The author has worked with Deccan Herald for two decades, and also with various TV channels such as al-Jazeera and CNN. He currently heads the Eastern Bureau of Parliamentarian
They were once part of the Tollywood ‘Girls’ Gang’, very intimate and fast friends indeed; however, they have made long strides in the last one decade, attaining glamour and stardom. Even though some of the ‘Gang’ members have ‘defected’ recently to pursue individual careers, ties among them are still rock solid. One of them was recently spotted in the birthday bash of another, partied till late at night. Hardly did a pair of the Gang members know that they would be required to play a bigger role very soon beyond the vortex of Tollywood and reel life.
Guess the duo we are talking about. Yes, you’ve got them correct – Mimi Chakraborty and Nusrat Jahan, a pair of new trump cards that West Bengal chief minister and Trinamool Congress supremo pulled out of her wizard hat. True to her style of fielding star power to stem the factionalism within and add a touch of glamour quotient to the list of Lok Sabha membership aspirants, Banerjee has roped in these two greenhorns to go one up on her main rival – the Bharatiya Janata Party. That she has been nursing a desire to be a kingmaker at the last moment in this year’s parliamentary polls, is quite well-known.
Hence, the manner in which she has dropped eight sitting nominees (and two others defected to the BJP), reveals a special game-plan to make the ground slippery for the saffron party.
Leaving aside the first mover advantage (TMC first unveiled the list of candidates for all the 42 Lok Sabha seats in West Bengal), the big takeaway from the list of Mamata Banerjee is the elaborate behind-the-door-strategy of Didi to emerge victorious in her challenge to win 42 out of 42. Let us take a closer look into it and her apparently inane thought bubbles make for a rib-tickling narrative.
Nearly eight years into power, that TMC has been riven with intense factionalism over a wide swathe of the state, is now fait accompli. It is not that Didi has taken this decision of fielding Mimi and Nusrat on the spur of the moment; both the Tollywood stars have been regulars to several big meetings of the party. And Mamata Banerjee had obviously been closely observing as well as advising them on sundry things laced with dual meaning for some time now before zeroing on to field them. It was only after being absolutely confident of their unquestionable allegiance to her that she condescended to nominate them. That they would be subject to widespread criticism from the opposition of being political greenhorns, did not deter her from going ahead.
Secondly, the TMC supremo, who used to know her district party leaders like the back of her own hand, must have kept a close tab on areas where there has been an unabated spurt in intra-party rivalry (and at some places, even killings). Jadavpur in the southern fringe of Kolkata and Basirhat in North 24 Parganas district bordering Bangladesh are the two vulnerable areas where the party has been bedevilled with this menace, necessitating umpteen warnings in vain from the top leadership. The depleting base of the party in Bhangar, an assembly constituency of Jadavpur, and rise of the BJP in the Basirhat-Bongaon region of North 24 Parganas district had been posing a serious concern, leaving Didi with hardly any choice to select someone from the party who would be acceptable to all the factions.
After Prof Sugata Bose, the sitting Trinamool MP from Jadavpur, expressed his unwillingness to recontest pleading lack of consent from the university he teaches abroad, Didi was toying with the idea of fielding a ‘safe’ candidate who could bulldoze over all factions and yet has acceptability to the commoners irrespective of the party colour. At the same time, the chief minister could ill-afford to ignore the fact that it was from this constituency in Kolkata that she had shot to fame (got the tag of ‘giant killer’, to be more precise) defeating CPIM veteran and former Lok Sabha speaker Somnath Chatterjee during the heyday of the Left rule. Hence, she could hardly take any risk that would lay bare the chinks further, endangering the prospect of the party.
There were two or three other names, all Tollywood heroines, that were in wide circulation since last year end who were tipped to be inducted into the party; prominent among them include June Maliah and Indrani Halder. However, what tilted the scale in favour of Mimi and Nusrat is, perhaps, their glamour power and the present peak form in sharp contrast to Maliah and Halder. In fact, Mamata’s spectacular decision to field this pair of stars put the BJP completely on the wrong foot. It is immaterial whether the saffron party would concede it or not, the fact remains that the BJP was particularly very hopeful to cash in on the bitter factionalism in TMC in Basirhat.
But Didi’s selection of Nusrat at Basirhat has made it quite an uphill task for the BJP to make a sizeable dent in the anti-TMC vote bank. First, Basirhat is on the Indo-Bangladesh border in North 24 Parganas district where the minority population is distinctly high compared to Hindus, even though many Hindus were from erstwhile East Pakistan. Nusrat Jahan’s current form and glamour will, in all probability, make a dent in the minds of Hindu voters as well. The claim of TMC not indulging in wooing minorities is already passe though. The BJP nominee Samik Bhattacharya will require to tide over the glamour wave as well as the game of the minority card played by the TMC. In Jadavpur, once a Left stronghold that gave way to the TMC storm in the 2011 assembly poll, the CPIM has slowly begun to regain lost ground. The selection of former Calcutta Corporation mayor Bikash Ranjan Bhattacharya as its nominee by the CPIM leadership here has been described as an intelligent move by the political experts. Because, there was wide speculation that the BJP might field from Jadavpur respected fashion designer Agnimitra Paul who was shortly slated to join the party. And if Paul would have got the nomination from here, the anti-TMC vote will be split between Paul and Bhattacharya and the latter might have a very thin chance of victory.
