Fearlessness bordering on abrasiveness and unmistakable contempt for rivals has been the hallmark of West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee for as long as she has been in public life and collective memory.
But don’t be surprised if you see a gentler, less combative avatar of the Trinamool Congress (TMC) boss in future. It is part of a huge makeover plan election strategist Prashant Kishor has charted out for the ebullient leader and her party to take on a battle-hardened BJP, which made deep inroads into her heavily fortified fortress, in the 2021 Assembly polls.
TMC leaders said that the Lok Sabha elections this year, when the BJP won 18 of the state’s 42 seats, just four less than Banerjee’s party in West Bengal, debunked the myth of the TMCs’ invincibility.
The TMC felt there was a pressing need for “professional help” to refurbish the party’s image in order to counter an aggressive and ideology-driven BJP in the state.
“Now, with the help of Kishor’s inputs, we are hopeful that we would make a turnaround in the Assembly elections. If you have to counter an organised and ideology-driven BJP, you too either need a strong ideological mooring or an organised corporate-like setup. Kishor is providing us the second,” said a senior TMC leader, wishing not to be named.
According to sources in the TMC and IPAC (Indian Political Action Committee), Kishor’s firm, which managed with great success Narendra Modi’s prime ministerial campaign with initiatives like chai pe charcha and helmed backroom manoeuvres for Nitish Kumar’s JD(U) in Bihar and YS Jagan Mohan Reddy’s YSR Congress in Andhra Pradesh, is now crafting the TMC’s poll strategy.
It is the architect of Banerjee and her party’s Didi ke bolo mass outreach programme aimed at connecting with people at the grassroots or Trinamool, after which the party takes its name.
The strategy includes Banerjee and other TMC leaders being more measured and temperate in their criticism of rivals and desisting from commenting on each and every excitable subject, the TMC leader said. Political rivals will be allowed to hold their programmes unimpeded to send out a message that the party is wedded to democratic practices.
Banerjee was often criticised for her government cancelling events of top BJP leaders including those of Amit Shah and Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath during the Lok Sabha polls. The party and its leaders also have to shed the image of being intimidators who subjugate rivals.
It has been decided that henceforth, there won’t be any “poaching” or “forcible joining” of elected representatives from opposition Congress and CPI(M), the TMC leader said. Since the 2016 Lok Sabha polls around 17 Congress MLAs and three of the Left Front switched over to the TMC.
The effect of the brainstorming sessions Banerjee had with Kishor and his team was visible during the July 21 Martyrs’ Day rally when unlike previous years no leader from rival political parties joined the TMC.
The TMC leader said, as part of the strategy, the party and its government will desist from doing anything that would buttress the BJP’s allegation of Muslim appeasement. Instead, efforts will be made to counter the BJP’s “communal agenda”.
Foremost, the party will endeavour to build a political narrative centered on Banerjee as the “one and only leader” of the TMC.
“The impression that a senior youth leader is the heir apparent of Banerjee didn’t go down well with a section of the masses and party old timers. So this has to be corrected,” she said, apparently referring to Banerjee’s nephew and Diamond Harbour MP Abhishek Banerjee.
Party meetings, hitherto open to media, will now be cloaked in secrecy to ensure “things are not misinterpreted”. Kishor and his team will analyse the outcome of the strategy over the next few weeks before fine tuning it further.
“In 2016, we had won 211 seats. As per Lok Sabha election results, we are still ahead in 170 (Assembly) seats… It has been decided to categorise Assembly segments as A, B, and C to direct our energy accordingly,” a TMC leader said.
“The 170 seats where we have taken a lead would fall under category A and around 50 seats where we were a close second would fall under category B. Where we were too distant would fall under the C category,” the TMC leader said.
Stung by reverses in the Lok Sabha polls, Banerjee had launched helpline number 9137091370 and website www.didikebolo.com to enable people to have a direct interface with party functionaries. The initiative is Kishor’s brainchild.
She also unveiled a massive public outreach programme under which over 1,000 party leaders will visit 10,000 villages over the next 100 days to understand peoples problems.
The Lok Sabha poll results indicated a tectonic shift in Bengal politics, with the BJP emerging as the main contender to power in the state.
It remains to be seen how Kishor blunts the BJP’s propaganda about allegations of corruption against TMC functionaries. Banerjee’s mercurial temperament may also be an impediment.
“Another big challenge is how far will Mamata Banerjee herself comply with the changes Kishor and his team want to bring in as she is not used to taking suggestions while running the party or the government,” said another TMC leader.
The BJP, however, is unfazed about how Kishor, a vice president of its Bihar ally the JD(U), will reinvigorate the TMC. “The TMC hiring Kishor proves that Mamata Banerjee has lost her Midas touch,” said Jaiprakash Majumdar, a vice president of West Bengal’s BJP unit.