WEST BENGAL: "This election is bipolar. I don’t see anything else at the micro or macro level.”
That’s one of Mamata Banerjee’s key strategists airing his views, post two volatile phases of polling, with six more to go, a process that cumulatively promises to run a bleeding-edge scythe through West Bengal’s political history.
Bengal, particularly Kolkata, is of course teeming with election strategists, free-floating analysts and sundry do-gooders. That’s natural for a state with that kind of heightened political consciousness. But our man stands out for various reasons. For one, no one can be more free-floating than him in an election where the ‘outsider/insider’ binary has been quite pronounced, he’s an outsider on the inside, so to speak, having travelled across a few green fields, been on all sides, peddling his professional wares like a migrant labourer of strategic thought. And he has all the swagger of a new-age visionary.
It’s quite a crowded field, though. Some have come to save Bengal from cultural corruption, others have come to rescue it from petty corruption—cut money, tolabaaji (extortion), political rent-seeking of many shades, all that. It has some benefits. The hotel industry and the fab cafes haven’t seen such brisk business in the last 10 years of Didi’s rule. None of them will say koro na (don’t do it) to this moveable feast, corona or no corona.
Among the migratory flocks, some of the busiest are those who make managing elections their raison d’etre. Like our man. Quite apolitical, they look at elections clinically, through the prism of personality cults, creation of catchphrases and hashtags—all with bands of young, outsourced volunteers. “This election is about Mamata Banerjee,” claims one such strategist, “nothing else matters.” Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who’s thundering forth from more rally pulpits here in Bengal than he may have spoken on some other delicate occasions, pretty much confirms that in his own way. He doesn’t utter a line without mockingly invoking her, intoning the words “Arrey Didi....”
The strategist obviously thinks he knows the best. But Mamata, being the Didi that she is, can’t be scripted to fit into any box—not even the one that’s labelled Banglar meye (daughter of Bengal). She’s too canny for that. In Cooch Behar, for instance, Mamata reminds voters: “This election is not about me. It is about saving Bengal.” Cooch Behar (nine seats) and Alipurduar (five seats), up north, nestled along the restive Chicken’s Neck, are going to polls on April 6.
Subaltern & Muslim votes count in poll fight for Mamata
This border region, with Assam, Bhutan and the hills adding variety to the proximity of Bangladesh, has a slightly distinct air and culture, separate from the rest of Bengal. They represent a spot of bother for her, but she’ll certainly not let it go without a fight, whatever may the strategist’s view be. Quite surprisingly, here she focuses more on the bit players than on her main rival, the BJP. “Don’t fall for that man from Hyderabad” or “the other one from Furfura Sharif,” she says again and again.
“Don’t divide your vote.” Lest her target audience misses the point, she clarifies: “My friends from the minority and SC/ST communities, don’t divide your votes.” That’s a nudge to them to stay away from Asaduddin Owaisi and Abbas Siddiqui, the man who floated a party (ISF) just last month and is in an alliance with the Congress-Left. The ISF, incidentally, has fielded more Dalit than Muslim candidates. Owaisi’s All India Majlis-e- Ittehad-ul-Muslimeen (colloquially shortened to everywhere here as MIM) is testing the waters in a few, limited seats here—and that may just suffice to cut a few crucial TMC votes in Cooch Behar and adjoining Uttar Dinajpur. Siddiqui (or Abbas Baba, as he’s popularly known) is mostly present in the southern parts, where he has some strength.
Not so much up there in the north. Not even in the central districts, which have a high Muslim concentration, and are going to polls in the last three phases. That’s left to its partners to harvest their old fiefs. The TMC does need to maximise its gains here, while cutting its losses elsewhere. The old status quo where central Bengal was seen as a traditional secular Congress stronghold, with a smattering of Left presence, has been broken with communal polarisation. Which is at an all-time high now. Hence, the scramble for 30-40% minority votes in about 70 constituencies between the Sanjukta Morcha (of the Congress- Left-ISF) and the TMC each rivalling the other to corner anti-BJP votes.
Meanwhile, the BJP, which had swept the 2019 Lok Sabha seats in the north, particularly in Cooch Behar, is freely preying everywhere on anti-incumbency votes. And of course, that of neo-converts to Hindu identity politics—a new, burgeoning phenomenon in Bengal. Many districts go to polls only later this month, but work is in full swing. So are WhatsApp videos. The latest is from Siuri, Birbhum, where a Muslim congregation is seen supposedly pledging its votes to saffron! The TMC strategist, for his part, is least bothered. “Let them (as in, BJP) take all the 27 seats in the north. How does it matter? Contrary to propaganda, we’ve done well in the first two phases.
And we’re winning Nandigram.” No escape from Nandigram! The BJP is all too happy to keep the narrative pinned to what they like to call “Didi’s Waterloo”. And thus conjuring up an image of Mamata leading a retreating army, and letting that flow into public consciousness. The strategist asserts all the Nandigram polling brouhaha and the battle of perspectives thereafter, around who won, will have “no impact” on the next rounds of polling.
“It’s done and dusted.” Well…speculation is meanwhile rife that Didi may be looking for a second seat, perhaps in Birbhum. How come? It was sparked off by none other than the Prime Minister. TMC strategists and Didi’s war-room aides vehement ly deny any such possibility. If Didi has the final say on this or anything else, the strategist is poised as a prime influencer of sorts. The influence seems gradually waning, though. As of now, the strategist is discouraging Urban Development Minister Firhad (Bobby) Hakim and MP Nusrat Jahan, both articulate TMC leaders, from campaigning in non-minority-dominated areas. Demands from candidates notwithstanding.
The polarisation is that complete. Didi herself, however, brooks no such rules. Reciting Chandipath on stage and mentioning her gotra (duly mocked by the ‘Hyderabadi’) is no longer her focus as she vociferously courts the minority and SC/ST voters. Didi knows if the TMC cannot maximise its seats in Uttar and Dakshin Dinajpur, Malda, Murshidabad, Birbhum and Burdwan, the game would close in on her. The Morcha may not be making headlines, and may be laughed off as ‘old nostalgia’ with no electoral impact on the ground by the strategist, but Didi clearly thinks otherwise.
When every vote counts, she cannot allow even a semblance of Muslim-Dalit alliance a partly novel idea in these parts, emanating from Abbas Baba, his Morcha, or Oswaisi’s acid tongue—break her wider social alliance. Particularly, when in Nadia, Hooghly, Howrah, North and South 24 Parganas, the BJP is mining local anger with a potent mix of religiosity, to its advantage. Tactically, Didi is now playing opposition politics to stop subaltern votes from deserting her. Didi can really get as bipolar as Bengal when she wants!