Be that as it may, Mimi’s chances have simply brightened up, in a twist of the tale, the BJP state leadership, reportedly peeved over one of the statements of Paul, delayed her joining. Instead, after the BJP announced the candidature of Anupam Hazra, a TMC defectee from Jadavpur; Hazra was elected from Bolpur in Shantiniketan on a Trinamool Congress ticket in the 2014 Lok Sabha poll. Now, in the changed scenario, the electoral fight of Mimi, the Tollywood heroine of TMC, has become quite easier in absence of Paul. Mimi stands a fair chance of making her maiden entry into parliament unless of course Trinamool incurs heavy anti-incumbency wrath.
That there has been a high anti-incumbency air sweeping across the state, is a fact which has been causing concern in the TMC ranks and which has been a cause for increasing assault by the BJP in the Trinamool turf. However, the real test lies in making the electorate booth-bound; for the BJP, it is really a formidable challenge to turn the anti-incumbency in its favour while for the TMC, it is a bitter battle to stem the anti-incumbency factor in the bud itself. Yet, it is a difficult task for both the parties. The whys are pretty simple. With several TMC leaders making a beeline to the BJP ahead of the Lok Sabha elections and growing dissatisfaction over the selection of candidates, discontent seems to be brewing both in the BJP and Mamata Banerjee’s party.
BJP’s Mukul Roy, once the number two in the Trinamool Congress, has started inducting “disgruntled” leaders from his former party, including elected representatives, into the saffron party’s fold. Resentment in the TMC camp came to the fore after it announced its list of 42 candidates for the Lok Sabha polls. The party dropped 10 MPs and brought in 18 new faces. Sitting MPs from seats such as Cooch Behar, Basirhat, Jhargram, Midnapore, Bolpur, Bishnupur and Krishnanagar were dropped from this year’s TMC candidate list.
The BJP has made steady inroads in these places over the last five years, largely due to the infighting within the TMC’s local leadership. Local TMC leaders who had been with the party for several years were overlooked in many seats in favour of film stars including greenhorns, and those joining from the Congress and the Left parties. After MPs Soumitra Khan and Anupam Hazra, TMC leader and four-time MLA Arjun Singh, also a Lok Sabha MP aspirant, were denied ticket from Barrackpore, they switched over to the BJP, received saffron tickets. That the grassroots BJP workers were in no mood to welcome the ‘turncoats’ was evident when several of them resorted to violence in Cooch Behar in North Bengal after a local TMC leader Nisith Pramanik was given the Lok Sabha ticket after he walked into the BJP camp prior to polls.
The ripple of discontent over the candidate nomination affected the Trinamool too. The party’s South Dinajpur district chief Biplab Mitra had openly expressed his displeasure over re-nomination of Arpita Ghosh from Balurghat Lok Sabha seat. “I had informed the party that people of Balurghat are not happy with Ghosh’s performance. Her victory cannot be guaranteed this time.” Ghosh, a theatre activist who had been part of Mamata Banerjee’s intellectual brigade during her fight against the Left Front government claimed she is hardly daunted by the spectre of defeat as long as she enjoys the TMC supremo’s blessings. In Cooch Behar, the TMC has replaced its sitting MP Partha Pratim Ray with a minister in the erstwhile Left Front government, Paresh Chandra Adhikary, who joined the ruling party last year. Although Ray declined to comment, the BJP tried in vain to woo him into its fold. “Why was Adhikary given ticket? Does our district unit lack good leaders to contest the Lok Sabha polls? This decision has not sent out a good message to the rank and file of the party,” a senior TMC district leader said, adding that the BJP would definitely exploit these fissures in the party.
The situation is more or less the same in Malda North parliamentary seat where former Congress MP Mausam Benazir Noor, who crossed over to the TMC, has been nominated. In at least three other seats, Congress MLAs who had switched over to the TMC in the past one year were given tickets instead of old timers. In Murshidabad Lok Sabha seat, TMC’s youth leader Shamik Hossain, a key organisational man and a ticket aspirant, was overlooked in favour of former Congress MLA Abu Taher, who had switched over to the ruling party last year. In fact, more than 17 Congress MLAs and three legislators of the Left Front had switched over to the TMC since the last assembly elections in West Bengal in 2016. “It’s good that the TMC is getting a dose of its own medicine. As you sow, so shall you reap. It is the TMC which has ensured the growth of the BJP in Bengal by finishing off secular forces like the Congress and the CPI(M),” state Congress president Somen Mitra quipped.
The Mukul Roy factor: Last but not the least, once the second-in-command in Trinamool Congress and now one of the leading names in the state BJP, Mukul Roy might queer the pitch for his former political boss in a way that may not be quite palatable. During her stint as the opposition leader (during the CPI(M)-led Left Front regime), Mamata Banerjee had penned a book “Slaughter of Democracy” where she demanded deployment of central forces in all polling booths across the state. She had also dispatched a clutch of letters to the Election Commission detailing the reason behind her demand to declare all booths ‘sensitive’ in the Left-ruled West Bengal. After his defection to BJP nearly couple of years back, Roy thought it was an opportune moment to hand over a copy of the book and photocopies of those letters to the Election Commission, triggering a row in the inner circles of TMC.
Even as the TMC leaders strongly denounced the move of Roy, claiming that the state of democracy during the Left Front rule and that of the Trinamool Congress government could hardly be compared, the wily BJP leader wasted little time and ensured deployment of the paramilitary forces in every sensitive area across the state. While the Left leaders felt piqued at the TMC leaders’ cacophony against the demand for deployment of central forces, it is too early to predict that the presence of these forces could really alter the ‘game of thrones’ in West Bengal scheduled to go to polls in all the seven phases.