“Attack” or “accident”, “conspiracy or “drama” – in the end, party loyalties may determine people’s view on West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee’s injury following an incident in Nandigram.
What is clear, however, is that Banerjee’s injuries may have turned the narrative of the West Bengal election, at least for the time being.
Banerjee’s Trinamool Congress (TMC) has alleged that this was a pre-planned attack carried out by four to five goons. It has also accused the security personnel of negligence. Presently, the police is under the control of the Election Commission.
From a political point of view, this incident has now sidetracked many other aspects of the TMC campaign. The party was supposed to release its manifesto on 11 March but that got postponed because of this.
Banerjee has maintained that she won’t stop campaigning even if it means coming in a wheelchair.
‘Teach Traitors a Lesson’
The incident has caused many TMC workers and supporters to shed their dissatisfaction with the party’s local leadership and rally around in solidarity with the injured party supreme.
“Teach the traitors a lesson” is a common refrain that The Quint heard, speaking to TMC supporters in Nandigram.
The “attack” has reinforced what has been Banerjee’s biggest quality in her entire political career – the image of being a street-fighter.
Flashback to 1990 and 2007
In particular, the incident has revived memories of two key milestones in Banerjee’s career – the attack on her in 1990 as well as the Nandigram agitation.
During a Youth Congress protest in Kolkata in 1990, she was hit on the head with a metal rod allegedly by Left workers. This caused a severe head injury, which took 16 stitches and a month in hospital to heal.
That incident shaped Banerjee’s image as a street-fighter and one who won’t give up in the face of intimidation.
Interestingly, the main accused in the attack – CPM youth worker Lalu Alam – was acquitted 29 years later in 2019 when Banerjee was in power.
Apparently, the Left Front government had neglected the case until 2011 and a great deal of evidence was lost.
According to media reports, Alam, who left politics since then, has expressed hope that Banerjee would pardon him.
Banerjee was injured once again during a protest in 1993, during which many protesters were also shot dead by the police.
For TMC supporters, the Nandigram incident also revived memories of the 2007 agitation against the Left government’s land acquisition in the same area. That agitation propelled Banerjee’s popularity as a mass leader and destroyed the Left’s credibility as a force representing the interests of Bengal’s poor.
Facing the effect of 10 years of anti-incumbency as well as a challenge from the BJP’s election machine, it would be beneficial for the TMC if voters decide with the 1990 and 2007 incidents playing in their mind.
The incident has also left the Opposition confused on how to react. In particular, leaders deeply invested in Bengal’s political landscape – such as state BJP president Dilip Ghosh, his Congress counterpart Adhir Ranjan Chowdhury, and senior CPM leader Mohammad Salim called it a “drama”.
At least on social media, these leaders had to face criticism for not showing “decency” on the injury of a political opponent.
In contrast to these leaders were people like the BJP’s Swapan Dasgupta and Congress’ Manish Tewari who were clear in their condemnation.
Many of the attacks on Banerjee are also gendered in nature and showing her as “dramatic” or “unstable”. The BJP’s campaign mocking her as Pishi is a case in point.
These gendered attacks aren’t new for Banerjee. In Didi: A Political Biography, author Monobina Gupta points out that Banerjee’s political opponents, “leveraged gender as a weapon to trivialize, even vulgarize, their rhetoric of attack on the Trinamool Congress president, her status as a single woman without the bulwark of exotic lineage or formidable rank of wealth and class shielding her."
For an average TMC supporter, the impression that has gone out from the comments of Ghosh, Chowdhury, Salim and others is of Didi’s opponents ganging up against her on one hand and an injured Mamata Banerjee resisting them.
In a state where emotions and the notion of loyalty is deeply intertwined with politics, this is an extremely powerful image.
Therefore, attacking an injured Banerjee may not be a very useful strategy for the Opposition, whose best bet was to capitalise on anti-incumbency against the TMC at the local level.
(With inputs from Ishadrita Lahiri)