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As BJP Preps For 2021 Assembly Polls, Will It Be Dada vs Didi In West Bengal?

Sourav Ganguly has impeccable credentials as cricketer-captain and is worshipped as an icon in Bengal. As the BJP craves for a viable face ahead of the 2021 Assembly polls, Sourav presents an obvious choice. It is for the new BCCI president to take it or spurn it.

As BJP Preps For 2021 Assembly Polls, Will It Be Dada vs Didi In West Bengal?
Photograph by Prabhat Shetty/HT/Getty Images
As BJP Preps For 2021 Assembly Polls, Will It Be Dada vs Didi In West Bengal?
outlookindia.com
2019-11-01T20:33:16+0530

Place: a bustling tea stall on Rashbehari Avenue, south Calcutta

Day: the last weekend before Diwali

Time: evening

Mood: balmy

Raag: Mishr Kolkatiya (in Drut Teentaal)

Adda is an institution in these parts, as everyone knows. A dead serious affair, an everyday parliament. Everything from the Sandinistas to blockchain technology to social climate change in Basirhat comes up for discussion here. Today, as these youngsters pick up the alap in an unruly chorus, the notes they strike are all quintessentially Calcuttan. There are, after all, big things that have happened.

A certain Abhijit Vinayak Banerjee has won the Nobel. With South Point School and Presidency College behind him, he’s a local lad. But there’s another local who has their undivided attention soon. Sourav Ganguly, that boy from Behala, has just become the BCCI head. But wait…there’s more! Cricket and its administration are dispensed with in the initial stages of the panel discussion. The raag moves into more urgent territory when, after weighing the pros and cons of the matter, the roadside parliament comes to the unanimous conclusion that, in 2021, Ganguly would be the ideal chief ministerial candidate against Mamata Banerjee.

What? Yes, you heard right. Play that over in your head again, in slow motion, and see how perfectly bat meets ball.

The man who was India’s most successful Test captain in his time is being seen, all of a sudden, as someone who could take over the mantle of captaincy in an altogether different domain. In terms of a formal word, there’s nothing yet: it’s still at the level hushed bazaar whispers and pol­itical backroom chat. But look at the situational context. As a lone sporting superstar in Bengal (see Maharaj As King Or Everyone's Prince?), Sourav has naturally had an interface with political dispensations before: first the Left regime, then Mamata Banerjee. This time, his helmsmanship of the cricket board has come about after some hefty lobbying with the top echelons of the BJP.

The meeting of Sourav with BJP president and Union home minister Amit Shah, which finalised his appointment, assumes significance here. Was it just a meeting between a politician in power and a cricket star-cum-administrator? Both remained silent on that. But Sourav’s initial comment after coming out of the meeting was rich with possibilities. Asked by the waiting media throng whether he would be joining politics, he merely said: “One at a time”. Look also at his BCCI panel: flanking him are Amit Shah’s son Jay and Union minister Anurag Thakur’s brother Arun Singh Dhumal. 

Sourav Ganguly accompanies Mamata Banerjee at a Durga Puja programme.

Photograph by PTI

No wonder people are reading more into it. It’s no secret that the BJP has been trying hard to rope in one or two iconic names in Bengal to their side. And ever since Sourav’s anointment at the BCCI, speculation has been rife that, as a quid pro quo, he would agree to head the state unit. How would the BJP benefit from this? That’s a no-brainer. Ever since the Left’s old farming methods were disrupted and rejected, Bengal has been a monocrop state in terms of leadership: Mamata looms over everyone else. So, despite its strenuous efforts to make political ingress and finding success in terms of voteshare, the BJP is hobbled by the lack of a viable local leader, one who will allow the masses to invest in a real face rather than just an abs­tract idea. Who better than the talismanic Sourav Ganguly, an aggressive cricketer always marked out by his sheer, cussed will to triumph? In short, there’s a vacancy, and there’s an ideal candidate.

Also look at how sweet the timing is, befitting a Ganguly off-drive. Because of the Lodha committee rules, he will not have a full three-year term: his past tenure in the state board means he will have to demit the BCCI office in ten months. That will be August 2020: right in the home stretch for what looks set to be a volcanic electoral clash in the early summer of 2021.

After his meeting with Amit Shah, Sourav was asked by the media if he’d join politics. He merely said, “One at a time.”

