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Mamata’s ‘Barrackpore Coup’ May Ruin Modi-Shah’s Mission 22 Plan

The battle in Barrackpore was seen as a litmus test for the success of the Modi-Shah duo in Bengal.

Updated
Opinion
5 min read
Image used for representational purposes.
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Everyone loves a good fight. In Bengal, the high-octane verbal spat between Narendra Modi and Mamata Banerjee this election season, is a huge source of entertainment and amusement. It’s being watched with rapt attention, and is getting more eyeballs than TV soaps.

Unlike most fights, however, there’s no suspense about the outcome of this one. “Didi will win. No-one can defeat her in Bengal,’’ says an iron merchant in north Kolkata’s Shyam Bazaar, where Mamata’s former right-hand man, Sudip Bandyopadhyay – out on bail after 136 days in prison, in connection with the Rs 17,000 crore Rose Valley scam – is locked in a tight contest with prominent BJP national secretary Rahul Sinha.

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If there were any lingering doubts, they have vanished after the recent polling in Barrackpore. The battle in this Lok Sabha constituency, which is to the northwest of Kolkata, was seen as a litmus test for the success of the Modi-Shah duo’s much-hyped ‘Mission 22’ in Bengal – that is, to win at least 22 of the 42 Lok Sabha seats in the state.

But after BJP candidate Arjun Singh, a renegade Trinamool Congress MLA, was chased and attacked by his own former workers on voting day, even Modi enthusiasts lost heart about breaching Mamata’s bastion.

BJP Has Replaced Left Front in Bengal to Become Mamata’s Biggest Opponent

Although there are few takers for the grand target of 22 seats, the saffron surge in Bengal is palpable. Anti-Mamata votes are coalescing in large numbers with the BJP, because Modi’s post-Balakot ‘tough guy’ image has caught the imagination of those who want to boot the Trinamool out. These include large sections of the Hindi-speaking non-Bengali population, the Bengali bhadralok class that detested Mamata from the beginning, and Hindus attracted to the BJP’s communally polarising campaign.

There is some nostalgia for the Left, but it’s considered too weak to take on Mamata. And the Congress has virtually vanished from Bengal’s political consciousness.

Aware of the growing interest in the BJP, especially in Modi, the saffron party has been on an intensive drive to make inroads into Mamata’s territory.

It has tried every trick in the book, from polarising Hindu-Muslim sentiment in border areas, to deepening fault-lines between Hindi-speakers and tribals on one side, and Bengalis on the other, to ensnaring Trinamool MPs and MLAs in the Saradha and Rose Valley scams, to wooing Mamata’s key aides and musclemen.

As a result, the BJP has enlarged its footprint to replace the Left as the Trinamool’s chief challenger today.

Modi has sharpened the battle by personalising it in these polls. He has pitted himself against Mamata and virtually turned a Lok Sabha election into an assembly one, questioning her 8-year rule as Bengal chief minister. “Speed-breaker Didi,’’ he called her in a scathing indictment of the state’s development level, and poor employment opportunities.

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Mamata’s ‘Prestige Battle’ in Barrackpore

Initially, all kinds of numbers were touted as the BJP’s possible seat tally in Bengal in 2019. In fact, BJP circles boasted that the party would make up its losses in UP with huge gains in Bengal and Odisha.

The chatter is dying down after the Barrackpore polling. The battle in this constituency opened a fascinating window to the murky politics of Bengal, and is a sharp reminder to the BJP, that Modi and propaganda alone are not enough to beat Mamata’s formidable election machine. After all, she learnt from master electioneers – the Left – which ruled Bengal for 34 years through its authoritative command over the voting process.

In fact, Barrackpore became a prestige contest for Mamata. She made it her personal battle to settle scores with the Modi-Shah duo.

It started with her right-hand man, Arjun Singh, the MLA from the Bhatpara assembly segment of the constituency defecting on election eve, because he did not get a ticket to contest the Lok Sabha polls. Despite strenuous lobbying by Singh, Mamata renominated former railways minister Dinesh Trivedi, who has represented Barrackpore for two terms already.

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Managing TMC Defectors

Singh crossed over to the BJP in protest and was immediately given a ticket for the Lok Sabha election. Shah considered it a huge coup. Singh was supposed to be an important aide of Mamata, so important that she had given him Z category security. She pampered him for several reasons. One of them was that he was at daggers drawn with Mukul Roy, who was the first major TMC leader to defect to the BJP after he was named in the Saradha and Narada scams and threatened with arrest. Mukul Roy was de facto number two in the party, and Mamata depended heavily on him.

After Roy reneged, Mamata turned to Singh and built him up to rub Roy’s nose in the dirt. Singh’s muscle power in the area is supposed to be legendary, and the Trinamool’s victories in Barrackpore are ascribed to his gang of workers and supporters.

Interestingly, when Singh walked out, Mamata withdrew his security cover as punishment. The Modi government immediately restored it with security men from the central forces. This only angered Mamata further and from then on, she threw herself into the Barrackpore Lok Sabha fight as if she was contesting herself. Making Trivedi win had become a prestige point for her. Trivedi rose to the challenge, morphing from a man-about-town into a wily strategist who outmaneuvered Singh with a micro-managed campaign.

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Mamata Turns the Tables on Former TMC Loyalist Arjun Singh

Modi and Shah seemed unprepared for the internal machinations in Barrackpore that probably upset their calculations in this constituency. For instance, they did not account for the Mukul Roy factor. If Mamata was determined to have Singh defeated, so was Roy, although he’s now in the BJP. Was he the TMC’s secret weapon? Many in Barrackpore believe he was.

Here’s another twist to the tale. Roy’s son Subhrangshu is a Trinamool MLA from another Barrackpore assembly segment, Bijapur. In fact, Subhrangshu was integral to Trivedi’s plan to encircle and outwit Singh.

Another twist was the curious role played by Singh’s brother-in-law, Sunil Singh, also a Trinamool MLA from the Noapara assembly segment in Barrackpore. He was slated to join the BJP the day Modi addressed a rally in the area. But at the last minute, he backed out.

On voting day, Mamata’s election machinery turned the tables on Singh by using his own tactics against him. The BJP nominee was chased and assaulted by Trinamool workers. He also complained about rigging, while Trivedi exuded confidence.

The BJP will undoubtedly increase its vote share substantially. It will be the number two party after the Trinamool. But few are willing to hazard a guess on its seat tally after the strange happenings in Barrackpore.

(The writer is a Delhi-based senior journalist. 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.)

(At The Quint, we are answerable only to our audience. Play an active role in shaping our journalism by becoming a member. Because the truth is worth it.)

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