Pradip Sarkar, better known in West Bengal as cricketer MS Dhoni’s friend, and two other victorious candidates, who helped Trinamool Congress clean sweep the just-concluded by-elections, signal a refreshing change in the party.
After the party’s tally dropped to 22 from 34 in the Lok Sabha elections earlier this year, the ruling TMC attributed the downslide to its dwindling image. Several, if not most, party leaders were accused of taking “cut-money” from beneficiaries of the government welfare schemes and local-disconnect.
For an image makeover, the party hired political strategist Prashant Kishor, whom many TMC leaders in private taunt as the party’s “beautician”. But TMC supremo and West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee, despite knowing her party colleagues’ reservation for the “beautician”, stuck to him and ardently started implementing Kishor’s recommendations.
Ushering a ‘swaach abhiyan’ (cleanliness drive), Banerjee publicly reprimanded TMC leaders for taking “cut-money” from the public, triggering a statewide scampering for refund of the bribe the ruling party functionaries had allegedly taken for dishing out the benefits of government schemes. Cases were registered against TMC leaders, while many others were forced to return the money.
All the while, in the internecine conflict, Banerjee tried to project herself as different from those party colleagues who are accused of taking “cut-money.” She even launched a public outreach drive ‘Didi ke bolo’ (Tell elder sister), wherein one can directly lodge a complaint with the chief minister, referred by her friends and foes as “Didi”.
In the selection of candidates for the bypolls, unlike in the past few elections where party toughs with deep pockets were given preferences, she was cautious to pick popular candidates with clean image.
In Kharagpur (Sadar) assembly seat, vacated by BJP state president Dilip Ghosh, the TMC fielded local sports organiser Pradip Sarkar, who even featured in captain cool’s biopic. Dhoni, before donning the India cap, was a regular feature in the tournament conducted by Sarkar in the railway city.
Similarly, in Karimpur, it gave ticket to national-award winning teacher Bimalendu Singha Roy, despite being a relatively unknown face in politics. He received the Shiksha Ratna Award in 2013 and the national award from the President in 2017. On both the occasions, he donated the award money for the welfare of a local school.
In Kaliaganj too, Tapan Deb Singha managed to beat others in the race for party tickets because of his clean image.
The by-elections, apart from the disgraceful incident of BJP’s Karimpur candidate Joy Prakash Majumdar being manhandled and kicked into a ditch on the polling day (November 25), were by and large peaceful, a rare occurrence in Bengal politics.
Apart from the purged-image that the TMC deftly managed to put across, the NRC-phobia that has gripped the state too played a crucial role in deciding the fate of political parties in these by-elections.
BJP leader Mukul Roy almost admitted that its stand on the National Register of Citizens (NRC) was one of the factors for the party drawing blank. “I am aware that NRC is attributed as a factor for our defeat. We definitely need to look into it and introspect,” Roy said.
In North Dinajpur’s Kaliaganj and Nadia’s Karimpur, the NRC was a big issue in the elections, with Banerjee insisting that she would not allow the exercise to take place in Bengal no matter how much the BJP push for it.
The latest victories, the ruling party leaders are claiming, mark the birth of a new, rejuvenated TMC. The victory also tasted sweeter for the party because for the first time in its 21 years of existence, it managed to win Kharagpur (Sadar) in West Midnapore district and Kaliaganj.
Implications for 2021 assembly elections
On the basis of the bypoll result, it would, however, be naïve to conclude that the TMC will have a cakewalk in the 2021 assembly elections. Preferring ‘clean’ candidates over party veterans for a few constituencies in bypolls and choosing 294 nominees without tainted background for assembly elections are not quite the same things.
Beneath the veneer of a cosmetic change, there are still many dark patches that could come out in the open anytime despite Banerjee’s best efforts to hide them. Any attempt during assembly elections to undermine well-entrenched party functionaries, while distributing tickets on the basis of reputation as has been done this time, could spark a rebellion in the party.
Moreover, the way the party activists are scurrying to capture BJP offices in some parts of the state soon after the announcement of bypoll results on Thursday (Nov 24), go on to show how difficult it is to rein in party goons for a prolonged period. These over-enthusiastic cadres can undo the image-makeover exercise of the party.
Another hurdle for the TMC in upcoming assembly elections will be the presence of Asaduddin Owaisi’s All India Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen (AIMIM), which has decided to field candidates in all the assembly seats of the state.
The TMC for its electoral success, bank heavily on the state’s 31% Muslim vote share. Any division in the minority vote could ruin TMC’s prospect in almost 90 assembly seats.
The AIMIM, with its hard-line stand, has the potential of polarising Hindu votes in favour of the BJP, even if it itself cannot get sizeable minority votes. Any communal flare-up ahead of assembly elections could negate the negative impact of the NRC on the BJP.
It’s out of this fear that Banerjee has now launched a scathing attack on the likely new-entrant in Bengal politics. “Extremism is emerging among minorities just as it’s among Hindus. We have to be careful about them. There is a political party from Hyderabad, not from West Bengal, which is taking money from the BJP to mislead people here,” she recently said without naming the AIMIM.
As of now, Banerjee appears to have halted the BJP’s upward momentum. But can she thwart the twin challenge from the BJP and AIMIM in 2021? Only time will answer that.