Mamata Banerjee is that classic cusp figure in Indian politics. She answers perfectly to the description of a ‘regional’ leader, but has always threatened to take on a national profile. Before the elections, she even fashioned herself as a prospective prime minister, the fulcrum of an anti-BJP front. Despite her arrantly provincial bearing—very Bengali in her persona and in the politics—she has a national brand recall. When her state government faces a crisis, as is happening now, she makes headlines not just in Calcutta, but in Delhi and Bangalore too. She cut her teeth in politics in the rough and tumble of Youth Congress, as the quintessential street-fighter—four decades later, that still defines her. After her rise in parliamentary politics in 1984, she did what was thought inconceivable—vanquishing the powerful Left in its very fastness, crafting a street credo that cracked both high-minded Communist theory and its often cynical practice on the ground. But now she is engaged in a mother of all battles, and it’s coming from the ground.
After being in power for eight years as an undisputed helmswoman, she is facing a new enemy, the BJP led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, a party that had a marginal presence in Bengal. Yet, the BJP has grown into a massive force, even threatening to unseat Mamata—a prospect as impossible as her own triumph against the Left. Winning 18 out of the 42 Lok Sabha seats in West Bengal, the BJP’s voteshare in 2019 has surged to 40 per cent from a mere 17 per cent in 2014—some 2.30 crore votes, compared to 55 lakh five years ago. Yes, a lot of that came at the expense of an atrophying Left and Congress. And yes, the TMC too increased its voteshare—to 43 per cent (2.47 crore) from 39 per cent. But superimpose these figures on the assembly map: of the 294 assembly seats in Bengal, the BJP is ahead in 121, and in another 37 seats, they are behind by less than 2,000 votes. That’s within striking distance. BJP state vice-president Jayprakash Majumdar, an educated Bengali middle-class face of the party, says: “It is now Mission Bengal for us.”