Trinamool Congress chairperson Mamata Banerjee landed in North Bengal’s Cooch Behar district Sunday (25 June) to kick off her party’s campaign for the ensuing panchayat polls in the state.
This is the first time after coming to power in Bengal in 2011 that Banerjee is campaigning in a panchayat poll. The last time she campaigned during panchayat elections was in 2008, and that too sparingly.
This time, Banerjee is leaving nothing to chance and will campaign extensively to ensure a win in the maximum number of gram panchayats, panchayat samitis and zilla parishads in the state.
That’s because a lot is at stake. Banerjee knows very well that a landslide win in the three-tier rural body polls is crucial to cementing Trinamool's position as the strongest anti-BJP party in Bengal.
That’s why the Trinamool chief wants the next meeting of Opposition parties scheduled to be held at Shimla, to be held on 12 July and not 10 July as proposed by the Congress. The results of the panchayat polls will be declared on 11 July.
The Shimla meeting will kickstart the process of seat-sharing among the Opposition parties.
Mamata Banerjee wants her party to contest 40 of the 42 Lok Sabha seats in the state.
“A massive win in the elections to the rural bodies will establish the Trinamool Congress as the only powerful non-BJP party in Bengal. If the Congress and the CPI(M), which are expected to stake claim to contest from at least 12 to 14 Lok Sabha seats, fare very poorly in the panchayat elections, that will be the icing on the cake for the Trinamool since it will weaken their claim to contest from a significant number of seats,” explained political analyst Shankar Dutta Chowdhury.
That explains why Mamata Banerjee, as well as her nephew Abhishek Banerjee, will campaign intensively in Congress strongholds like Malda and Murshidabad and in CPI(M) strongholds in some South Bengal districts.
The Trinamool chief has told leaders of her party to devote the next ten days to campaign intensively for the party. MPs and MLAs have been asked to be present in their respective constituencies and campaign for even gram panchayat candidate in seats where the party is not in a strong position.
A panel of senior party leaders headed by Urban Development Minister and close Mamata aide, Firhad Hakim, has been tasked with taking care of the logistical requirements and sorting out inner-party squabbles and dissidence.
“We have been told that the goal is win more seats in gram panchayats and panchayat samitis than we won last time (2018) and form the boards in all zilla parishads. We have been explicitly asked to leave no stone unturned to ensure the victory of our candidates,” said Trinamool Congress MLA S K Panja.
A cabinet minister who is a close aide of Mamata Banerjee confided to Swarajya that the party chief wants to go to Shimla after a massive win in the rural body polls.
“A spectacular win will boost her image in the Opposition camp and will make her a strong claimant for leadership of the anti-BJP front,” the minister, who did not want to be identified, told Swarajya.
But an equally important factor, he added, is that a sweep of the 8 July elections to the rural bodies will make Trinamool’s claims to put up its own candidates as the joint Opposition (or ‘consensus’) candidates in 38 to 40 Lok Sabha seats in Bengal, in an unassailable position.
Also, the panchayat elections this time are a precursor to the Lok Sabha elections next year. A massive win in the 8 July panchayat polls will demoralise the BJP in Bengal and boost Trinamool cadres.
Mamata Banerjee has in mind the 2008 panchayat polls which provided the first concrete indication of people’s growing discontent, and disconnect, with the Communist Party of India (Marxist)-CPI(M)-led Left Front and set the ball rolling for the shift of political power in the state.
The Trinamool Congress won nearly 24 per cent of the gram panchayat seats, 23 per cent of panchayat samiti seats and 16 per cent of zilla parishad seats. That dealt a considerable blow to the political hegemony of the Left in Bengal.
In the Lok Sabha elections the next year (2009), the Trinamool upstaged the CPI(M) by winning 19 seats, up from just one in 2004. The CPI(M) won just nine and its Left allies (CPI, Forward Bloc and Revolutionary Socialist Party) two each.
And in 2011, the Trinamool ousted the CPI(M)-led Left Front, which had been ruling Bengal for 34 years since 1977, from power.
The BJP won 18 of the 42 Lok Sabha seats in Bengal in 2019. That was a massive blow to the Trinamool’s political predominance in Bengal. The Trinamool, however, managed to win back a lot of the lost ground in the 2021 Assembly polls by posting a spectacular win.
But anti-incumbency has been growing since then, especially in rural Bengal. The massive scams that have ensnared many top Trinamool leaders as well as a number of party functionaries, the corruption and anomalies in implementation of many welfare measures and inner-party bickerings have eroded the image of the party and even Mamata Banerjee personally.
Abhishek Banerjee undertook an extensive tour of the entire state from end-April to win back the trust and support of the rural masses. But the feedback he received from the ground was disturbing.
That’s why Mamata Banerjee has decided to take matters in her own hands and has started campaigning for the panchayat polls for the first time after the 2008 panchayat polls in Bengal.
“This shows she is scared and is not very confident of a big victory. I take this as the BJP’s victory. We have been able to make her nervous enough to campaign for the panchayat elections,” BJP Bengal president Sukanta Majumdar told Swarajya.
But the ‘win at all cost’ message that Mamata Banerjee has sent out to her party rank and file has also set alarm bells ringing in the BJP, Congress and CPI(M) camps.
“We foresee a lot of violence. The Trinamool will indulge in a lot of violence and rigging to win the polls,” said CPI(M) leader Mohammed Salim.
State Congress president Adhir Ranjan Chowdhury agreed with Salim. “The Trinamool’s position has weakened a lot in recent months and anti-incumbency has become strong due to corruption and misgovernance. But the Trinamool will try to win as many seats since it wants to show that it is the only anti-BJP party in Bengal. In order to achieve that, it will indulge in massive violence and rigging,” said Chowdhury.
BJP state chief Majumdar said that BJP cadres are prepared to face any violence and rigging by Trinamool goons.
“Our workers will give Trinamool goons a befitting reply if they indulge in violence and rigging,” said Majumdar.
All this translates into a grim scenario for Bengal: the prospect of largescale violence over the next twelve days looms menacingly large over the state.
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