Controversial audio tapes, daily trips to the Election Commission (EC), social media wars over “empty rally grounds” and mind games on which way the hawa is blowing. A Game of Thrones is underway in West Bengal, as the ruling Trinamool Congress (TMC) and its challenger, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), are pulling no punches in a bitter election campaign.
And this game of political one-upmanship is only getting intense, with BJP national IT cell head and Bengal co-incharge Amit Malviya on one side and the TMC’s election strategist, Prashant Kishor, on the other.
On Sunday, the BJP fielded its senior leaders — Dinesh Trivedi, Suvendu Adhikari and Malviya — to point to “leaked audio tapes” that allegedly expose corruption by TMC leader Abhishek Banerjee, a charge quickly rubbished by the ruling party that said the tapes were “concocted”.
The timing, however, was significant. The allegations came just two days before voting in South 24-Parganas, where Abhishek Banerjee is an influential figure; his Lok Sabha seat, Diamond Harbour, is in this district. This time, the BJP is keen to make a foray here. South 24-Paraganas is the only district where the TMC got leads in all 31 assembly constituencies in the 2019 national elections, even as the BJP won 18 of the state’s 42 Lok Sabha seats. Muslims account for 30% of the voters in South 24-Paraganas — which makes the challenge bigger for the BJP. The district votes in the third and fourth rounds of the eight-phase Bengal elections. Malviya has already hinted at the “buzz” that Muslims may vote for the Indian Secular Front (ISF)’s Abbas Siddqui, and not the TMC.
Before that, on March 27, the BJP released an audio tape of chief minister Mamata Banerjee purportedly speaking to a BJP leader in East Medinipur and asking for his help before polling (on April 1) in the district’s Nandigram seat. The CM is contesting the high-profile constituency against her lieutenant-turned-rival, Suvendu Adhikari.
The move was countered the same day by the TMC, which released an audio tape of a purported conversation between BJP leaders Mukul Roy and Shishir Bajoria, claiming that they were discussing a strategy to influence EC. Subsequently, it alleged that the election watchdog toed the BJP line on allowing polling agents from anywhere in an assembly constituency.
Meanwhile, CM Banerjee, at a rally, later admitted that she had indeed called up the East Medinipur BJP leader, who left the TMC recently.
Both the BJP and the TMC camps have also been releasing video footage of “empty rally grounds” of leaders from the opposite camp, a tactic aimed at embarrassing the other. While the BJP has targeted the CM’s rallies in Haldia and Nandigram lately over what it calls modest crowds, the I-PAC team of poll strategist Kishor has been replying with visuals of what it calls thin attendance at the rallies of Uttar Pradesh chief minister Yogi Adityanath and road shows of some other BJP campaigners.
Such efforts to outdo each other are also reflected in what have turned out to be trips to the office of the Chief Electoral Officer (CEO) at Fairley Place in Kolkata almost every day with a plethora of complaints.
The BJP has been at the CEO office on a dozen occasions in the last fortnight with its senior leaders such as Kailash Vijayvargiya and Bajoria taking the lead. The TMC has deputed its senior leaders such as Derek O’Brien and Yashwant Sinha to handle trips to EC. These days, the media usually camps at the poll watchdog’s office, waiting for the visitors.
Mind games have also been played over the possibility of the CM contesting from a second safe seat, with the BJP citing “inside information from the TMC”. The ruling party has strongly denied any such plans.
Upping the campaign ante
With campaigning over in Assam, Kerala, Tamil Nadu and Puducherry, the BJP is set to step up its Bengal campaign. Prime Minister Narendra Modi is expected to hold about a dozen more rallies in the state.
The PM has so far conducted eight rallies in Bengal for the first three phases (March 27, April 1 and April 6), beginning his election campaign here on March 18. Earlier, he addressed a rally at the famous Brigade Ground in Kolkata on March 7. He held 15 rallies in the other poll-bound states.
On April 6, the PM will be in Cooch Behar and Hooghly for campaigning for the fourth phase, while some constituencies in the third phase in Hooghly and Howrah will vote that day. He is expected to be in Bengal later this week as well, and on April 14 for public rallies. BJP sources said the rest of the schedule was still being finalised. Home minister Amit Shah and BJP president JP Nadda will also spend more time in Bengal now and may also camp here for some days.
Despite the TMC’s objections to PM Modi holding rallies in the state on polling days, the BJP is expected to persist with the same strategy, as it has in many other states. As part of this approach, the PM’s rallies are slotted on a polling day, but for regions that vote in the next phase.
This is not a violation of the Model Code of Conduct (MCC), a senior BJP leader told News18. “Chief minister Mamata Banerjee is also holding rallies on a polling day, for the next phases. She did so on March 27, when the first phase of polling happened…She did not hold any rally on April 1, a polling day, as she was under pressure in Nandigram,” the BJP leader added.