‘The way opposition parties such as the Nationalist Congress Party, Shiv Sena, the Samajwadi Party, Rashtriya Janata Dal and the Jharkhand Mukti Morch have supported her, if she wins, she will be the biggest opposition face for 2024’
A decade after she scripted history by defeating the longest-serving democratically elected communist regime of the world, feisty Trinamool Congress supremo Mamata Banerjee is once again on the threshold of a watershed moment as she faces a do-or-die battle in the Bengal assembly elections.
Stakes are high for the tempestuous TMC boss as losing the elections might put a question mark on the very existence of her "ideology-starved" party that has ruled the state since 2011, and winning it would place her in the league of leaders who have engineered the defeat of the formidable Narendra Modi-led Bharatiya Janata Party.
One of the fiercest critics of the Modi brigade, Banerjee is not just single-handedly taking on the well-oiled election machinery of the BJP, but also grappling with unprecedented rebellion and exodus from her party just ahead of the elections.
Desperate to shed the tag of a "sinking ship", the TMC has upped its game with the poll slogan 'Bangla Nijer Meyeke Chai' (Bengal wants its daughter), even as it continued to play the Bengali sub-nationalism card by branding BJP as a party of outsiders.
"This time, the fight seems tougher as we are up against the BJP, which is using money, muscle and the central machinery to seize power in Bengal. Both 2011 and 2016 assembly polls were comparatively less stressful," senior TMC leader and spokesperson Sougata Roy said.
Several Trinamool Congress leaders have their fingers crossed as they believe the party's "political existence will be at stake" if it loses the assembly polls.
Notwithstanding the odds stacked up against her, which includes allegations of corruption and appeasement politics, Banerjee, however, has asserted that her party will smoothly sail to victory, and has set a target of bagging 220 of the 294 seats.
Elections in Bengal, poised to be a stiff contest between the TMC and the BJP, will be held in eight phases, beginning with polling for 30 seats on March 27. Votes will be counted on May 2.
Born out of the womb of the Congress in 1998, the TMC, after two unsuccessful attempts in 2001 and 2006, came to power by defeating the mighty Left Front regime in 2011, riding the crest of massive public outrage against the communists.
Banerjee further tightened her grip on the levers of power in West Bengal in 2016, when she beat the communists hollow, winning 211 seats.
Things, however, went haywire during the 2019 Lok Sabha polls, when the BJP, milking its pro-National Register of Citizens and Citizenship Amendment Act campaign, bagged 18 of the 42 Lok Sabha seats in Partition-scarred Bengal, just four less than the TMC.
State Food Supplies Minister Jyotipriyo Mullick told PTI the party had been working hard since June 2019 for a turnaround in its political fortunes, and the appointment of poll strategist Prashant Kishor and his I-PAC team for the 2021 assembly polls was the first step in that direction.
Buoyed by the "positive" response to its 'insider versus outsider' campaign, the TMC leadership has embraced 'Bengali pride' and created a poll narrative around women power to counter the BJP's identity politics.
However, charges of minority appeasement, corruption at the ground level, especially during cyclone Amphan, unemployment woes, mass exodus from the party and entry of Pirzada Abbas Siddiqui's Indian Secular Front (ISF) might be some of the factors that could go against the party.
According to TMC sources, ISF's entry into Bengal's poll arena will further deepen the communal divide and help the BJP by eating into the ruling party's Muslim vote base, but the ruling camp also knows that a good show by the Left-Cong-ISF alliance might prove detrimental for the saffron camp.
"The ISF may not win seats but could cause harm to the TMC by cutting into our Muslim votes and further pushing the Hindus towards the BJP. But overall, if the grand alliance performs well, it will be an advantage for us. On our part, there has been a careful shift in policy -- from Muslim appeasement to soft Hindutva," a senior leader of the Mamata Banerjee camp said.
