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Didi or BJP: Who will win Bengal?

May 12, 2019 11:28 IST

BJP hopes to win 23 seats; TMC all of Bengal's 42 seats.
Nivedita Mookerji reports.

IMAGE: West Bengal Chief Minister and Trinamool Congress President Mamata Banerjee at an election rally in Dhubri, Bengal, May 10, 2019. Photograph: PTI Photo

IMAGE: West Bengal Chief Minister and Trinamool Congress President Mamata Banerjee at an election rally in Dhubri. Photograph: PTI Photo

Derek O'Brien, chief national spokesperson and leader of the Trinamool Congress in the Rajya Sabha, rushed to take a call on his mobile while speaking to this correspondent on Friday afternoon.

On the other side was 'Didi', as Bengal Chief Minister and TMC founder Mamata Banerjee is popularly known. Worried that former Bharatiya Janata Party leader Yashwant Sinha, now backing the TMC, had suddenly fallen ill while campaigning in Kolkata, Banerjee wanted to ensure he was taken care of in the best possible way.

Pilot cars and a team of helpers were sent out in no time and Didi was promised hourly updates on Sinha's health.

 

Cyclone Fani, that hit the Odisha coast, washed out the election campaign posters in West Bengal as well, giving some free time to thousands of political managers who have been working 24x7 for weeks now.

But Banerjee, who too cancelled all her campaigns, rallies and public meetings for 48 hours, got busy with precautionary measures, including shutting down of airports.

Engaged in regular face-offs with Prime Minister Narendra Damodardas Modi through her speeches and Twitter messages as West Bengal has emerged one of the most important states in the 2019 Lok Sabha election, Banerjee has been doing two to three rallies or meetings daily.

The total count is between 84 and 102 rallies, mostly flying in and out of constituencies in a chopper that is mostly parked in the grounds where she addresses gatherings up to 8,000 to 10,000. The Behala Flying Club is often the take-off point for this leader who is fighting it all out to block the BJP from making further inroads into the state, according to people in the know.

While it's tough to chase Banerjee on her back-to-back campaign trail as she is invariably before time and reaches the next venue in her waiting helicopter much faster than anybody else can, the buzz on a growing support base for Modi is hard to ignore.

At a rally addressed by Banerjee in Palta, a town in the Barrackpore constituency, a homemaker said earlier this week, "Modi delivers, he's a strong leader." She has many backers. A state government official, requesting anonymity, said, "Any coalition government at the Centre will be no good, we need a strong leader at the top and Modi is the answer."

O'Brien doesn't want to get into numbers on how many seats the TMC and BJP could win. "I'm not a psephologist," he says, but adds that the TMC would stick to its target of all 42 seats in West Bengal.

BJP national President Amit Anilchandra Shah recently projected 23 out of 42 for his party in the state. If that happens, the BJP would add 21 to its current kitty of two in the state.

In the 2014 Lok Sabha election, the TMC won 34 seats, followed by the Congress's four, the BJP's two and the CPI-M's two.

"Let's compare on May 23, who's closer to the truth," O'Brien says. "The BJP is likely to be the main Opposition party when it comes to Lok Sabha seats from West Bengal. Nothing more."

While political analysts pointed out that the BJP's Bengal vote share could increase from around 17% in 2014, they argued it is being over-ambitious on the number of seats it could get. The BJP could well get the seats that the Congress and CPI-M had got five years ago, that could push up its tally to around eight.

On the other hand, the BJP, which does not have any strong public face in West Bengal, is laughing at the TMC's "optimism".

At the non-descript BJP headquarters, next to Yunani Diagnostics in Kolkata's College Square, Tushar Kanti Ghosh, state secretary of the party, says, "We are likely to cross 30 seats in West Bengal. Earlier, the estimate was more than 20, but the support base is swelling."

Leaving nothing to chance, Modi and Shah have been campaigning in the state regularly. According to TMC partymen, there is no match between Didi's connect with people and that of Modi and Shah who don't know the language of the majority in the state.

On whether Banerjee could become the PM if the mahagatbandhan coalition were to form the government at the Centre, O'Brien says she certainly had the CV for the top job. "But the TMC doesn't mind being the squirrel," he says, elaborating that in every garden squirrels are needed to do the ground work.

"It's a different matter that squirrels can sometimes become the queen of the garden," he jokes, while sipping tea at his Ballygunge office.

Meanwhile, the pre-election coalition that was announced in January, is holding meetings to join the manifestos of the various parties, so that no time is wasted if the BJP and its allies fail to form the next government, it is learnt.

Banerjee, who is still shying away from media interviews barring to a couple of television channels, is spearheading the coalition work.

In the process, she doesn't miss her twice a day exercise regime -- 90 minutes on the treadmill and a round of brisk walk.

A frugal eater, Didi loves her muri, according to a senior party representative. And she can't stay away from her mobile phone, WhatsApp and Facebook.

Nivedita Mookerji Kolkata
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