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West Bengal elections 2021: Mamata has lost the battle of perception in Bengal

From her giant-killing act against Communist Party of India (Marxist) stalwart Somnath Chatterjee in the 1984 Lok Sabha elections from the Jadavpur seat in Kolkata, to filing her nomination from the Nandigram constituency for the ongoing assembly elections in West Bengal, Chief Minister and Trinamool Congress (TMC) supremo Mamata Banerjee’s career has seen many high points.

Her minimalist approach to life, her rather pedestrian verbal communication style and most of all – her ability to take on any challenge by the scruff of its neck, have endeared her to the masses to no end and helped her connect with the man on the street with an elan that’s so typical of ‘Brand Mamata’. And the script remained by and large unchanged for close to four decades. Yes, it remained unchanged -- until the start of the 2021 assembly elections in Bengal!

Any election, probably anywhere on this planet, has two defining principles about it. If the first is all about objectivity in terms of number-crunching and raw statistics, then the second is about perception. Until the start of the 2021 assembly elections in Bengal, this ‘perception’ element was firmly behind Mamata and she had very successfully transformed the narrative of this entire political battle into a referendum of sorts between her own popularity versus the Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) fabled election machinery and its propaganda apparatus.

A battle of unequals

For the vast majority of voters in Bengal, across the political divide and across ideological affiliations, the 2021 assembly elections is a battle between two ‘unequals’: A lone woman (read Mamata) taking up the cudgels against a massive, organised election ‘machinery’ (read BJP); the only female chief minister in the country fighting against two BJP stalwarts and national leaders, Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Federal Home Minister Amit Shah; a state-based political entity doing an eyeball-to-eyeball with a national behemoth … The lack of a level playing field clearly giving Mamata the edge that any underdog will cherish.

However, the ‘script’ for this political ‘el classico’ started changing as West Bengal hit the poll button. And after four rounds of polling, it is becoming increasingly clear that what has served Mamata’s cause as a tried and tested strategy all along her political career for almost four decades is gradually turning into an ‘Albatross’ simply because she has overplayed that card.

Right from the days when she used to be a Youth Congress member and even after she became the chief minister, Mamata’s political USP has always been her uncanny knack to pitch herself in a perpetual ‘us-and-them’, whereby, seeking out an ‘enemy’ and fighting the conceptual-construct of an opposing force in whatever form and shape it exists have been her way to try and dictate the ‘terms of engagement’in any high-octane fight.

This ‘otheration’ of a higher force, this ability to always project herself as the ‘more-wronged-than-wrong’ party in a political dogfight have earned her rich dividends all through. This strategy worked wonders for her when she was fighting an entrenched lobby of yes-men within the state Congress unit that would always be supplicant to the party high command’s diktats from New Delhi.

A gross miscalculation

It worked wonders for her when she projected a section of her own colleagues within the Congress party as hand-in-glove with the ruling CPM in Bengal. It worked wonders for her in her fight to end three decades of Left rule in West Bengal, ultimately catapulting her to power. And it worked wonderfully well as she took on the BJP, projecting it as a “communal” force trying to “destabilise” Bengal’s socio-political harmony. But the problem for Mamata is that she has overplayed this ‘victimhood’ and underdog card. She had probably thought that like umpteen times in the past, this strategy will see her through this time around as well. And that was a gross miscalculation.

There are two very specific aspects about these ongoing elections in Bengal where Mamata has allowed the momentum to slip just because she overplayed the ‘victimhood’ card – the goose that lay golden eggs for her, all along! The first political hara-kiri by the Bengal chief minister was to accuse her bĂȘte noire Suvendu Adhikari and his father Sisir Adhikari of conniving with the police before the forces entered Nandigram and opened fire on the anti-land acquisition agitators that resulted in the killings of 14 people in 2007.

No one knows it better than Mamata how the spontaneous movement by the agrarian community in two places in particular – Singur and Nandigram – turned out to be the cradle of a massive anti-Left movement in Bengal that ultimately ended the reign of the longest running Communist government in the world. And the biggest beneficiary of that turn in political fortunes has been none other than Mamata herself.

Therefore, for that same Mamata to today try and redefine the contours of the Nandigram agitation and its concomitant upheaval in terms of political opportunism is not just unfortunate but suicidal as well. In her attempt to project herself as a victim of breach of trust by the turncoat Adhikaris, she has ended up questioning the integrity of all those who were part of the Nandigram movement in right earnest. Her being holed up in a booth in Nandigram on polling day, ostensibly to protest reported malpractices by BJP, was nothing short of cheap thrills that is unlikely to have struck a chord with the electorate.

The second big strategic error she has committed is the way in which she has tried to project the paramilitary units as an ‘opposing’ force working against the interests of her party. In rally after rally, Mamata went about spewing venom at the deployment of Central Forces for law-keeping during these elections in Bengal. On one occasion, while addressing an election rally, she told the audience to “gherao” the Central Forces personnel and hand them over to the local police in case the former indulged in any “excesses”. On another occasion, she exhorted the women in households across Bengal to step out of their homes with crude kitchen tools and utensils and “resist” Central Forces personnel.

In so doing, she has painted an entire apolitical entity as an ‘enemy’ of the people. This is not just myopic game plan, but a dangerous trend-setter that can strike at the very heart of the idea of a federal force to maintain law and order in peace time within the national borders of India. The Bengal CM ought to have realised that criticising the deployment of Central Forces as part of electioneering and exhorting the masses to actually “confront” the men in uniform are two completely different issues – the former is a strategic and ideological counter-point, but the latter is an invocation to anarchy!

Just look at how the Central Industrial Security Forces had to open fire on an armed mob in Seetalkuchi constituency of Cooch Behar district on Saturday during the fourth phase of polling, resulting in the deaths of four people. This is exactly what many political observers and security experts had feared, that by painting the Central Forces as an enemy of sorts, the Bengal CM had actually kept the door wide open for an unsavoury, unwanted and avoidable fratricide.

Uneasy questions

One ought to ask this question to one’s own self, that while Central Forces were deployed in four other poll-bound states during these ongoing elections, why is it that only in Bengal some of these personnel had to actually press the triggers of their service weapons in the discharge of their duties? Through the ‘othertaion’ of a federal paramilitary unit that has no choice over matters of its deployment and whose political and social affiliations are never a criteria in the discharge of their duties, whom are we actually harming?

These are questions that the Bengal CM has inadvertently allowed to crop up in the minds of voters in her state and that is where her tried and tested ‘victimhood’ card is wearing thin – something that the BJP had always been waiting for, but never really managed. The ‘Albatross’ for Mamata may now be a ‘talisman’ for the saffron brigade. Make no mistake – Mamata may still go on to form the next government in West Bengal. But her time for introspection starts NOW!

Twitter: @moumiayush