But will ‘Dada’ take up this challenge against ‘Didi’? Speaking to Outlook, he denied it (Interview | Sourav Ganguly Denies Political Link With BJP - 'There Was No Barter With Amit Shah'). But look around the subcontinent, and examples abound of cricketers turning to politics. Bangladesh’s Mashrafe Mortaza won 96 per cent votes in a general election last year. Sri Lanka’s Arjuna Ranatunga and Hashan Tillakaratne are serious politicians, unlike the more showpiece presence of our own former and current MPs: Chetan Chauhan, Mohammed Azharuddin, Gautam Gambhir. And across the Wagah, a certain Khan is lording it over all else! There’s nothing to say Sourav, whose ‘Dadagiri’ has till now been mostly a matter of charming his way through a popular TV quiz show, can’t walk that path. Articulacy, a head on his shoulders, and massive popularity…all are on his side.

Yes, there remains the question of the content of politics. A senior citizen, quietly listening in at the tea shop adda, later rued that “unlike our generation, these young professionals do not talk the actual questions of politics. For them, it seems, the question of ideology, be it right or left, does not matter at all.” Indeed, gone are those days when politics in a deep sense occupied the central position in addas, times when the mental span of students and the middle class alike would take in the Vietnam War or the Cuban missile crisis. Today’s Bengali youth, by contrast, can be loosely generalised as consumerist and apolitical. For them, Sourav Ganguly is merely a saleable product.

To be sure, Sourav’s ascent from a Bengal cricketer to India captain to his rise up the local board’s hierarchy to be CAB president, and now to BCCI president, has been tremendous. If you want to unpack his terse “One at a time”, it could mean he’s not afraid to walk newer, unchartered paths, except that he’ll do it in a planned, deliberated way. So, at present, his focus will be on his new onus as BCCI president. But unless an assurance was given by Amit Shah about bringing in a new law to extend his tenure, to circumvent the (Lodha panel-inspired) Supreme Court fiat, we’re looking at August. Then what?

The next, crucial step would be decided between Sourav and Amit Shah, of course. But it’s not without pitfalls. State BJP leaders won’t be amused about an icon being paradropped in their midst, wresting advantage of all their hard work. No one wishes to go on record about this possible lateral entry, but they hint that Sourav as a BJP insider would be a diminished man, with less impact on the popular imagination than what he commands now. They admit there exists a vacuum in the state leadership, but caution against “a rank outsider” being brought in to fill the breach. For the record, BJP’s Bengal in-charge Kailash Vijayvargiya too denied any such move, but both the local disaffection and informal comments by those in the know reveal there could be something afoot.

Some of those subdued misgivings spill over to the general public and the rest of the political field too. Though Sourav, as the cynosure of Bengal’s eyes, has even eclipsed the new icon, Nobel winner Banerjee, there’s a difference. The latter’s feat met with unqualified applause, while Ganguly’s elevation was received with mixed feelings. Perhaps bec­ause the meeting with Amit Shah made it obvious that the BJP had played a hand. (A Midnight Coup -- How Sourav Ganguly Became BCCI President, The Inside Story) The state government, of course, led the way in this show of ambivalence. It left no stone unturned to bask in the glory of “Bengal’s Nobel”, with congratulatory billboards and a felicitation event for Banerjee. Sourav’s feat, on the other hand, naturally met with lukewarm response. Mamata, who was instrumental in making him the CAB president, limited herself to a congratulatory tweet. Partha Chatterjee, senior minister and TMC spokesperson, was less oblique.  “We congratulate Sourav,” he told media. “It is good news. But we are hurt by the way it has been done.”

It won’t be the first time that Sourav Ganguly has displayed niftier footwork in politics than, as sometimes alleged, in his batting. When his cricketing career was at its peak, he had come close to the then ruling Left Front. (Conversely, it could be said the Left tried to coopt him.) Then CM Jyoti Basu had graced his marriage ceremony. CPI(M) leader Ashok Bhattacharjee, then urban development minister, had bonded with him so much that a housing project built under the aegis of his department was named ‘Sourav Abasan’. Bhattacharjee had also invited Sourav to set up an industry in his native Siliguri, though that did not materialise.

There’s nothing to say Sourav can’t walk the politics path. Articulacy, wisdom, huge popularity...all are on his side.

But when the TMC era dawned, Mamata sought (successfully) to woo Sourav. She went to the extent of intervening in the nomination/selection of CAB president and declared Sourav’s anointment from ‘Nabanno’, the state secretariat. All parties have leant on celebrities for their interests, adm­its Tapas Roy, minister and TMC leader. (At one time, even Narendra Modi wanted to make Sourav a Swachh Bharat ambassador.) Roy claims Sourav was offered a Rajya Sabha ticket by both the CPI(M) and TMC.

