“Bring some samosas and cutlets," says a composed Mamata Banerjee, as senior leaders of the Trinamool Cogress (TMC) Subrata Bakshi and Abhishek Banerjee pour in, followed by poll strategist Prashant Kishor, at 30B Harish Chatterjee Street in Kolkata.
Located behind the Adi Ganga (the humble Tolly’s Nullah, for some) amid a glut of bricked shacks, roadside eateries and motor garages, Banerjee’s address in the vicinity of Kalighat Main Gate warrants no introduction.
This single-storeyed, tiled house is where several prominent figures including former Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee (in 2000), former President Pranab Mukherjee, and the industrialist Lakshmi Mittal (in 2017) have found their feet carrying them. Mukherjee had once remarked about the resident of this modest house, “You cannot ignore her in politics."
The atmosphere inside 30B Harish Chatterjee Street was calm as TMC leaders congregated for their weekly core committee meeting scheduled for 5pm every Friday. Banerjee, however, was seated in her chair half an hour ahead of time, perusing through a deluge of messages. The CM and others appeared unruffled by the developments that, to all observers, seemed to ring a death knell on the TMC’s ambitions for the upcoming Assembly elections.
As part of an aggressive campaign by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), several leaders of the party, including the heavyweight MLA Suvendu Adhikari, had embarked on a exodus.
A senior TMC MLA who was present at the December 18 meeting told News18 that party leaders have had foresight of the developments taking place, and have charted a future course of action accordingly. “Yes, she [Mamata Banerjee] was aware that some of them would leave the party ahead of the election. She knew about Suvendu Adhikari and we tried to reconcile the differences, but he was adamant," he said.
“The BJP was also aware that we are keeping track of our leaders who have been hobnobbing with them. We were prepared to handle this situation and have already lined up a set of leaders to counter all those who are leaving Trinamool,” the MLA said.
Confident that the leaders who have left the party will return, he said, “The BJP will repent that they took all these leaders for many reasons. The leaders (who have quit the TMC) cannot win a single seat. Already, Jitendra Tiwari and Biswajit Kundu have realised their mistake and changed their minds. In the coming months, you will see more ghar wapsi."
“The BJP has approached leaders of the Left as well, who do not have any strong leaders to file nominations on all 294 seats. Another disaster will happen for the BJP in North Bengal. Let’s not speculate as many cards are still left to be shown.
“Other than Left leaders, they are approaching our TMC leaders in Para in Purulia and Jalpaiguri. They are offering them obscene amounts of money. They have mainly targeted tribal and SC candidates, but failed in their dirty politics as most of them refused to join them," he said.
Insiders have claimed that on Prashant Kishor’s suggestion, the TMC had undertaken to revamp the party from day one and get rid of those bringing it a bad name. Over the last nine months, there have been tell-tale signs of a ‘New TMC’ with a definite plan and script in place for the crucial Assembly polls.
The MLA explained the dissatisfaction among party leaders despite preparations galore. He said, “Usually such developments take place when candidate lists are released. Those who don’t get tickets create problems and threaten to leave. In our case, we had already sidelined underperforming leaders. Now we have a team that has actually worked on the ground and has the potential to win. The process of elimination has been done so now we can focus on the election."
Gearing up for the election, the TMC is reportedly involved in day-to-day mock polling to get a drift of the people’s mood and gauge the direction towards which the sentiment is swinging. Certainly, the number of seats held by the party will fall as compared to 2016 (211 seats in a House of 294), but the party is expecting anything between 165-170 seats.
The TMC’s watertight preparations have been evident in Mamata Banerjee’s anti-Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) and National Register of Citizens (NRC) rallies where key leaders of the party were conspicuous by absence. Before the Covid-19 pandemic hit, she rallied with the common people across Kolkata, drawing the attention of political experts.
Despite the setback accorded by leaders jumping ship, the TMC seems poised to fight one of the biggest battles of its leaders’ careers to stop the saffron brigade from making its way into Bengal.