Politics is botany in West Bengal. A political garden war is on between two distinct floral species: the blooming lotus versus two leaves and flower clinging to its grassroots. The BJP hopes its lotus symbol will edge out Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee’s leaves. The Congress and arch-rival CPI(M) alliance against her is more symbolism than symbols. Political paraglider Asaduddin Owaisi’s AIMM symbolises a gadfly wishing to become a butterfly. The famed Eden Gardens has turned into muddy political slush where Mamata is facing much mudslinging from antagonists and disgruntled defectors.
Twenty-two years ago, Mamata floated the TMC to obliterate the CPI(M). A prolific painter, it was she who conceived her party’s symbol. She explains the philosophy behind the logo on the party website, “It was the message of secularism. ‘Ek e brinte duti kusum, Hindu Musalman, ekjon tar noyonmoni onno ti tar pran’ (Two buds on the tree, Hindu and Muslim) If one of them is the eye, then the other is life)”. The Election Commission reluctantly approved the logo but also strictured that if the TMC failed to get six percentage of votes in the 12th Lok Sabha polls, the logo would be binned. Mamata raced past the cut-off percentage and the party came into its own.
Later, she would win numerous elections by mobilising both Muslims and Hindus. The 2021 dynamics will determine whether this election will be Mamata’s last stand or Modi’s first hurrah in Bengal. Lone ranger Mamata’s twin virtues are unifying communities and taking her rivals head on. The BJP is her most powerful and dangerous foe. Bengal, the land of the bhadralok and liberal intellectuals, has become a battleground to demolish individuals rather than replacing the party in power. If in rest of the country, the struggle is between Modi and the rest of the Opposition, it is just between Mamata and everyone else in Bengal.
Having tasted blood in the 2019 Lok Sabha elections, the BJP has converted Kolkata into a warzone where senior leaders like Amit Shah and others have launched a blitzkrieg against Fort Mamata. For both the BJP and the Left, Didi is the deadliest political peril who has torched Sonar Bangla. They realise that she has projected herself as the commoner’s champion. For many years, she lived in a semi pucca roadside house as chief minister. She dresses in a trademark white cotton sari and wears only sandals — ironically, a Maximum Marxist of the masses.
It was her earthy personality that enabled her to uproot the Left Front government after 34 years of uninterrupted Red rule. However, there is a dark side to her that the BJP is shining its saffron torch on.
Mamata’s name is synonymous with corruption and nepotism. She is the ultimate minority appeaser. The TMC uses arms and violence to silence Mamata’s opponents and capture power. But Didi to her followers and Pishi to others, the feisty chief minister is armed with arsenal and agenda. Her admirers believe that she is the only tall Opposition leader who stands in the way of Modi conquering East India.
When the BJP took out a three kilometre road show, she beat them with a six kilometre yatra of her own. If her supporters are attacked, the TMC’s retaliation is equally murderous. Undoubtedly, Mamata is being pushed against the wall today. She is confronted with a massive revolt and corruption allegations. She has also been accused of invoking family rule through her nephew. But she is only being true to her nature and political style. She reportedly began her political career unafraid to walk directly into the fire.
In the mid- 1970s, when Jayaprakash Narain was the prime crusader against Indira Gandhi, Mamata parked herself on his car bumper during a Kolkata protest, almost perched on the bonnet, to make feisty orations. In 1984, she became the youngest Lok Sabha member by defeating the colossal comrade Somnath Chatterjee. Didi is known to resort to extreme positions to serve her purpose. When she found the Congress was soft towards the Marxists, she chose to go it alone. In 1996, as a token gesture of defiance, she wrapped a black shawl around her and threatened self-immolation in Alipore. A year later, she left the Congress to launch TMC.
Mamata Banerjee’s journey from an ordinary Youth Congress leader to Writer’s Building has numerous high points. She was India’s first female railway minister. She is the first female chief minister of Bengal. Mamata’s TINA factor is the TMC’ sales pitch. The party claims that during her ten-year rule, the state has performed in a stellar fashion on various parameters from GDP growth to all social sectors. Partymen claim Bengal is much better place to live and prosper now. Mamata stopped capital flight from the state. She created a new social engineering superstructure enabling the rich and the poor, Hindus and the Muslims, and labourers and the owners to survive and thrive together.
A post graduate in Islamic History, she is trying to retain her secular unifier image. Thanks to her excessive electoral elevation of the minorities, Mamata could grab over two thirds of seats in the previous Assembly elections. Her credibility as the messiah of Muslims was well-established when she left the NDA. Since rural Bengal played decisive role in the electoral victory of the Left, she took up the farmers’ cause. When the CPI-M government acquired land from farmers in Singur, Mamata sat on a 25-day hunger strike. She was able to wean away the intellectuals from the Communists through peaceful protest, which was in contrast with the bloody scythe and hammer method the Marxists used to govern and terrify Bengalis.
At the same time, she is politically sensitive to the nuances of the corporate world. Now, she aims to create a new record by winning a third term and become the longest serving chief minister after Jyoti Basu in Bengal. Didi’s adversaries are trying to split her vote bank comprising both the minorities and the majority. They have weaponised her dictatorial style to split her party. The BJP, a master at partitioning parties through either persuasive or punitive actions, is the most active player on the board. Over the past two years, it has wooed away some of the TMC’s tainted powerful grassroots leaders.
It has polarised Hindu voters by raising the issue of liberal financial grants to Muslim institutions by the TMC government. According to Bengal watchers, it is cognisant of the reality that winning a majority of 150 seats as against just four now is almost impossible unless it can split the Muslim vote that constitutes over 28 per cent of the electorate and decides the final outcome in 70 seats.
The BJP, however, hasn’t projected any Muslim leaders of its own. In 2011, of the 184 seats TMC won 25 were Muslims; the number rose to 32 in 2016. But there are others who want to split the Muslim votes, too. Owaisi is likely to contest 70 Assembly seats which are the TMC’s sure bets. The Congress-Left alliance will also cleave the Muslim and pro-TMC votes. It is not that any party is offering a better agenda for governance. The Bengal pitch is a game of four Ms — Mamata, Modi, Marxists and the Muslims.
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