COVERING ALL THE BASES
India Today|April 19, 2021
Mamata Banerjee is still counting on a decisive mandate even while keeping the door ajar for a post-poll alliance, if needed
Romita Datta

As the first two phases of the West Bengal assembly poll, covering 60 seats in West Midnapore, East Midnapore, Bankura, Jhargram, Purulia and South 24 Parganas, got over on April 1, the BJP claimed victory in no less than 50 seats. Trinamool Congress (TMC) chief Mamata Banerjee cautiously refrained from making any prediction, or even affecting optimism beyond the victory sign she flashed while campaigning in Nandigram, where she is pitted against Suvendu Adhikari, who defected to the BJP in the run-up to the election.

However, for the next four rounds of polling, covering 163 seats, predominantly in South Bengal—the TMC won 122 seats from here in 2016— Mamata has struck a belligerent note against the BJP. No pleas for votes or apologies for ‘mistakes’ committed by TMC leaders; on the contrary, she is asking women to arm themselves with kitchen knives against “rogue BJP workers” and reminding people in the Muslim-dominated pockets of South 24 Parganas about riots under BJP rule.

In 60-odd seats in the TMC stronghold of South Bengal and North Bengal’s Malda, Murshidabad and North Dinajpur districts, where Muslims account for at least a third of the electorate, Mamata is also raking up the NRC (National Register of Citizens) and CAA (Citizenship (Amendment) Act) to build opinion against the BJP. “If you do not want to be driven out through an NRC exercise, better watch out,” she says at a rally.

Mamata’s grip on Bengal’s 30 per cent Muslim population may not be as strong as it was in 2016, owing to the presence in this electoral race of influential Muslim cleric Abbas Siddiqui. Siddiqui’s Indian Secular Front (ISF) is part of the Left-Congress Third Front. He also has the backing of Hyderabad MP Asaduddin Owaisi’s AIMIM (All India Majlis-e-Ittehad-ul-Muslimeen) and has fielded candidates in 26 of Bengal’s 294 seats, mostly in South Bengal. Mamata is more than aware of the threat. “A friend of the BJP from Hyderabad and a ruffian from Furfura Sharif are spending crores of rupees to try and split the minority vote. Voting for them means voting for the BJP,” she warns at a rally in South 24 Parganas, where four ISF candidates are in the fray.

PLAYING IT COOL

There is a conscious attempt, though, to not fall prey to provocations and do anything that buttresses the BJP line that she is ‘anti-Hindu’. Twice in Nandigram—during a roadshow in Reyapara and the April 1 polling booth visit in Boyal over alleged electoral malpractices—Mamata ran into saffron-clad ‘Jai Shree Ram’ sloganeers but she kept her cool. Similar incidents in the past had seen Didi lose her composure, as she did in Kolkata on January 23, refusing to deliver her speech at Netaji’s 125th birth anniversary celebrations, and the May 2019 incident in North 24 Parganas, when she confronted the men shouting ‘Jai Shree Ram’ slogans as her convoy was passing through.

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