Unlike real sports, perception wins the game in politics. To fill your vote banks you must have the people satisfied, or to be precise, make them perceive so. In the high voltage West Bengal elections, the most crucial battle stage for the BJP among the total five states and union territories, it’s rather a battle of egos and the results could help both BJP and TMC attain either the zenith or touch the nadir of their political careers in the state, but with an unique kingmaker.
The stakes are high for West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee, whose quest for a third term in power faced a break due to a leg injury in Nandigram and had to be shifted to the SSKM hospital in Kolkata, the eastern citadel that has never seen the saffron party running the show.
Bed-ridden and her left leg wrapped in plaster after the injury in Nandigram, from where she’ll contest the upcoming assembly election this time, Mamata promised her return to the campaigning pitch while her party smelled a conspiracy to keep its supremo off the field and alleged a BJP-Election Commission nexus towards this. The BJP has asked for a CBI enquiry into the incident.
According to a senior doctor at the SSKM hospital where the chief minister was admitted, besides severe bone injuries in her left ankle and foot, she had also suffered injuries in right shoulder, forearm and neck. She was discharged on Friday.
The chief minister, a Z+ protectee, had Wednesday alleged she was pushed by four-five people but hasn’t named any party behind the alleged incident. In a video message from SSKM on Thursday, she appealed to her supporters to maintain restraint and that she’ll be back for election campaigning within days, using a wheelchair if needed.
Whether Wednesday’s incident was a pre-planned conspiracy or merely an accident is subjected to an enquiry, but what’s certain is the political fallout that only points at benefitting the 66-year-old woman who has held the reins of Bengal since 2011, credited for sweeping the state off its 34-year Left rule.
Wheelchair and its political significance
Mamata is expected to conduct a roadshow on wheelchair from Gandhi Murti to Hazra in Kolkata and then address a public rally at Hazra on Sunday (March 14) afternoon, ahead of the party’s manifesto release, suggest reports.
The political significance behind a bed-ridden Mamata promising her return to the campaigning pitch, and that too on a wheelchair, can never be undermined. The opposition knows it well too. Thursday’s message was a testimony to her indomitable fighting spirit and what has been the talking point of her entire political career.
“Given the injuries being reported, it’s definite she’ll use a wheelchair or some support for campaigning. That will definitely draw sympathy from the masses. Whether it was a planned attack or an accident is a different debate, but this will certainly give TMC an opportunity to up its election game,” said M Reyaz, political commentator and head of department, journalism and mass communication, Aliah University.
Known otherwise to be fit even at the age of 66, Mamata’s wheelchair-bound visuals have already gripped news cameras and are now awaiting its entry to the field. While medical instructions are likely to restrict her movement, she’s expected to balance that with sympathy, which counts on multiple fronts including that of being the only woman chief minister of any Indian state at present.
Those contesting Mamata in this electoral battlefield have begun on a wrong note; their attempts to discredit her party’s conspiracy allegations have rather painted an insensitive image ahead of the much crucial elections. Their initial responses of terming the incident a “drama” instead of being compassionate towards the head of state at a time of distress, could become a weapon for her team to portray them as demonic as against someone writhing with pain.
Dilemma of Opposition
Not surprisingly, BJP had to jump in quickly after Mamata’s allegations that she was pushed, fearing a transfer of sympathies. But it rather did what the TMC perhaps wanted. BJP MP Arjun Singh called it a “drama for sympathy.”
However, there was an apparent dilemma in the saffron camp as the “drama for sympathy” soon prompted a team of leaders, including Locket Chatterjee, Samik Bhattacharya and Tathagata Roy, to visit the SSKM hospital and wish her a speedy recovery before the media.
In another camp, Congress leader Adhir Chowdhury had termed it a political hypocrisy, much unlike his colleagues Ashok Gehlot and Amarinder Singh, the chief ministers of Rajasthan and Punjab, who tweeted for her recovery. The Gandhis have, meanwhile, remained mum, like they have been on the West Bengal elections since its announcement.
The cases of both Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Union Home Minister Amit Shah are noteworthy since they have chosen silence for the time though they both have rallies lined up soon in the election-bound state.
CPI(M) leader Md. Salim’s initial reaction was: “Staged Drama. So obvious.” The ex-MP later came up with a detailed statement, saying that the party condemns all kinds of violence, but also questioned the breach of the CM’s security cover.
Here comes the perception game: Mamata has not only painted an image of “Bengal’s own daughter” being assaulted in her own state as part of an alleged conspiracy, but also that she’s being opposed by a bunch of insensitive parties having no soft corners for an ailing woman.
This is expected to play well to Mamata’s prized women voters, and much more when she actually hits the roads for campaigning. And the fallout of this sympathy game won’t just be restricted to nandigram, but the entire state of West Bengal, asserted Reyaz. “Their initial reaction was that it was all a drama – since politicians are often known for drama. But that was a mistake. And now this will be used by the TMC leaders towards their benefit,” he said.
Clash of titans
The Nandigram battle will be the most interesting this time as this is going to be a clash of titans, where Banerjee, fondly known as Didi across the nation, will face her former lieutenant Suvendu Adhikari, who had been with her since her peasants’ movement days but last year jumped to the BJP and has now challenged to defeat her by a 50,000-vote margin.
Mamata had thrown the gauntlet at Adhikari during a public meeting earlier this year, announcing her intent to contest from Nandigram, a seat that her ex-aide had represented since 2016. Much true to the speculations, BJP too fielded Adhikary from her seat in a direct battle with Mamata.
The uncontested aggressiveness of Mamata is on clear display wherein she has given up her own seat, Bhowanipore, to fight just from Nandigram. This isn’t just true to her character of a ‘street fighter’, which she claims often, but also appealing in the context of belongingness that might strike on the voters’ sentiments and play the keys that churn out the right melody to Mamata’s victory against Suvendu, whom she has painted a “traitor” for jumping ship.
For both Mamata and Suvendu, victory might begin from Nandigram, i.e. the fallout of the Nandigram contest may seal their fate in state politics. Waves of change are surely there and are hard to counter, but votes do sway from Lok Sabha election to Vidhan Sabha election, and sympathy votes as a factor for “the only current woman chief minister” cannot be ruled out, given that safety of women has been raised as one of the key issues this election.
Opposing the two is Minakshi Mukherjee, the Sanjukta Morcha candidate fielded by the CPI(M) after Abbas Siddiqui’s Indian Secular Front raised its unwillingness to field its candidate from that seat. CPI(M) is expected to eat into anti-Mamata votes, harping on the sentiments that the TMC chief’s anti-industrialisation movement had apparently done more damage to Nandigram in the context of employment generation.