Mamata Banerjee at her Kalighat residence on Sunday
KOLKATA: It was an election with many firsts for Mamata Banerjee. She contested from a seat outside south Kolkata, faced large-scale poll-eve defections and was wheelchair-bound throughout the 50-day campaign.
Also for the first time, she roped in a poll strategist.
This was perhaps inevitable. For Banerjee, who began her electoral career with a Lok Sabha win in 1984, the 2019 Lok Sabha polls had changed her political challengers.
Instead of the Left Front and Congress, her primary opponent now was BJP, which was eager to build on its leads in Bengal’s 121 assembly seats.
The vote share of Banerjee’s Trinamool Congress had fallen by a mere 2% in 2019, but leads had dropped from 211 to 164 in the 294-seat assembly. Going into the 2021 elections with two full terms behind her, she also faced anti-incumbency.
The first sign of change was when poll strategist Prasant Kishor accompanied her nephew Abhishek Banerjee into her 14th-floor Nabanna Chambers office at the end of June 2019.
Kishor proposed to counter anti-incumbency with a data-driven centralised approach to identify and address people’s grievances.
The ‘Didi Ke Bolo’ campaign took shape in July 2019. In August, over 10 lakh complaints and suggestions were made.
Identifying the problem clusters helped Banerjee launch her ‘Duare Sarkar’ and ‘Parae Samadhan’ projects and reshape the Swasthya Sathi healthcare scheme. The data also helped her reposition the party and herself.
‘Bangla Nijer Meye Ke Chae’ (Bengal wants its daughter) was an attempt to counter BJP’s appeal to religious identity. With ‘Jai Bangla’ slogans she invoked a pan-Bengali nationalism. And to offset the sticky minority-appeasement charge, she declared her ‘gotra’.
Two senior ministers, Suvendu Adhikari and Rajib Banerjee, left Mamata in the wave of defections, but she had switched her battle ground to Nandigram before that.
“I am a street fighter. I still am a street fighter. I don’t pass instructions in a battle, I lead it on the ground,” she said in one of her public rallies.
The same aggressive streak made her camp at a Boyal booth on polling day in Nandigram, believed to be BJP turf.
“Nandigram opened my eyes,” she said later. The episode also led her to sharpen her attack against the Election Commission and central forces, which reached its pitch after the Sitalkuchi firing that left four persons dead in the Phase-IV polls.
Banerjee believes the battle for Bengal will set the ball rolling for the 2024 Lok Sabha polls, and she has her eyes on them.
She has said her first stop outside Bengal will be to meet farmers protesting at Delhi’s Singhu border.
There’s other business too: “After the elections, I will move the Supreme Court constitution bench to insulate the EC from political interference.”
She has also questioned the rationale for suspending a person’s right to vote in preventive detention, the repeated appointment of select retired officers as special poll observers, and not placing central agencies in pollbound states under the EC.