Prashant Kishor has his task cut out in West Bengal—ensuring that the tide of anger against Mamata Banerjee’s government, as witnessed during the 2019 Lok Sabha elections, turns into an ocean of support to help her win the state Assembly in 2021. Prashant Kishor has an enviable track record. He has worked with Prime Minister Narendra Modi in 2014, with Nitish Kumar in 2015, Captain Amarinder Singh in 2017 and with Jagan Reddy in 2019. All emerged victorious convincingly. No wonder Mamata Banerjee wants the “Kishor touch” to revive the seemingly comatose poll prospects of her party, the Trinamool Congress (TMC). But then the jury is still out on whether it was the “Kishor touch” that brought about the victories of these leaders or if the poll strategist added just an edge to the campaigns of leaders who were already on a winning wicket because of several factors, one of which was the image of a strong decisive leader. While Mamata Banerjee, until recently had that image and appeared invincible in her rubber sandals and white cotton sari, there is no denying that the Lok Sabha election results have shaken the ground beneath her feet. No amount of blaming the electoral voting machines (EVMs) will change the fact that there was—in fact, there is—huge anti incumbency against her government primarily because of her mishandling of the state. And if she actually believes that it is the EVMs that reduced her tally to 22 seats out of 42, it shows how much she, once a grassroots politician, has lost her connect with the ground. So her newly launched 100-day programme of “Didi ke bolo (tell Didi)”—possibly the Bengali version of Kishor’s brainchild “Chai Pe Charcha”—where people are supposed to call up a particular number and tell “her” their grievances, seems to be an attempt to reconnect with the masses and find out the reasons behind the anger on the ground. This is a welcome move—not that phone calls are required to know why Bengal is angry. Her government’s appeasement policy towards a certain community; the changing demography of the state; the lumpenisation of TMC workers; corruption, and extortion, at almost every level of governance and civic life; misuse of the law and order machinery to terrorise opponents, rebels and ordinary people; apart from the unleashing of violence on these sections have all contributed to the volcanic rage in the heart of Bengal. Add to this a fast emptying coffer, the complete lack of investments and jobs in the state and the resultant steady migration of the young in search of better prospects all over India, and no wonder Bengal seems to be thirsting for “poriborton (change)” of a shade different from the one that brought Mamata Banerjee to power in Kolkata in 2011. In fact, it was with the intention of winning back public trust that she had asked her leaders to return the “cut money” they had taken from the people, but then the result of that exercise has been dubious at best.
But it is good that she seems to have started some sort of self-introspection, either on the advice of Prashant Kishor or on her own. However, the question is: how serious is this course correction? After all, her own minister, Siddiqullah Chowdhury, has announced that West Bengal will not follow the new anti-triple talaq law and has got away with it. Such pronouncements do not do any good to Mamata Banerjee if she is trying to stop getting identified with a particular community. Also, her first priority should be to bring the state back on the track of governance. Post the Lok Sabha elections Bengal has been drifting from chaos to chaos, with murder, mayhem and strikes—first by doctors and then teachers—dominating the news cycle. Also, misuse of the state machinery continues, as evident from the number of municipalities not allowed to conduct their trust votes after corporators shifted their allegiance to the Bharatiya Janata Party. It is a complete breakdown of democracy if even a municipal level trust vote cannot be conducted without going to court. So a facelift on the advice of an electoral strategist cannot be passed off as a course correction, at least not to the voters. They will be the first to see through such tactics.
The elections of 2019 brought about a change in Bengal’s mindset—that the state can vote for a “North Indian” party. That this party is also ruling at the Centre, and apparently can bring investments to the state, makes it all the more attractive to Bengal’s voters. It is this change in Bengal’s mindset that Mamata Banerjee is fighting against and she has a tough fight in her hands.