 2021 assembly elections, interceded and counselled caution.
Mamata and Abhishek Banerjee, her nephew who helms the TMC’s youth wing, heard out Kishor intently, almost disregarding the picture that emerged earlier. Denying a recollection of the meeting, Kishor said: “I am always for being cautious. I don’t recall any such specific incident but these sentiments play out usually as routine.”
With the BJP emerging as the TMC’s principal challenger -- and a belligerent one at that -- Mamata had reasons not to be “overly optimistic” about a rerun, a political source said. After an unsuccessful trial run for years, the BJP spectacularly opened its account in the 2019 Lok Sabha polls, winning 18 of the 42 seats and securing a 40.25 per cent vote share, just 3.03 per cent behind the TMC that won 22 seats. The BJP was significantly ahead of the Left Front and the Congress.
Thereafter, it did not rest on its laurels; it painted the TMC into a corner on whatever issue that came its way, although privately sources acknowledged that the “aggression” did not add to a critical mass.
The BJP believed that together, the pandemic and the cyclone provided the political fillip it wanted.
“Mamata Banerjee realises that the TMC’s regional henchmen are not under her control because it’s not a cadre-driven party. Lately, the Left has been more visible. Its cadre is not being obstructed by the TMC, while the BJP is being hampered. This means one thing, that Mamata hopes that the Left voters who shifted to the BJP (in 2019) will return to the parent and help her out,” said Anirban Ganguly, director of the Syama Prasad Mookerjee Research Foundation, a BJP think tank.
Ganguly, who authored a book on Amit Shah, the Union home minister, and works with West Bengal’s thought leaders aligned with the BJP, added: “After the Covid-19 crisis, her goodwill collapsed. In the next eight months, if people remember her mismanagement of the pandemic and the cyclone, her image will further erode.”
Swapan Dasgupta, Rajya Sabha MP, who is associated with opinion moulders like the Association for Development of Bengal and the Rashtriya Shaikshik Mahasangh, amplified Mamata’s “failures”.
“If the Covid-19 crisis exposed her incompetence at all levels, the cyclone showed a degree of unpreparedness that is unacceptable. There was highhanded corruption in relief distribution and cutbacks in direct benefit transfers. When the targeted beneficiaries protested, TMC workers intimidated them. Funds earmarked for housing reconstruction were cornered by those whose houses weren’t damaged,” alleged Dasgupta.
On June 9, when Shah launched the poll campaign through a virtual rally, called the Banglar Janasamabesh, he flagged the talking points that are expected to form the kernel of the BJP’s anti-TMC offensive: Corruption, extortions, violence, infiltration, terror, appeasement, and nepotism, embodied in the alleged anointment of Abhishek as Mamata’s heir-apparent.
That the BJP’s campaign will fuse the local with the national was evident when Shah attacked Mamata for opposing the Citizenship Amendment Act and for stalling the arrival of the special Shramik trains that brought the migrants home.
Abhishek tried to even the score in a tweet that said: “...since he (Shah) talked about his dream of seeing ‘EXIT’ of TMC, I would like to ask him... When are the Chinese EXITING our territory."
Subrato Chattopadhyay, the BJP’s state general secretary (organisation), however, claimed, “Whatever way the campaign panned out”, on the ground, people had gravitated towards his party. “Our relief efforts were blocked by Mamata’s workers. Fake FIRs were filed against our members. But everywhere people voluntarily helped us out so our work continued unhindered,” he said.
The latent message beneath the governance overload will be “minority appeasement”. “The BJP will endeavour to polarise Hindus and Muslims,” a political source stressed.
Can the BJP confidently state that it stands on a critical threshold? A party source conceded: “It’s tempting to say that. At the same time, the BJP doesn’t necessarily have the organisational wherewithal or commitment to rush through with its plans.”
The manifest unwillingness to declare a CM face is an unknown quantity. “Mamata’s going to say I am the person who knows the soil. Who’s on the other side?” a source said.
The BJP’s best bet is working towards creating a situation in which Mamata will be left defenceless against its campaign. “If her unpopularity peaks, the absence of a CM candidate from the BJP is not germane,” a source contended and held Tripura as an example. The BJP had decried former CM Manik Sarkar to such a degree that it was voted to power despite not declaring a replacement for Sarkar.