West Bengal’s ruling All India Trinamool Congress (TMC), which is facing a resurgent BJP, is battling the “mahol” (perception) that the voters of the state want to see a change in government. This perception is gaining ground every day.

TMC strategists, who spoke to The Sunday Guardian, stated that the perception that the voters wanted a change was “clearly visible” and could be attributed to 10 years of anti-incumbency and “negative” image of at least 60-75 sitting MLAs of the ruling party.

“If someone is saying there is no anti-incumbency, he is lying. It is there and we are going to handle it by denying tickets to many sitting MLAs. Also, there is a ‘mahol’ for change that is there on the ground, it is more prominent in seats where there is anger against the sitting MLA. Didi (Mamata Banerjee) too is aware of it and we are tackling it,” a party strategist told The Sunday Guardian.

He pointed to corruption directly impacting the voters, done by party workers, district level leaders and MLAs, and the rampant use of violence as a political tool as the two main issues that have dented the party’s image and prospects. The use of violence as a tool, according to party insiders, was promoted allegedly by Abhishek Banerjee, the nephew of Mamata Banerjee.

According to him, the party has, however, started damage control exercises, of which the recently launched “Duare Sarkar” (government at your doorstep) was a prominent step. The second step, as per party sources, will be to deny tickets to “errant” MLAs.

“When you look at things at a macro level, the govern-

ment has done work for the voters. If you speak to the voters, they say that they are happy with Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee, but they are unhappy with the MLAs. Look at what happened in Madhya Pradesh (2018 Assembly elections). The anger was there against the BJP MLAs, but the voters were happy with Shivraj Singh Chouhan. The same is the situation here. Chouhan had his limitations when it came to denying tickets to sitting MLAs with negative perception; in West Bengal, Mamata Banerjee has no such limitations. She will deny tickets to whoever has a negative image. The BJP’s main point of attacking us is that we are into minority appeasement. Will this rhetoric fetch them enough votes to install a CM of their own? The Hindu voters of Bengal know our credentials,” he added.

As per TMC leaders, under the “Duare Sarkar” programme, the government has given benefits to more than 1 crore people in the last two weeks ever since its launch on 2 December. However, no explanation was offered by these TMC leaders as to why the government waited for more than four-and-a-half years to start this programme, which, as per their own statement, has ensured that benefits of government schemes reach the intended beneficiaries.

Banerjee first became Chief Minister in May 2011 by winning 184 of the total 294 seats and then continued her innings by winning 211 seats in the 2016 Assembly elections. In the 2019 Lok Sabha elections, the BJP won 18 seats, which translates to roughly 120 Assembly seats, while the TMC won 22 seats (approximately 165 Assembly seats). The vote difference in favour of TMC was 17.28 lakh votes.

A professional, who is among the many who are assisting the TMC in this election, said that the MLAs whose tickets will be denied, have already been told informally that they will not get the ticket.

“Many of the MLAs and party leaders, who are joining the BJP are among the same lot who know that Banerjee will not give them tickets. I can tell you the names of other TMC MLAs, too, who will join the BJP in the coming days,” he claimed.

The exit of Suvendu Adhikari, according to multiple TMC sources, has hurt the party politically and financially. “His exit is a blow. But the rest of those who have left or are going to leave us, are not going to hurt us much,” he claimed. The BJP hopes to gain in South Bengal, where it has failed to make any impact so far, with the entry of Suvendu Adhikari whose area of influence is South Bengal.

TMC strategists believe that unlike in the 2019 general elections, the approximately 27%-30% Muslim votes will not be divided. “We have been talking to (Muslim) voters. AIMIM’s perception as the invisible partner of BJP has percolated down to the ground and hence it is not going to make much dent on our vote bank. Secondly, the urban voters of the state are still not ready to accept the BJP, as was evident in the 2019 Lok Sabha elections (referring to the BJP doing well in rural seats). Issues like ‘love jihad’, beef ban, anti-Muslim rhetoric are not appreciated by the educated Bengali. Also, the BJP’s own house is under so much strain due to infighting which will increase even more in the coming days as more and more TMC leaders join the party,” he added.

Earlier this week, senior BJP leaders, including women’s wing chief Agnimitra Paul and general secretary Sayantan Basu, were served show cause notices that were initiated from the top party office, for questioning the decision to induct TMC MLA Jitendra Tiwari into the BJP.

Tiwari is an MLA from Pandabeswar seat in Burdwan district. His entry is being opposed also by Union minister Babul Supriyo. Local BJP leaders, including Dilip Ghosh, are against Tiwari as they believe he played a key role in disrupting the Ram Navami procession in March 2018 that had led to mass-scale violence in Asansol.

Earlier, the Calcutta High Court had also ordered registering of FIR against Tiwari for his alleged role in the attack on a BJP candidate during the 2018 panchayat polls after BJP candidate Dalapti Ghorui, who was going to submit his nomination for a panchayat seat at the sub division office along with Lakshman Ghorui, BJP district president of Burdwan West, was attacked allegedly by Trinamool Congress workers who slashed him with sharp weapons. It was only after the HC intervention that the state police registered an FIR against Tiwari in the case.

However, political analyst Sajjan Kumar Singh, who visited all the 294 seats of the state during his 75 days’ stay spreading across October and November, believes that the TMC is on its way to a massive defeat. “The anti-incumbency is not mild, it is ‘tectonic’. The voters have already made up their minds to vote out the TMC. The TMC will struggle to touch even 100 seats,” Singh, who has been gauging pre-election moods, with a fair amount of success for the last 10 years, told The Sunday Guardian.

According to Singh, local level corruption and fear psychosis in society at large, due to the use of force by the present government, was hurting the TMC badly. “There is strong resentment against TMC leaders due to the corruption they have indulged in and the use of force that has become a part of governance. I came across many voters who preferred to keep quiet when asked which party was doing well. This shows that they are scared of saying in public what they are feeling and this happens when they are not going to speak in support of the ruling party,” Singh said.

The TMC leaders and strategists, who spoke to The Sunday Guardian, agreed that TMC was unlikely to repeat the performance of 2016 polls when it won 211 seats, as the BJP had grown substantially, cadre wise, in the last five years. “The BJP now has a significant presence in all the booths, plus they are ruling at the Centre. It is a tough fight, there will not be any walkover unlike the last two elections. We believe that we will cross 150 seats and will touch 180 seats. Our trump card is ‘Didi’,” a party leader claimed.