On a sweltering afternoon, India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi is working the gang at a marketing campaign assembly, some 160km (99 miles) south of the japanese metropolis of Kolkata in West Bengal state.
“You gave her an opportunity to work for 10 years. Now give us a chance,” Mr Modi says. The lady in query is Mamata Banerjee, the firebrand chief of Trinamool Congress (TMC), a regional get together that has been ruling the state for a decade.
Now Mr Modi, a folksy orator, slips into thickly accented Bengali, a lot of the amusement of many within the crowd. He launches right into a broadside towards Ms Banerjee, who is best identified in Bengal as “didi” or elder sister, a moniker invented by her supporters.
“Didi, o Mamata didi. You say we are outsiders. But the land of Bengal doesn’t regard anyone as an outsider,” says Mr Modi. “Nobody is an outsider here.”
Ms Banerjee has framed the problem from Mr Modi’s Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) as one between the insiders (Bengalis) and the outsiders (the largely Hindi-speaking BJP, which runs the federal authorities).
The 66-year-old chief is tapping into, directly, nativist and federalist sentiments. The “othering” of a robust federal get together is grounded in India’s contested politics of federalism, says Dwaipayan Bhattacharya, a professor of political science at Jawaharlal Nehru University. Ms Banerjee has additionally accused the Hindu nationalist get together of making an attempt to carry “narrow, discriminatory and divisive politics in Bengal”.
Rhetoric apart, the battle for West Bengal – the place voting is staggered over eight phases and 4 weeks – guarantees to be intense. (The outcomes of voting won’t be introduced till 2 May, together with 4 different states, together with neighbouring Assam.) It can be essentially the most vital state election in India in recent times.
West Bengal, a state of 92 million folks, has by no means been dominated by Mr Modi’s get together.
The feisty Ms Banerjee stormed to energy in 2011 after dislodging a Communist-led authorities that dominated the state for 34 years. Since then she has dominated with out a break, and her get together at the moment holds 211 of 295 seats within the outgoing state meeting. The TMC is a loosely structured, and never a very disciplined get together. It has no ideological underpinnings. Like most of India’s regional events, it depends on the cult of persona of a charismatic chief, whose supporters additionally name her the “fire goddess”.
During the final meeting election in 2016, the BJP gained a paltry three seats. In the parliamentary ballot in 2019, it threw down the gauntlet, selecting up 18 of the state’s 42 parliamentary seats and 40% of the favored rode. Ms Banerjee’s get together gained 22 seats, down a dozen seats from the 2014 poll, and was badly bruised.
“It was a wake up call for Ms Banerjee,” says Rajat Ray, a political commentator. “2021 is her existential battle”.
A win for the BJP in West Bengal can be a significant increase to the get together. Although Mr Modi continues to be India’s hottest chief, his get together has been struggling to win state elections. Also, a win for a Hindu nationalist get together in a state the place a 3rd of the voters are Muslims can be massively symbolic. It will virtually additionally extinguish any hope that India’s largely rag-tag opposition harbours to take on Mr Modi’s well-oiled and richly funded get together in 2024 basic elections.
“This election is a war for Indian democracy. If the BJP wins, Hindu majoritarian politics will have finally arrived in Bengal, a veritable last bastion,” says Prashant Kishore, a political strategist, who helps Ms Banerjee’s marketing campaign.
If Ms Banerjee wins, she is more likely to emerge as a nationwide chief as a result of she would have defeated a robust incumbent nationwide get together. She can be more likely to emerge as a consensus opposition chief of their struggle towards the BJP. No different opposition chief has been in a position to mount a profitable narrative towards Mr Modi, and if she wins, Ms Banerjee may very well be the reply, in response to Neelanjan Sircar, a senior visiting fellow on the Centre for Policy Research in Delhi.
It might not be straightforward. Everywhere you journey in West Bengal, folks complain that they need to pay bribes to native TMC leaders and employees to entry welfare schemes – one particular person stated get together employees even wait outdoors banks to demand a bribe from folks withdrawing welfare cash transfers. The downside in West Bengal, one commentator informed me, was the “politicisation of the government”.
People additionally discuss violence towards political rivals – and the vanity of TMC employees. Dhanpat Ram Agarwal, who heads the BJP’s financial cell within the state, stated the extra crippling malaise was the “criminalisation of politics”, the place opponents are “attacked and persecuted”.
Yet most individuals do not seem to carry grudges towards Ms Banerjee, who’s perceived to be a personally clear and empathetic chief. Ten years of rule might have ended the euphoria round her, however her larger-than-life picture stays intact, and public anger towards her is muted. One commentator calls it the “paradox of anti-incumbency”.
Mr Kishore admits that “there is anger against the local leadership, and the party”. But, he says, Ms Banerjee is “holding on to her image as the girl next door, the didi”.
“Her image will help mitigate the anti-incumbency. She is not hated. And her party has not imploded despite the BJP’s attempts.”
Also up to now 18 months, Ms Banerjee has tried to reclaim some misplaced floor.
More than seven million folks have reportedly known as a helpline she set as much as document folks’s complaints. Nearly 30 million folks have availed of an initiative known as “government at the doorstep” since December to ease supply of a dozen welfare schemes. Public grievances over 10,000 neighborhood associated schemes have been sorted out by a neighbourhood’ programme, the federal government claims.. Rural roads are being repaired on a conflict footing.
A slew of welfare schemes – bicycles and scholarships for college students, money transfers for woman college students to proceed training and medical insurance – has ensured that Ms Banerjee’s populist enchantment is unblemished. She stays common with girls voters: some 17% of her candidates on this election are girls.
In its bid to develop exponentially and take on Ms Banerjee, the BJP has poached freely from its rivals in West Bengal. More than 45 of the 282 candidates it has put up within the polls are defectors. Thirty 4 of them are from Ms Banerjee’s get together alone, principally disgruntled native leaders who’ve been refused tickets. The BJP’s organisation stays creaky, and it lacks a compelling native chief to take on Ms Banerjee. Many say the get together does not have a cohesive narrative, past the criticism of the TMC, and guarantees of a “golden Bengal”. It is, they reckon, principally drawing on assist from voters offended with the TMC, together with these belonging to a clutch of decrease castes.
Despite the ailing Communists stitching up an alliance with a Muslim cleric and the enfeebled Congress to swing votes away from the principle contestants, the battle for West Bengal is singularly bipolar. To win the state, a celebration has to choose up 45% of the favored votes in such a contest.
Most imagine it will likely be a intently fought election. Even “didi”, the protecting elder sister, has been pressured right into a change of picture. Kolkata’s skyline is emblazoned with billboards of Ms Banerjee’s smiling face, describing her as “Banglar meye” or daughter of Bengal. It’s an enchantment from a lady who says she is underneath siege from outsiders.
“It is about telling the voters that she needs your support in this crucial battle,” says Mr Kishore.