A by-poll like no other
Discretion is the better part of valour, but not quite when it comes to West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee. She has a penchant for rushing into political terrains where not many would dare to tread—a trait that has characterised her political career. Who else, for instance, would have been brave enough to take on senior Marxist leader Somnath Chatterjee and pull off the giant-killing feat in the Lok Sabha poll in 1984, when Mamata was a young feisty leader from the Congress party, contesting from Jadavpur constituency?
Fast forward to September 2021: Mamata is no longer young, but remains as feisty and fleet-footed as ever, and has often defied conventional political wisdom. That is why when she chose Nandigram as her assembly constituency in the state assembly elections this year, she knew she was taking a calculated risk by moving out of her safe bastion of Bhabanipur in south Kolkata, her home and a cosmopolitan constituency from where she had won twice in the 2011 and 2016 elections. Many would say that Mamata had chosen Nandigram because her agitation in 2007-08 against land acquisition for industries by then Left Front government had catapulted her to power for the first time in 2011. But a decade is too long a time in politics for things to change.
Nandigram disappointed Mamata by giving the victory to aide-turned-adversary Suvendu Adhikari of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) on the latter's home turf this year. But she knew she always had the option of winning a by-poll within the six-month mandatory timeframe provided under Article 164 (4) of the constitution, and retain her chief ministerial chair. But things did not turn out as smoothly as she might have thought about the by-election since her defeat in Nandigram on May 2. Mamata is, no doubt, a charismatic mass leader, and has been keen on getting elected as a member of the legislative assembly to shed the tag of an un-elected chief minister.
It required several meetings between the Mamata-led Trinamool Congress (TMC) and the Election Commission, as well as her own pleas with the poll body, to ensure that the Bhabanipur by-poll would be held before the six-month deadline expires in early November. Tension had been building up within the TMC as to when the Election Commission would announce the by-poll. When the schedule was announced with the polling to be held on September 30 and the result declaration on October 3, a sense of relief ran through the ruling party, which had at times apprehended—albeit without any basis—that if the Election Commission did not hold the democratic exercise on time citing Covid-19, Mamata would face the embarrassment of stepping down as chief minister.
The poll body's decision to hold the Bhabanipur by-poll is a resounding rebuff to those in the opposition, including the TMC, who had been attacking it by questioning its fair play capability and the dependability of EVMs without an iota of evidence. In fact, the Election Commission allowed the Bhabanipur by-poll even as it continued to postpone by-elections in three Lok Sabha and 31 other assembly constituencies across India, including four others in West Bengal itself, in view of the pandemic and flood situation there. Obviously, keeping Mamata in mind, West Bengal Chief Secretary HK Dwivedi had written to the commission seeking an early by-poll in Bhabanipur on the grounds of "constitutional exigency and public interest to avoid a vacuum" in the state. And the commission acknowledged that.
It is going to be a battle between the unequals and two generations of politicians in Bhabanipur as Mamata, in her late 60s, is pitted against much younger rivals Priyanka Tibrewal, 39, of the BJP, and Srijib Biswas, in his early 40s, of the Communist Party of India (Marxist). The Congress party, which is in talks with Trinamool Congress for overall unity among the opposition parties to take on the BJP in the 2024 Lok Sabha poll, has decided not to field a candidate against Mamata in Bhabanipur. While Priyanka is not new to electoral politics as she had unsuccessfully contested the recent assembly elections from Entally constituency in Kolkata, Srijib is set to make his debut in elections. Priyanka's claim to fame is that she is among the petitioners on whose pleading the Calcutta High Court ordered a comprehensive investigation into the post-poll violence, an exercise that was stonewalled by the TMC.
The TMC is leaving nothing to chance in Bhabanipur. The party's campaign is spearheaded by Mamata, and it has pressed into service its entire organisational machinery, deploying three senior ministers—Subrata Mukherjee, Firhad Hakim and Partha Chatterjee, Kolkata Municipal Corporation Administrator Debasish Kumar, Mamata's brother Kartick, and activists of the party's student front in different parts of the constituency. The BJP, on the other hand, has lined up a motley collection of its Bengal leaders led by state unit President Dilip Ghosh and at least three federal ministers to woo the voters of Bhabanipur.
In the last assembly polls in March-April this year, Bhabanipur gave victory to Sobhandeb Chattopadhyay by a margin of 28,000 votes against BJP nominee Rudranil Ghosh. Soon after Mamata's defeat in Nandigram, Sobhandeb vacated the Bhabanipur seat so that Mamata could contest the by-poll from there.
Although dominated by the Bangalee middle class, a sizable chunk of the 206,389-electorate in Bhabanipur consists of Muslims in Ekbalpur, Khidderpore and Mominpur areas, as well as Marwaris, Punjabis and Gujratis, who will be a key factor in tilting the scale. Almost three-fourths of Sobhandeb's victory margin of 28,000 votes in the last assembly poll came from the Muslim-majority areas, while the TMC did not do that well in areas of non-Bangalee Hindus.
The TMC was first off the bloc as far as publicity blitz is concerned in Bhabanipur—with banners, festoons, posters, and graffiti—all of which describe Mamata as "Bhabanipurer meye (Bhabanipur's daughter)," a hyper-local version of the slogan "Bangla taar meyekey chai (Bangla wants its daughter)" in the run-up to the state assembly election earlier this year. Considering that Bhabanipur has a significant number of non-Bangalee voters, the TMC has so far refrained from playing up the Bengal subnationalism card, which it had successfully done in the assembly elections. The religious symbolism in Mamata's campaign was quite evident as she herself visited a temple, a mosque and a gurudwara in Bhabanipur.
In the cut-throat world of competitive politics, at times, past performance in an election counts little for the future. Therefore, Mamata rightly told the TMC workers not to take her victory in Bhabanipur for granted. She has raised the stakes in the outcome of Bhabanipur by-poll by telling them that the election result will have an impact on the forthcoming civic body polls across West Bengal and set the tone for the 2024 general elections. Whether this strategy pays off or not will be known on October 3, when the final vote counts of the by-poll are out. But for Mamata's presence, the Bhabanipur by-poll would pass off as just another routine democratic exercise.
Pallab Bhattacharya is a special correspondent for The Daily Star. He writes from New Delhi, India.