Among other measures, doles for Hindu priests and Durga Puja committees are a part of the TMC's well-crafted strategy to blunt the allegations of minority appeasement and take the winds out of BJP's sails.
"Also, to beat anti-incumbency, we have fielded greenhorns and swapped candidates in at least 160 seats," the senior leader said.
Talking about corruption charges, Roy said the BJP has inducted those very leaders it had earlier levelled allegations against.
Several senior leaders and ministers of the TMC government, including 24 MLAs, one sitting MP, political heavyweight Suvendu Adhikari and Rajib Banerjee, switched over to the BJP over the last few months.
In an attempt to boost the sulking cadre base, Banerjee has taken the fight to Adhikari's backyard, deciding to contest from Nandigram constituency, where a bloody anti-land acquisition movement set the platform for the TMC's home run in 2011.
"Our party is driven by only person, Mamata Banerjee. It is because of her charisma we win elections. Few leaders leaving the party won't have an impact. And regarding unemployment, Narendra Modi had promised two crore jobs every year. What about that? In Bengal, we have generated job opportunities with due thrust on the MSME sector," Roy said.
Apart from its 'Bengali pride' poll plank, lack of a credible chief ministerial face in the rival camp could work in TMC's favour.
"The BJP doesn't have a face in Bengal to counter Mamata Banerjee. They don't have a narrative to counter Bengali pride, and that is why they are trying to hijack the legacy of the Bengali icons. The BJP is a party of outsiders in Bengal," TMC leader Bratya Basu said.
The publication of the final NRC list in Assam in 2019, which excluded over 19 lakh people, including 14 lakh Hindus -- mostly Bengalis -- and the dillydallying over implementation of the CAA, also gave TMC the golden opportunity to not only infiltrate the BJP's politically crucial Matua and Namashudra vote bases, but also project it as an "anti-Bengali" party.
Led by Kishor, the I-PAC and the TMC leadership has also carried out a rectification drive within the party by expelling or sidelining grassroots leaders who did not have a good image, and identifying the moles who had sabotaged the party in 2019.
The TMC dispensation, in order to ensure every citizen gets to benefit from its social welfare schemes, launched two programmes -- 'Duare Sarkar' (government at your doorstep) and 'Paray Paray Samadhan' (solution in every neighbourhood) -- which garnered a massive response across the state.
The party also hopes to cash in on the anger among people, especially the middle class and lower middle class, over the steep hike in fuel and LPG price, and Banerjee has already hit the road in protest against it.
Political analysts feel that the elections will be a do-or-die battle for the TMC, as there are chances the party might disintegrate if it is ousted from power.
"TMC's ideology has been anti-CPI-M politics; they don't have any ideological base. But with the CPI-M nowhere in the scene, it has no binding glue apart from being a party in power. And, if it does not remain in power, its very existence will be in crisis," political analyst Biswanath Chakraborty said.
Political scientist Subhamoy Maitra feels if the TMC loses, it will face the challenge of "keeping the flock together".
Another political pundit, Suman Bhattacharya, said it's a "watershed moment in Indian politics" if Banerjee emerges victorious, as she will probably be the strongest opposition face for the 2024 general elections.
"TMC's narrative of Bengali pride and Bengal wants its daughter slogan will have a huge impact. The way opposition parties such as the Nationalist Congress Party, Shiv Sena, the Samajwadi Party, Rashtriya Janata Dal and the Jharkhand Mukti Morch have supported her, if she wins, she will be the biggest opposition face for 2024," he said.
Many of these parties have shelved their plans to contest the assembly elections, but extended support to Banerjee.
Although they hardly have any presence in Bengal and their support is "symbolic of the opposition unity against the BJP", the RJD and SP could mobilise a section of Hindi-speaking voters in favour of the TMC.
The opposition BJP, on its part, is confident that people of the state have made up their minds to install a "double engine government" in the state, as they are fed up with the "misrule and appeasement politics" of the TMC government.