In February 2021, when the Bengal chapter of the Bharatiya Janata Party applied to the state administration for permission to organise five statewide “rath yatras”, it took many people by surprise. The BJP had not indicated so far that it intended to organise a yatra, unlike during the 2019 Lok Sabha poll, when it made public its yatra plans over a month before it even applied for permission.
If a senior state leader of the party is to be believed, the BJP’s plan this year was to catch chief minister Mamata Banerjee “off guard”.
The BJP’s previous yatra in the state was at the subject of a controversy. In 2018, ahead of the 2019 election, the government withheld permission for the yatra, arguing that it could create law and order problems. The BJP and the case went to the Supreme Court, which passed its verdict in favour of the Trinamool Congress government.
But the discussions and debates around this conflict made it a dominant talking point during the Lok Sabha election.
This time around, with the Assembly election scheduled to take place in April, the state administration allowed the BJP’s yatras without much delay. Three were launched by the BJP’s national president, JP Nadda, and two by home minister Amit Shah. Perhaps due to this lack of disagreement, none of them have generated much interest on social media or in the mainstream media.
“By allowing the yatra, the TMC government has taken the hype out of it,” explained filmmaker Aniket Chattopadhyay.
Chattopadhyay also thinks there’s been a change in Mamata’s attitude. He cited the death of Maidul Islam Midya, a Left activist who with the police during a Kolkata rally on February 12. “Mamata promptly spoke to Left leaders over the phone, announced an enquiry, and gave a job to the deceased’s wife,” Chattopadhyay said. “If this incident had happened prior to 2019, she would certainly have blamed the party that organised the agitation."
But this perceived change in Mamata isn’t the only difference. Political commentators told this reporter the TMC has made other subtle, yet strategic, changes to its campaign strategy.
More focus on Mamata, less on attacking the BJP
For example, in 2019, most of the party’s leaders referred to Mamata as “Maa”, or mother, despite her popular nomenclature of “Didi”. This year, it has positioned Mamata as “Bengal’s daughter”, launching its official slogan “Bangla Nijer Meyeki Chay.” Bengal wants her own daughter.
Similarly, the party seems to have switched tactics in how it presents itself this election. In 2019, ahead of the Lok Sabha poll, the TMC portrayed itself as the principal critic of the BJP, especially Narendra Modi. As a result, the BJP and Modi took centre stage in speeches by Mamata and other senior TMC leaders; Modi became a key talking point.
After facing a blow in the Lok Sabha election, with its tally dropping from 34 to 22, the TMC has decided to make Mamata its focus. TMC leaders, and Mamata herself, have been focusing on what she’s done over the past 10 years, and the good work she’s planned for her next term.
“Instead of talking about the BJP and Modi all the time, the TMC’s campaign this time centres on Mamata Banerjee herself and the good work of her government,” said Biswanath Chakraborty, a psephologist and professor of political science at Kolkata’s Rabindra Bharati University.
Of course, the party still takes digs at the central government, especially on the farmer protests and the hike in fuel prices, but these remain peripheral. Mamata also occasionally reminds the electorate that she still opposes the Citizenship Amendment Act and the National Register of Citizens, but she refers to them merely in passing.
Additionally, instead of countering speeches by BJP leaders during public rallies, the TMC’s spokespersons have begun during press conferences, which are then circulated on social media.
In 2019, Mamata focused on of what happened in Pulwama and Balakot. In stark contrast, the TMC seldom brings up China in its campaign speeches this year, even though other parties, like the Congress, have been questioning the Modi government’s claims about the border conflict with China.
Building an ideological grounding
According to political analyst and journalist Suman Bhattarcharya, the TMC’s campaign for 2021 is “much more matured and focused” when compared to its 2019 strategy, when it “had no focus and the narrative was directionless”.
“Ahead of 2019, TMC leaders like Suvendu Adhikari and Anubrata Mandal were busy abusing and threatening Opposition leaders and even the intelligentsia that was critical of the party,” Bhattacharya said. “Now, the party is trying to reinvent bhadralok politics, talking all the time about Bengal’s cultural stalwarts. Their campaign now has more intellectual components.”
One of the most significant changes, Bhattarcharya said, is the party’s attempt to develop an ideological grounding.
“The TMC never had any ideology,” he said. “First, it was all about opposing the Left. And then, about opposing the BJP. But now, they have developed a regionalist ideology, like the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam in Tamil Nadu, while highlighting pluralism and democratic values as its ideological base. The party is no longer threatening opponents with the use of the police, which has been the basic nature of Mamata’s rule till 2019.”
A TMC MP in the Rajya Sabha told this reporter that the TMC had assessed itself following the Lok Sabha election, and had concluded that its “negative campaign against the BJP” had allowed its rival to gain mileage.
“Now, our campaign is a positive one based on what we have done,” said the MP on the condition of anonymity. “We don’t want to give the BJP any unnecessary importance by focusing on attacking them.”
For instance, in 2019, the more the BJP spoke about Hindutva, the more Mamata brought up secularism, in an attempt to pitch Hindutva against secular ideals. With the BJP playing the Hindutva yet again this year – “Jai Shri Ram” is a slogan to protest politics of appeasement – the TMC has chosen to highlight pluralism while refraining from a direct attack on Hindutva politics.
“Let them go to people’s doors with ‘Jai Shri Ram’ and other religious slogans,” said Sukhendu Sekhar Roy, a TMC MP in the Rajya Sabha and the party’s national spokesperson. “We will not mix religion with politics. We will reach people’s doors with our development agenda. We want discussions on development, not religion, which should remain a private practice.”
A senior Lok Sabha MP of the party said the TMC does not want the election to become a “Hindu-Muslim issue”. The party had noted a “significant rise in Bengali nationalist pride” in recent times, the MP said, against the Hindi imposition of which the BJP is often accused.
Yet, the MP said, while the TMC might gain from these sentiments, it does not want to portray a Bengali vs Hindi conflict in the state. So while the narrative of “Bengali and Bahari”, or outsider, does figure in the TMC’s election rhetoric, its leaders have also been reaching out to the Hindi-speaking community; for example, Mamata recently 100 new schools in the state for instructions in Hindi, Nepali and Urdu.
She also the Hindi-speaking population on Hindi Divas and recently appointed Hindi-speaking Jitendra Tewari, who hails from Asansol district dominated by Hindi-speaking people, as one of the party’s national spokespersons.
As the Lok Sabha MP said: “Any form of polarisation, ethnic, religious or linguistic, will ultimately lead to Hindu polarisation in favour of the BJP. So, our attempt is to not allow any kind of polarisation to take shape.”
The TMC’s new game plan hasn’t gone unnoticed by the BJP. The party’s state president Dilip Ghosh told this reporter: “Earlier, Mamata was the mother to every TMC leader. Now, she has become Bengal’s daughter. This is because she has also transformed from Didi to Pishi [aunt, in reference to her ] and the TMC has realised that people are fed up with their arrogance. It also shows how they [the TMC] can see their impending defeat.”