The Mamata Banerjee-led Trinamool Congress invoked Bengali pride to halt the BJP’s Hindutva juggernaut in the Assembly election last year.
A year later, the party finds itself in the BJP’s shoes, with the issues it raised to pin the saffron party down coming back to pinch it in the by-elections for a Lok Sabha and an Assembly seat to be held on April 12. So much so that many civil society members, who had launched ‘no-vote-to-BJP’ campaigns in 2021, helping the TMC to sweep the state, are now urging the voters to shun the party candidate for the Ballygunge Assembly by-poll, Babul Supriyo.
Singer-turned-politician Supriyo had joined the TMC last September after resigning as the BJP MP from the Asansol constituency that had elected him in the 2014 and 2019 Lok Sabha elections. The TMC pitched another former BJP MP, Shatrughan Sinha, for the Asansol seat vacated by Supriyo.
The by-election for the Ballygunge Assembly constituency was necessitated by the demise of former state minister and veteran politician Subrata Mukherjee last November.
By picking two former Union ministers with strong Bollywood connections, the TMC is obviously trying to project itself as more than just a Bengali regional outfit – a tag that got strongly reinforced by the party’s relentless “outsiders” jibe at the visiting BJP leaders during the last year’s election.
Both the poll-bound constituencies have sizeable non-Bengali voters. Asansol in particular has around 50 per cent Hindi-speaking electorates, mostly of Bihari origin. The TMC hopes that Sinha, who loves to call himself a ‘Bihar Babu’, will connect with them.
Both Sinha and Supriyo have star quotient. Also, by virtue of being former Union ministers, they have some national presence. This, the TMC hopes, will come handy in its national expansion plan.
By nominating the duo for the by-polls, the party, however, unwittingly found itself in a position where it is being targeted with the jibes it hurled at the BJP a year ago. The BJP and its candidate Agnimitra Paul have already made Sinha’s place of origin a poll issue in Asansol, calling him an outsider.
To counter the tirade, Sinha is often heard, painstakingly explaining in Bengali, his Bengal connection, how he learnt the language and the important role of his two legendary Bengali filmmakers, the late Mrinal Sen and Ritwik Ghatak, in his life.
Sinha also tries to establish his connection with the coal belt of Asansol by mentioning his Hindi film Kaala Pathar that showcased the plight of coal miners and was partly shot in Asansol. The TMC even plans to screen the 1979 Bollywood blockbuster in a few places to establish Sinha’s connection with the constituency.
Opposition to Supriyo
More than the outsider tag on Sinha, what should be of greater concern for the TMC is the opposition to Supriyo’s nomination from a section of minority communities and civil society organisations. The MP is an accused in the 2018 Asansol communal riot and hence the opposition to his nomination.
The Bengal Imams’ Association even met senior TMC leaders to express the reservation of the clerics over Supriyo’s candidature. It accused him of instigating the riot in which the son of Imdadulla Rashidi, the imam of Asansol’s Noorani Mosque, was killed.
A forum of anti-CAA and anti-NRC activists is also urging the voters not to vote for the TMC’s riot-tainted Supriyo. The forum was in the forefront of the ‘no vote to BJP’ campaign during the Assembly elections last year.
Supriyo was vocal against the anti-CAA protests as a junior minister in the BJP-led government, pointed out Prasanjit Bose, a prominent economist and a member of the forum.
To allay the apprehensions of the minority communities, Supriyo had a meeting with some prominent members of the community during a get-together on the occasion of Shab-e-Barat last month.
“I will work to protect Bengal’s culture, history and secularism……. People of Asansol know I had never indulged in politics of caste or religious divide,” Supriyo said. In his reaction after being nominated as the TMC candidate, he even claimed in a tweet that he had quit the BJP because of its “politics of hatred and divisiveness.”
“Because of Mamata Banerjee, we may still vote for the TMC. But definitely we are hurt by the TMC’s choice of candidate for the Ballygunge seat,” said Tabish Ahmed, a voter from the constituency’s Park Circus area.