Bengal 2021: Will ‘Underdog’ Mamata’s ‘Ploy’ Beat BJP Juggernaut?

Few play the victim better than Mamata. With her plastered foot, she’s the centrepiece of her own 2021 campaign.

4 min read
Image of an injured Mamata Banerjee has become the centrepiece of the TMC’s Bengal 2021 election campaign this time.

West Bengal Chief Minister and Trinamool Congress (TMC) boss Mamata Banerjee was never going to let a broken foot hinder her in any way.

This shrewd practitioner of the art of fighting it out on the streets, has hauled herself into a wheelchair, stuck out her plastered limb like a weapon of mass destruction, and launched a high-pitched emotional campaign — with which she hopes to annihilate the BJP in the 2021 assembly elections.

Few play the victim better than Mamata. “Earlier the CPM used to attack me. Now it’s the BJP,’’ she told a rally in Jhargram the other day.

For years, Mamata battled CPI(M) cadres on the streets of Kolkata. She never let up even after sustaining two blows on her head which needed 18 stitches to stem the blood. It’s the stuff legends are made of, and that April 1990 incident has been mythologised over the years to build her brand as the Bengal tigress.


Can ‘Underdog’ Mamata Halt Modi-Shah Juggernaut in Bengal 2021 Polls?

If the Modi-Shah duo thought that a fractured foot would slow Mamata down, they clearly underestimated her. Fate has dealt her a card which she has seized with gusto to shore up her faltering campaign. Overnight, the Bengal chief minister has transformed herself into the underdog in this election. Indeed, Mamata Banerjee is the David in hawai chappals plus plaster, to the BJP’s double-headed Goliath brandishing the mighty weapons of State power. It’s a role Didi revels in and clearly intends to milk for every ounce of sympathy she can extract to take her past the winning post in Bengal this time.

Will the ploy work? Can an underdog halt the BJP juggernaut in its tracks and destroy the Modi-Shah duo’s dream of painting the east in saffron hues?

It is popularly believed that everyone loves an underdog. Mamata isn’t the first, nor will she be the last politician to try her luck with this gambit.

Indira Gandhi sprung it on her unsuspecting opponents in the 1971 Lok Sabha election and swept. “Woh kehte hain Indira hatao, main kehti hoon garibi hatao.’’ The opposition had no counter to the slogan raised by a small, slight woman who pitted herself as the underdog against a powerful syndicate of greying men she had left behind when she split the Congress in 1969. She mopped up buckets of sympathy and most of the votes to win a two-thirds majority.

Veterans of the ‘Underdog Narrative’: Modi & Arvind Kejriwal

Narendra Modi himself has used the ruse successfully several times. Remember when Sonia Gandhi branded him ‘maut ka saudagar’ (merchant of death) during the 2007 assembly poll campaign? Modi turned the election around on this one phrase, positioning himself as the victim of a central government that trampled on Gujarati sentiments. The Congress-led UPA was in power in New Delhi at that time.

He played the underdog again in the 2014 Lok Sabha polls after Congress leader Mani Shankar Aiyyar famously dismissed him as someone who can sell tea but can never be PM. Needless to say, he swept the election as the ‘chaiwala’ with big dreams. It’s an appeal as timeless as a Charlie Chaplin movie.

Delhi Chief Minister and Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) boss Arvind Kejriwal is another veteran of the underdog narrative.

He’s made it the central plank of his politics, helped hugely by the ‘Big Brother’ attitude of the Modi government which has consistently tried to swat him away as an upstart and an irritant. It’s helped him win three consecutive assembly elections in Delhi. He even managed to notch-up a stunning victory last year in the face of a belligerent, polarising offensive by Union Home Minister Amit Shah himself.


Foot in Plaster, Mamata Herself Is the Centrepiece of Her Bengal 2021 Campaign

It is amazing what captures public imagination and becomes the defining image of a winning campaign. NCP veteran Sharad Pawar standing in the pouring rain at a rally during the Maharashtra assembly polls in 2019 netted a huge sympathy vote for his party and changed the complexion of the election outcome.

Ironically, Mamata did not resort to the underdog ploy to storm to power in West Bengal in 2011. She launched her assault on this Left bastion with an aggressive war cry for ‘poriborton’ (change), which she overlaid with an emotive slogan: ‘maa, maati, manush’ (mother, the earth, and the people). It worked.

Mamata won the next election on the TINA (there is no alternative) factor. But this time, after ten years in power, faced with a combative and determined challenger in the BJP, Mamata was scrambling for a narrative.

She found it quite inadvertently after a scuffle in Nandigram when she had gone to file her nomination papers. With her foot in plaster, Mamata has made herself the centrepiece of her campaign this time.

There’s little talk of what she’s done in the past ten years or what she will do if voted back. Her narrative is powered purely by emotion, an appeal for sympathy, dollops of parochial sentiment and bile against Modi and the BJP.

How Mamata Managed to Put BJP on the Defensive

Yet, despite the hollowness of her rhetoric and the negativity running through her speeches, which contrasts sharply with the promised poriborton in 2011, Mamata has managed to put the BJP on the defensive.

Even Amit Shah is having to choose his words carefully and soften his characteristic bellicosity while attacking her. After all, how rough can you get against a woman in a cast?

Result day on 2 May will reveal the success or failure of Mamata’s ploy. Whatever be the outcome, the defining memory of the Battle for Bengal 2021 will be the feisty fight-back by a woman in a wheelchair.

(The writer is a Delhi-based senior journalist. She tweets @AratiJ. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)

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