Having emerged as the face of opposition resistance to the Narendra Modi juggernaut after the Trinamool Congress’s triumph in the assembly elections, West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee is locked in an unequal battle as she squares off with ‘lightweight’ rivals in her own lair — Bhabanipur.
Banerjee, who described herself as an ‘injured tigress’ after an incident on the campaign trail in Nandigram which left her with a plastered foot, and was licking her wounds following her defeat at the hands of one-time protege Suvendu Adhikari, will likely roar back to victory, those watching the electoral battle unfold in the constituency feel.
She is pitted in the bypoll against Priyanka Tibrewal of the Bharatiya Janata Party and Communist Party India-Marxist’s Srijib Biswas.
Tibrewal, whom the state BJP president Dilip Ghosh called a ‘fearless soul’, is a lawyer and one of the petitioners in a string of PILs filed against the TMC government over incidents of violence that rocked West Bengal after the assembly elections in March-April this year, but has nothing to show by way of political accomplishments.
She had contested the assembly election from Entally and lost.
Biswas is a political greenhorn. For the BJP, political analysts say, the battle for Bhabanipur is more about retaining its 35 per cent vote share than winning the seat.
For the once mighty Left, it’s about proving it is still alive if not kicking in a state which it ruled for 34 years without a break.
For the redoubtable Mamata Banerjee, it is not only about exacting revenge for her defeat in Nandigram but her larger ambition to play a key role in shaping the opposition’s future in national politics.
The Congress, after initial prevarication, decided not to field a candidate against Banerjee and also stay away from campaigning.
Both the Congress and the Left, which fought the assembly elections in alliance, had drawn a blank.
‘Bhabanipur nijer ghorer meyekei chai (Bhabanipur wants her own daughter)’ has become the battle cry for the TMC rank and file as they have plunged headlong into the campaign for the 66-year-old Banerjee, a resident of Bhabanipur.
Banerjee had won the seat twice in 2011 and 2016 but shifted to Nandigram, where the anti-farmland acquisition movement against the Left Front government had transformed her into a major political force in the volatile state, to dare BJP’s Suvendu Adhikari, now the Leader of the Opposition, on his home turf.
She now must win Bhabanipur to ensure an unbroken stint as the chief minister. Banerjee is required to win a seat in the state assembly by November 5 in conformity with the constitutional provisions to continue as chief minister.
The Constitution allows a non-member of a state legislature or Parliament to continue in a ministerial position without getting elected only for six months.
After her defeat in Nandigram, Sovandeb Chattopadhyay, state cabinet minister and the TMC MLA from Bhabanipur, vacated the seat to facilitate her return to the assembly from there.
“For us, victory is not an issue. That Mamata Banerjee will win this seat is a foregone conclusion, even the opposition parties know that. Our target is to ensure a victory by a record margin. The people have decided to elect the chief minister by a record margin to avenge the conspiracy that was hatched in Nandigram,” senior minister and TMC secretary general Partha Chatterjee told PTI.
Top leaders like Chatterjee, Firhad Hakim and Subrata Bakshi have been deployed to manage the campaign in the constituency in Kolkata with eight municipal wards, two of which have sizeable Muslim population which has stood firm behind the TMC supremo through times good and bad.
‘We are happy that Didi is back in our constituency. It is a matter of pride for us that the CM is our neighbour,’ said Pradyut Roy, a Bhabanipur resident, reflecting the resonance ‘Bhabanipur nijer ghorer meyekei chai‘ slogan has found with the local people.
“Everybody knows who will win. But we want civic issues to be addressed, especially during the rains, as early as possible,” said another voter.
Chattopadhyay had won Bhabanipur for the TMC defeating his BJP rival by more than 28,000 votes.
Smarting under the assembly poll defeat and defection of its MLAs to the TMC thereafter, the BJP had a tough time finding a candidate for the by-poll.
“Most senior leaders were unwilling to fight the by-poll against Mamata Banerjee and that too from Bhabanipur. We have to ensure that our vote share remains intact and rather increases,” a senior BJP leader said, requesting not to be named.
Tibrewal is, however, confident about her victory and has decided to make post-poll violence a major poll plank.
“Mamata Banerjee is fighting this election to save the chief minister’s chair. My task will be to reach out to the people of the constituency and inform them about the atrocities, torture and violence that her party unleashed on opposition workers after the assembly polls. I am confident that people of Bhabanipur will vote for me and defeat her,” Tibrewal, state vice-president of Bharatiya Janata Yuva Morcha, said.
Left Front candidate Srijib Biswas said the alleged lack of development under Banerjee will be a key issue in the by-poll.
“Our fight is against both the TMC and the BJP. We will highlight how there has been no development in the state in the last 10 years,” he said.
A metropolitan constituency with around two lakh voters, Bhabanipur is home to a sizeable number of Gujaratis, Sikh and Biharis living alongside Bengalis.
For a long time after it was created in 1952, the constituency was a bastion of the Congress. The constituency ceased to exist after the 1977 delimitation but revived in 2011.
The TMC has won the seat in all the three assembly elections that were held there ever since. However, in the 2014 and 2019 Lok Sabha polls, the BJP had led from the assembly segment which is a part of the Kolkata South Lok Sabha constituency, which Banerjee has won six times.
The BJP managed to take a lead in the assembly segment in the 2019 Lok Sabha polls as non-Bengali voters plumped for it, but failed to maintain a grip on the sizeable Sikh and Punjabi population in the 2021 assembly elections following the farmers’ agitation in Punjab.
“The Bhabanipur assembly by-poll is a battle of the unequal. On one hand you have Bengal’s most heavyweight politician and on the other two political lightweights. The TMC is fighting to secure a record margin. The BJP, whose own house is in complete chaos, is fighting to retain their vote share. The Left is fighting to make its presence felt,” said political analyst Biswanath Chakraborty.
Another political analyst Suman Bhattacharya concurred, and said it is of great significance that the Congress has decided not to field a candidate against Banerjee or campaign against her for the first time.
“This poll is also a sort of litmus test for national opposition unity as two major players — Congress and the TMC — have decided to virtually come together to take on the BJP,” he said.
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