Sujan Chakraborty, leader of CPI(M)’s legislative party in the assembly, denies that but adds Sourav should not join active politics. He’s a popular icon, with an appeal cutting across Bengal’s political lines, Chakraborty explains, and it would be foolish of him to reduce himself to a partisan pos­ition in a state so sharply polarised. He recalls the case of famous magician P.C. Sircar Jr, also a household name in Bengal. Does he still have that kind of acceptance anymore after he contested elections as a BJP candidate, Chakraborty asks. The BJP would undoubtedly benefit, he grants, but it’s Sourav’s iconic stature that would be dented. “We are having an uneasy feeling about it,” says Chakraborty.

Even in industry, the possibility of Sourav joining active politics (and the BJP) is being frowned upon. Subrata Dutta, a veteran in sports administration and chairman of the Indian Football Association, also chairs the sports subcommittee of the Bengal Chamber of Commerce and Industry. Sourav is a member of that subcommittee and both work there at tandem. Dutta is opposed to the very idea of Sourav shifting to politics, abandoning the cricketing arena. “Sourav is a gifted player and good sports administrator. He should concentrate on cricket administration, leaving politics to others,” observes Dutta. He elaborates, “Sourav has never groomed himself for a political career. If he had seen active politics even in his student days, it would have been a different matter. But he has never tried his hand at that. He won’t be able to attain the height he has in sports.” On a more serious note, Dutta warns that Sourav has little or no exposure in matters related to business and industry—so having him as CM won’t be the best recipe for a state struggling to regain economic robustness after decades of enfeeblement. According to Dutta, if he does join the BJP, at best he could handle the sports portfolio in the Union cabinet.

It’s not just economics. Politically too, Bengal stands at a volatile crossroads. The fallout of NRC in Assam has created panic among both Hindus and Muslims, and the unsettled feeling in rural Bengal might eventually be turned against the BJP. The party is aware of the rumblings on the ground and is set to launch a statewide campaign to allay fears among Hindus (aiming to separate them from Muslims). It’s looking forward to the likely safe passage of the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill in the Rajya Sabha to that end.

The party is prepping for 2021 in every other way: its state membership has touched 82 lakh in the past few months, and it hopes to reach a crore soon. But, notwithstanding the mixed reaction in the business and political world (and the muffled grumblings in the local unit), the party knows it has to come out with a name formidable enough to take on the might and popularity of Mamata. Sourav is under active consideration from all indications, though the party is sounding out other candidates too. (‘Sourav’s Support Will Help Us A Lot. BJP Is Upbeat About It’) It’s also looking for a suitable seat. Will Calcutta’s Behala (East), Sourav’s home, become the headline consituency of 2021? The seat is held by Shovan Chatterjee, former Calcutta mayor and erstwhile minister in Mamata’s cabinet who, after falling from her good books, joined the BJP a few months back. Will he go to the non-striker’s end or get run out in order to give Sourav the strike? Depends, says political scientist Sabyasachi Basu Ray Chaudhury. The one crucial variable here is Sourav Ganguly himself. He is a man who hates to lose, and is therefore extremely cautious and not prone to reckless impulse. Sourav will take the plunge, Ray Chaudhury says, if and only if he feels confident the BJP will come to power. He may be a novice in politics, but perhaps it’s his political judgement that will call the coin as it spins in the air.

***

Poor Show In First ODI | 1992

  • Ganguly makes his ODI debut against West Indies in 1992. A poor outing, he manages just three runs before being dropped.

Magnificent Test Debut | 1996

  • Ganguly marked his return to the international scene with a century at Lord’s. His 131 still remains the highest score by a visiting debutant at the venue.

Captain Ganguly | 2000

  • The decision to name him captain turned out to be a masterstroke as he rebuilt the side and restored credibility. Under his leadership, India did well overseas—drawing 1-1 in Australia and England, and winning in Pakistan.

Reaching World Cup Final | 2003

  • The finest moment of Ganguly’s captaincy career came in 2003 when he led India to their second World Cup final after 1983. Not many gave India a chance of progressing that far in the tournament, let alone making it to the final after their disastrous tour of New Zealand prior to the showpiece event.

The Chappell Saga | 2005

  • Ganguly’s career took an unexpected turn due to a feud with Greg Chappell, who was appointed India coach in 2005. He was eventually dropped from the team in October 2005 and sacked from captaincy.

By Rajat Roy in Calcutta

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