“The first step in solving a problem is to recognise that it does exist”. That’s a quote attributed to American author Zig Ziglar and what West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee seems to have drawn inspiration from.
After decades of grassroots struggle and popular anti-land acquisition movement, Banerjee’s Trinamool Congress defeated the Left Front in the 2011 Legislative Assembly election – bringing to end the communist parties’ 34-year rule in the state. For years since that victory, the TMC had little political opposition in the state.
TMC’s sear share in the 294-member House jumped from 184 seats in 2011 to 211 in 2016 as the opposition Congress and the Left front sunk.
However, over the last few years, Prime Minister Narendra Modi-led Bharatiya Janata party (BJP) has shown a dramatic electoral rise in the eastern state—posing a tough challenge for Banerjee as she hopes to win a third consecutive term in office.
The saffron party’s efforts on the ground led to the party winning 18 of Bengal’s 42 parliamentary seats in the 2019 Lok Sabha election, up from just two in 2014. This rise came at the cost of not just the opposition parties such as the Left and the Congress, but also the TMC itself, which saw its tally fall from 34 to 22.
BJP’s vote share in the state soared to 40.6 percent in the 2019 general election from about 17 percent in 2014. This brought the saffron party’s vote share close to TMC’s 43.6 percent.
Having been in power for two terms, Banerjee may theoretically face some level of anti-incumbency.
Perhaps recognising that she was facing her biggest test in decades, Banerjee set out early to keep the BJP surge at bay.
Shortly after the 2019 general election, Banerjee roped in election strategist Prashant Kishor’s Indian Political Action Committee (I-PAC).
I-PAC had worked with Nitish Kumar's Janata Dal (United) for the 2015 Bihar Assembly polls, with the Congress in Punjab and Uttar Pradesh in 2017 and with YS Jagan Mohan Reddy’s YSR Congress in 2019. Kishor was also working with Arvind Kejriwal’s Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) for the Delhi Assembly polls held in early 2020. However, more importantly, Kishor has been credited for shaping PM Modi’s campaign in the 2014 Lok Sabha polls.
By July 2019, the party had unveiled the ‘Didi Ke Bolo’ campaign – a platform for the public to raise grievances. Additionally, more than 1,000 Trinamool leaders and workers were reportedly sent to the state’s villages over the next 100 days to learn more about people’s issues. This exercise was also seen as an attempt to reinvigorate the party cadre and mid-level leadership that may have become lax.
‘Bengal’s daughter’ vs ‘outsider’
With the BJP’s campaign being led by PM Modi, Union Home Minister Amit Shah and party chief JP Nadda – none of whom are from Bengal – the Trinamool has sought to pitch this election as a battle between the ‘sons of the soil’ and the “outsiders”. Trinamool’s campaign has revolved around projecting Banerjee as “Bengal's daughter”.
At a rally in Alipurduar in early February, Banerjee said: "We take everyone along whether it’s Biharis or UP or Rajasthan or Terai or Dooars. We take everyone along. But we must remember one thing: Gujarat will never reign over Bengal. People who live in Bengal will reign over Bengal".
Addressing an election rally in the Purba Medinipur district on March 24, PM Modi charged back at Banerjee and said that Bengal was the land of icons like Bankim Chandra Chattopadhyay, Rabindranath Tagore and Subhas Chandra Bose, no Indian was an outsider there.
“Bengal brought together people of India through Vande Mataram, and on that land, Mamata-didi is talking about ''bohiragoto'' (outsider). No Indian is an outsider here, they are the children of Bharat Mata," PM Modi said.
Banerjee responded that her party considers only those "pan masala-chewing, tilak-sporting" people sent by opposition parties from states like Uttar Pradesh "to foment trouble" before elections in West Bengal as outsider goons.
Taking the fight to the opponent
Instead of opting for a safe seat and fighting from the Bhabanipur constituency, where she has been the legislator since 2011, Banerjee chose to contest from just one seat – Nandigram.
There, she is taking on her former aide Suvendu Adhikari. Adhikari, a former minister in her Cabinet and a tall Trinamool leader, had defected to the BJP in December 2020. Political observers suggest that Banerjee contesting from this seat is an effort to demonstrate confidence and command over the situation.
Nandigram is significant because it is seen as a cradle of the anti-land acquisition movement that catapulted Banerjee to power. But with 70 percent Hindu and 30 percent Muslim population, the constituency is witnessing political and communal polarisation amid the election. The seat has been held by the TMC since 2009 and by Adhikari himself since 2016.
For the 50-year-old Adhikari, the contest is being seen as a fight for his political survival. He has reportedly vowed to defeat Banerjee by over 50,000 votes in the seat or quit politics. Trying to get back at Banerjee over her “outsider” jibes, Adhikari has often called himself "bhoomiputra" (son of the soil) of Nandigram.
However, Banerjee countered Adhikari saying: "I have heard some people are calling me an outsider in Nandigram. I am amazed. I was born and brought up in the neighbouring Birbhum district, and the person who is calling me an outsider was born in Midnapore. Today I have become an outsider, and those coming from Gujarat have become insiders in Bengal".
"Going by that logic I shouldn't have been the chief minister of the state for 10 years. Today Bengal's daughter has become an outsider for some people. Have you ever heard the expression outsider chief minister? If the locals tell me not to contest, I will go back," Banerjee said.
Focus on SC/ST votes
In the 2019 general election, a section of voters from the Scheduled Caste (SC), Scheduled Tribe (ST) and tribal communities in northern and western regions of Bengal had moved to the BJP. That is where many of the saffron party’s seats came from.
According to a report by NDTV in February, I-PAC was working with Trinamool’s SC/ST unit leaders to bring back votes from those communities. Over 10 lakh caste certificates for the SCs and STs were reportedly distributed within a month under Banerjee's flagship ‘Duarey Sarkar’ scheme.
Social media push
Trinamool has also been pushing aggressively on social media. The party’s digital campaign ‘Banglar Gorbo Mamata’ had spent Rs 80.74 lakh for advertising on Facebook in a month's time by early March, according to a report by Exchange4Media. The amount was spent on 90 advertisements on the social media platform.
TMC has been very active on Facebook since December 2020 and had spent nearly Rs 1.4 crore on Facebook ads until early March, the report suggested. The 'Banglar Gorbo Mamata’ verified page on Facebook has more 27.53 lakh 'likes' and is 'followed' by over 27.79 lakh accounts.
The increased spending on Facebook ads ahead of the election was part of an overall strategy to grab voters’ eyeballs and reach out to people on social media and digital platforms.
I-PAC is also said to be helping the Trinamool face BJP's barrage of advertisements and short videos on WhatsApp and other messengers.Click here for Moneycontrol’s full coverage of the 2021 Assembly elections