Not all of what she had to contend with was unexpected. For Mamata, who began her electoral journey with a Lok Sabha win in 1984, the 2019 general elections that saw BJP wresting 18 out of 42 Lok Sabha seats in her citadel marked the start of a new political curve. Instead of the Left Front and Congress, her primary opponent in the 2021 race for Bengal was now BJP, which was eager to build on its gains in 121 assembly segments.
The vote share of Mamata’s Trinamool Congress may have fallen by a mere 2% in the Lok Sabha polls, but its leads dropped from 211 to 164 in the 294-seat assembly. Going into the assembly elections with two full terms behind her, she also faced anti-incumbency.
The first sign of change was when poll strategist Prasant Kishor accompanied her nephew Abhishek Banerjee into her 14th-floor Nabanna Chambers office at the end of June 2019. Kishor proposed to counter anti-incumbency with a data-driven centralised approach to identify and address people’s grievances.
The “Didi Ke Bolo” campaign took shape in July 2019. In August, over 10 lakh complaints and suggestions were made. Identifying the problem clusters helped Mamata launch her “Duare Sarkar” (governance at doorstep) and “Parae Samadhan” (neighbourhood solutions) campaigns and reshape the Swasthya Sathi healthcare scheme. The data also helped her reposition the party and herself.
“Bangla Nijer Meye Ke Chae” (Bengal wants its daughter) was an attempt to counter BJP’s appeal to religious identity. With “Jai Bangla” slogans, she invoked a pan-Bengali nationalism. And to offset the sticky minority-appeasement charge, she declared her gotra (caste).
Two of Mamata’s senior ministers, Suvendu Adhikari and Rajib Banerjee, left Trinamool but she was undaunted. “I am a street fighter. I still am a street fighter. I don’t pass instructions in a battle, I lead it on the ground,” she said of her move to Battleground Nandigram.
The same aggressive streak made her camp at a Boyal booth on polling day in Nandigram, believed to be BJP turf. “Nandigram opened my eyes,” she would say later.
The episode also led her to sharpen her attack against the Election Commission and central forces, which reached fever pitch after the Sitalkuchi firing that left four people dead on the day of the fourth phase of polling.
Mamata believes the battle for Bengal has set the ball rolling for the 2024 Lok Sabha polls.