Weeks before the upcoming election in Bengal and after an almost theatrical deluge of leaders exiting the Trinamool Congress (TMC), party chair-person Mamata Banerjee released the candidate list for 291 assembly seats on Friday. The three remaining seats in North Bengal, namely Darjeeling, Kurseong and Kalimpong constituencies have been left vacant for the Bimal Gurung faction party ally Gorkha Janmukti Morcha (GJM) to nominate their candidates of choice.
The announcement following a series of meetings, discussions and recommendations by the Indian Action Political Committee (I-PAC) and party leaders saw an interesting range of dynamics not seen at the time of the previous two assembly polls. For instance, party supremo Mamata Banerjee herself gave up the Bhawanipur constituency seat this time, where she won both in 2011 and 2016. Yet another instance is 27 fresh faces that include doctors and police officers, and how as many as 28 sitting MLAs along with 5 sitting ministers were denied a ticket for this election. There is also a considerable influx of popular faces like actors from the Bengali film industry, folk singers and cricketers contesting from high profile seats. The list having a total of 50 women candidates is also higher than the 42 candidates fielded in the last assembly polls. In addition, there are also 42 Muslim candidates, with the total cohort making up 27 percent (79) SC candidates and 6 percent (17) ST candidates.
Old-timers left out:
The key highlights of the newly announced list indicate the inclusion of relatively younger candidates this time round. The incumbent chief minister announced that she has refrained from giving any of the leaders aged 80 or above due to the prevailing Covid-19 situation, although she has assured that she would grant them positions in the Vidhan Parishad (legislative council) once the TMC comes to power. This has left out prominent leaders like Partha Chatterjee (Education Minister), Amit Mitra (Finance Minister), Subrata Mukherjee (Minister of Panchayats and Rural Development), Firhad Hakim (Minister of Urban Development and Municipal Affairs), among many others.
Not only has this led to a flurry of reactions from the leaders and general public alike, but experts are of the opinion that this would lead to further dissent within the TMC and in turn benefit the opposition Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) who are yet to announce their candidates. Sonali Guha, a two-time MLA and the only other woman besides Banerjee in the core team broke down on camera alleging how being left out was quite unprecedented for her when she had been with Didi unwaveringly since the very beginning. Another TMC leader, Arabul Islam reacted to his omission from the list by setting his own party office in Bhangar ablaze. TMC loyalists also took the streets, blocking roads and ransacking party offices shortly after the announcement was broadcast.
Alleging that the names of so many old-timers were dropped to incorporate fresh faces in the current ‘star-studded’ list, the chief minister tried to justify by saying she has tried to come up with a mix and match of both old and new.
However, most of the celebrity faces have been inducted into the list under those constituencies which are expected to witness a tough competition with the BJP. For instance, director Raj Chakraborty will be standing from the Barrackpore constituency, which is currently held by the BJP in both Lok Sabha and Vidhan Sabha, previously held by ex-TMC and present BJP leader Arjun Singh. Similarly, prominent actresses Saayoni Ghosh, June Maliah and Sayantika Banerjee will be contesting from Asansol (south), Medinipur and Bankura constituencies respectively. Not only were all three of them seen to have BJP leads in the 2019 general elections, but these areas are also considered strongholds of TMC turncoat Suvendu Adhikari who joined the BJP in December last year. Cricketer Manoj Tiwari, who was the latest celebrity to join TMC has been given the ticket to stand from Shibpur region, which happens to be where he hails from and also where another TMC turncoat, Rajib Banerjee held sway previously. The folk-singer Aditi Munshi will be contesting from Rajarhat-Gopalpur and Adivasi singer Beerbaha Hansda will be doing so from Jhargram, both being BJP strongholds, with the latter having been won by the saffron party in the last general elections. In addition, actors Kanchan Mullick and Koushani Mukherjee have been assigned Uttarpara and Krishnagar seats, which the TMC barely managed to scrape by in 2019.
The Behala Purba and Arambagh constituency seats that are evidently tough ones for the TMC to grab post the 2019 elections will be one of the prime ones to look out for. They will be contested by Ratna Chatterjee and Sujata Mandal Khan – two very unexpected additions and also first timers. The former being the ex-wife of Sovon Chatterjee and the latter is currently married to Saumitra Khan. Ironically, both these leaders joined the BJP in the lead-up to the polls while the women stayed on with the TMC.
In what was almost a dramatic upheaval of private relationships, Ratna and her ex-husband Sovon had a public split just before he got inducted into the BJP over an alleged extra-marital affair. In April, Ratna will be contesting from Sovon’s home turf itself, whereas in the previous polls the two were seen to be campaigning together.
On the other hand, Sujata too campaigned with her husband during the 2019 Lok Sabha elections from the Bishnupur constituency, ultimately helping BJP win that seat. After she joined the TMC in December 2020, her husband reportedly threatened her with a divorce notice.
On the other hand, cricketers Manoj Tiwari and Ashok Dinda entered politics on the same day. While the former joined TMC, the latter went with BJP, even though they have been known to play together in the same team. Tiwari will be contesting from Shibpur, although Dinda’s ticket from the BJP is yet to be confirmed.
When TMC strongman and Mamata Banerjee’s close aide chose to join BJP in December last year, it turned a lot of heads. Both of them were extremely prominent leaders during the land acquisition movement in 2007 that ultimately helped end 34 year old Left Front (CPIM) rule in Bengal and later spearheaded the TMC into power.
Nandigram, which was the epicentre of the movement is probably also the most high-profile and sought after seat this election due to the dramatic turn of events between Banerjee and Adhikari. Following the announcement of the list, Adhikari expressed his determination and belief that Nandigram will be won by the BJP this time. He has also previously made clear his willingness to take on his former aide directly in Nandigram when Banerjee had first announced that she will be contesting from the area back in January. However, the BJP is yet to confirm his candidature.
The chief minister was seen to dramatically retort by saying “khela hobe, dekha hobe, jetaao hobe” — which literally translates to ‘the game is on, we shall see and also win it too’.
In what is going to be the longest poll held in the state, the election in Bengal is all set to begin on March 27, and will be held in 8 phases till April 29, with counting to be commenced on May 2.