West Bengal Elections 2021: Leaked phone calls, poor political discourse – what next?

Kolkata: The first phase of polling in a highly charged West Bengal assembly elections saw an extremely impressive turnout of 82% – though it’s difficult to say whether such a trend will continue in the remaining seven phases staggered over the next one month till April 29.

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In the last state elections in 2016, the ruling All India Trinamool Congress (AITC) had won 27 of the 30 seats at stake across the tribal belts as well as the contentious district of Medinipur which went to polls – but the political landcsape of the state has undergone a paradigm shift over the last five years. The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which won a mere three seats in that elections, made remarkable inroads during this period and the 2019 Parliamentary elections, where they were breathing down the neck of Trinamool (22) with 18 seats, showed significant leads for them in several assembly segments held by the ruling party in 2016.

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Will then the theory of the issues of national politics vis-a-vis state elections being different not hold good this time? A number of voters’ surveys – conducted by market survey agencies in partnership with TV channels – have predicted that Mamata Banerjee may hang onto power for a third term while the BJP will make significant gains. While one has to wait till May 2 to find out which camp will fly out the gulal in the air, it has turned out to be a battle of nerves between the two big players – where the Sanyukta Morcha (the United Front comprising of CPI(M), Indian National Congress and Indian Secular Front) have been reduced to onlookers.

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The most nerve-wracking of contests, not prizes for guessing, is coming up only four days later for the Nandigram seat on April 1 (Thursday) where the state Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee is taking on Suvendu Adhikari – once her trusted lieutanent who had been easily the most prized catch for BJP amid the crossover witnessed in the last four months. ‘Didi,’ who is fighting easily the most intense prestige battle in her long and enigmatic political career – took her political brinkmanship to a different level when she gave up her urban seat of Bhawanipur in South Kolkata and decided to take on the collective might of the Adhikari family at the latter’s backyard.

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The stray incidents of violence on the first day of polling were unwelcome, but given the volatile history of polling day clashes in the state, not unexpected. What, however, provided the twist in the tale were the trading of leaks of two telephonic conversations – first by BJP and then Trinamool within hours of each other – an unprecedented practice of mud-slinging in the political culture of the state.

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Social media took the centre stage as BJP leaked a so-called conversation between Mamata Banerjee and Proloy Paul, a district vice president of BJP in Tamluk and Nandigram resident – where the former is heard requesting Paul to ‘help’ them out in the elections. Paul, a Trinamool defector himself, turns down the request – saying he was hurt by Trinamool’s degradation as a party and hence switched ranks.

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Trinamool, too, released the recording of a ‘conversation’ between BJP’s national vice president Mukul Roy and another party leader Sisir Bajoria, and alleged that the BJP was trying to influence the Election Commission.

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The BJP’s obvious contention is that Mamata has realised that she is losing ground in Nandigram and hence made a frantic request to an ex-party worker – while it is essentially a case of your words against mine.

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‘Bermuda’ comment

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If leaked tapes are a new ammunition for the electoral battle of the state, the degeneration in it’s political discourse has also come in for strong criticism. Dilip Ghosh, the state President of BJP, had come under flak earlier this week for his extremely crass remarks that Mamata should try wearing bermudas instead of wearing sarees if she wanted to ‘‘show off’’ her bandaged leg for optics. The state chief minister had sustained an injury on the day of filing her nominations in Nandigram earlier in March, and had been campaigning from a wheelchair ever since.

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The BJP camp, on the other hand, complain that she had been launching tasteless attacks at Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Union Home Minister Amit Shah by commenting on their appearances.

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The real issues of the state like lack of industrialisation, employment opportunities, vacancies in government jobs lying for years – seems to get relegated to the background in the process!

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