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The battle for Bengal enters a critical phase

Mamata Banerjee and  Amit Shah
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Mamata Banerjee and Amit Shah

Highlights

A tough battle is ahead in West Bengal Assembly elections

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A tough battle is ahead in West Bengal Assembly elections. The Trinamul Congress chief Mamata Banerjee who was once beneficiary of the politics of defection is now facing threat of losing power. What started as a trickle is turning into a flood. It appears that the popularity graph of 'Didi' is on a downward slide. If TMC wins the Assembly elections in 2021, it would be with a razor-thin majority.

When Mamata toppled the 34-year rule of Left Front and won 227 out of 294 seats in alliance with Congress party and Socialist Unity Centre of India (TMC alone won 184 seats), several Congress MLAs and left leaders joined TMC. A decade after virtually holding sway over West Bengal politics, Mamata for the first time is facing the electoral heat and the forthcoming election has become a matter of do or die for TMC.

This will be the first election for Bengal tigress without her master strategist and second-in-command Mukul Roy. While Mukul had joined BJP in 2017 and had been made national vice president, another important TMC leader Suvendu Adhikari also joined BJP. The outflow from TMC did not end here.

Six sitting TMC MLAs and an MP joined the saffron party. Whether the BJP will be able to dethrone Mamata or not, a political scare for TMC has been created and it appears that she has an uphill task this time. It is not just the aggressive attitude of BJP but Mamata's unquestioned popularity has gone down in the State and she is showing signs of weakness.

BJP had won only three out of 294 seats in 2016 assembly election. Three years later, in 2019, BJP won 18 out of 42 Lok Sabha seats which means that they got a lead in 125 Assembly segments which translates into 40 percent of the vote share. On the other hand Mamata had won 22 Lok Sabha seats and got 44 percent vote share. Hence pollsters feel that a 4-5 percent increase in the vote share for BJP could topple the Mamata government.

However, Mamata who has been a fighter all through is continuing to put up a tough fight. She always has been a mass leader and is leaving no stone unturned to see that she comes back to power again and has been posing a challenge to the saffron party.

The Left and the Congress which have for all practical purposes lost their importance have formed into an alliance. Though this would lead to a triangular contest, they would get squeezed out and it will be a direct fight between the TMC and BJP.

The BJP government at the Centre is trying to win in the state by capitalising on the Matua vote bank in addition to other equations. Matuas are Namasudras, a Scheduled Caste group with a presence in at least 70 Assembly seats. While no official count is available, community leaders put their population at 3 crore. Matuas trace their ancestry to East Bengal, and many of them entered West Bengal after Partition and after the formation of Bangladesh.

The community is important for a number of reasons. Since 2009, the Matuas were mostly known to be Trinamool Congress supporters. The TMC had been mobilising the support of Matua's even before the 2011 Assembly election.

When the BJP presented the Citizenship Amendment Bill in Parliament, which was subsequently passed, the TMC-led State government strongly opposed it. The BJP may not get the support of Matuas now. The incidents regarding the National Register of Citizens (NRC) in Assam has been an important factor for this. There has been a direct impact on the Namasudras of Bengal as a lot of Hindu refugees were left out of the Register.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi talked about the issues related to citizenship of Namasudras during his visit to 24 Parganas in early 2019 which is said to be the stronghold of Matuas. In the election of 2019, Shantanu was given the BJP ticket from the Lok Sabha seat of Bangaon (SC) and he became an MP, defeating his aunt Mamata Bala. But still, the BJP does not seem to be enjoying their support.

Another important factor that could tilt the balance in West Bengal elections is the large concentration of Muslims who constitute about 30 percent of the population. Though Left and Congress will claim that the Muslims will vote for them, the ground reality seems to be different. Muslims too so far were trusted vote bank for TMC and even now there does not appear to be much change in their preferences.

Though the Hyderabad based AIMIM led by Asaduddin Owaisi has thrown its hat into the ring, Mamata Didi's party still appears to be the favourite party for the muslim community. AIMIM is seen as an outside party and majority of them do not even know who Asad is. They say whatever Didi has done is good. Normally, if the voter is angry with the ruling party, he does not open up and maintains silence, but the Muslim community by and large seem to be supporting Mamata. This indicates that there would be clear polarisation of votes.

Sensing that TMC may have to face an uphill task, Mamata had struck a chord with the citizens by renewing 'Swastha Sathi' health insurance scheme up to Rs 5 lakh which attracted lakhs of people who vied with each other to enrol for the programme.

She also launched the "Duare Sarkar" (government at doorstep) outreach programme, which will ensure people receive the benefits of 11 state-run welfare schemes. TMC leaders and workers are reaching out to around 10 million households in the next few days. The

TMC is also pinning its hopes on the women voters who constitute about 50 percent of the population.

However, this time the TMC is rocked by internal rebellions and dissident voices from within the party.

On the other hand, Union Home Minister Amit Shah is likely to visit the State every month and stay there for a week during each visit till polls. Shah's next visit to West Bengal is likely on January 12. He is likely to stay in West Bengal for a week during his visit and will be attending public gatherings and public meetings.

The TMC has pitched it as an 'insider versus outsider' fight. Another interesting aspect in the high voltage political battle is the political strategist Prashant Kishore putting his neck on the block. He recently tweeted saying that BJP will struggle to cross double digit in West Bengal and it does any better he said he would quit this space. So far Prashant always had been a backroom boy working quietly to deliver the intended result whether it was for BJP in 2014 or YSRCP in 2019 or even the UP elections. This election could be a maker or breaker for him.

For the present, the game is wide open in West Bengal. Winning West Bengal may be important for BJP because of another reason as it wants to get the better of the fiery fighter Mamata Banerjee who had taken on the BJP at the street level, more than any other opposition leader and continues to give a tough fight.

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