Mamata Banerjee has fallen back on a tried and tested strategy of fielding well-known faces as party candidates
On Sunday, headlines out of poll-bound West Bengal were dominated by the news of actor Mithun Chakraborty joining the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) ahead of the prime minister’s rally in Kolkata.
But when it comes to the celebrity quotient, the Trinamool Congress is not far behind.
On Friday, as Trinamool chief Mamata Banerjee announced her party’s candidate list for the 2021 West Bengal Assembly elections, a television news channel broadcast images from the office of Bengali film director Raj Chakraborty, who sat watching the chief minister’s press conference with a few actors.
The film personalities were in a celebratory mood. All of them had joined TMC a week ago. All of them appeared in the party’s candidate list.
Banerjee had done it earlier and has done it again. Nominating film actors and so-called apolitical candidates is nothing new for the Trinamool chief. Every time Banerjee prepares a list of candidates, speculation begins on which film star will secure a party nomination.
In the 2019 Lok Sabha elections, she had fielded two Tollywood actors, Mimi Chakraborty and Nusrat Jahan. This time she has given nominations to six television and film stars from Tollywood, West Bengal’s entertainment industry.
Adding to star quotient of the Trinamool’s 2021 candidate list are a kirtan singer, a former Indian Police Service (IPS) officer, a Dalit writer, and two sportspersons.
In the past, actors like Moonmoon Sen, Tapas Pal, Satabdi Roy, Sandhya Roy, Dev, Mimi Chakraborty, Nusrat Jahan, Deboshree Roy, Chiranjeet Chakraborty have contested on a TMC ticket. They were either elected to the Indian parliament or the state assembly. Some did well as legislators. Some disappointed the people who elected them.
Others like actor Mithun Chakraborty, sent to the Rajya Sabha by the Trinamool in 2014, defected to the BJP.
But Banerjee’s experiment has not stopped. She continues to be generous in fielding star candidates.
At the press conference held on Friday, March 5, she said: “See, I have fielded young candidates.” Indeed, the star candidates are young – and definite crowd-pullers.
An answer to factionalism
The stars not only bring glamour to the party’s campaign and tap into the popular sentiment of voters, giving them tickets serves a particular purpose: it helps the TMC ride over factional feuds.
Usually, star candidates are brought in to contest seats plagued by a turf war between rival TMC politicians, which makes victory unlikely for a regular political candidate.
The celebrity candidate becomes Mamata Banerjee’s ambassador. The rival leaders come together to get the person elected to keep their ray of hope – of getting compensated in future by the supreme leader – alive.
But this formula doesn’t always work.
For one, it does not produce steady outcomes. In the 2014 Lok Sabha elections, for instance, film actor Sandhya Roy snatched the Midnapore seat from the Left, but in 2019, former Congress MLA Manas Bhuniya, who switched sides to join Trinamool, could not retain the seat. State President of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), Dilip Ghosh, won it.
In 2014, Banerjee picked actor Moonmoon Sen to contest the Bankura seat. She won. In 2019, she was sent to Asansol where the TMC’s labour wing leader Dola Sen had lost five years ago to BJP’s Babul Supriyo, apparently due to an internal fight in the party. But Moonmoon Sen could not win the seat either.
Even in assembly elections, the fate of TMC’s celebrity candidates is often short-lived. For instance, Hooghly district’s Uttarpara constituency has not seen a regular political candidate from TMC in the last three assembly elections.
In 2011, singer Anup Ghoshal fought and won the election, but was accused of not spending much time in the constituency. In 2016, former journalist Prabir Ghoshal contested and won, but he recently joined the BJP, apparently upset with the TMC’s internal feuds and sensing that the party would not renominate him. There are allegedly three factions among the Hooghly district TMC leaders. Most of the leaders do not see each other’s face.
This time, film actor Kanchan Mullick, who has played comic characters in films, has been nominated from Uttarpara. Will he be able to override local factionalism?
As the Trinamool has discovered time and again, resentment always does not die down among the grassroots leaders and workers.
For example, Barackpore municipality’s outgoing chairman Uttam Das who was hopeful of getting a party ticket in 2021, has openly revolted after he heard of Raj Chakraborty’s nomination from the seat. “I do not know Raj Chakraborty. I don’t watch films,” he said. “The party perhaps feels the local leaders are not fit to contest elections. That’s why they have been sending outsiders to Barackpore.”
Gargi Mukhopadhyay, associate professor of Political Science, Singur government general degree college, said the resentment could damage TMC’s prospects.
“In this contest, the celebrity candidates fielded by the TMC will definitely face a tough time, as the scenario exhibits a foreign body rejection in areas they are fielded, primarily from the local party workers and a section of the voters,” she said.
Taking on the BJP
Beyond fixing internal feuds, Mamata Banerjee has some other calculations this time. The star candidates have been fielded in what are some of the most challenging seats for the TMC in West Bengal.
In the 2019 Lok Sabha elections, the BJP was either ahead of TMC candidates in these assembly segments, or trailing marginally.
Koushani Mukherjee, who debuted in the Bengali film industry in 2015, has been nominated from the Krishnanagar Uttar constituency. In this Assembly segment, TMC MP Mohua Mitra trailed by 53,551 votes against BJP candidate Kalyan Choubey in the 2019 Lok Sabha elections.
Film director Raj Chakraborty will contest from the Barackpore constituency, where BJP MP Arjun Singh polled 3,519 more votes than TMC candidate Dinesh Trivedi in 2019. The outgoing MLA Shilbhadra Dutta and Dinesh Trivedi both have now joined the BJP.
Likewise, actor June Malia will contest Midnapore where BJP’s Dilip Ghosh had a lead of 16,641 votes, and actor Sayoni Ghosh will contest Asansol Dakshin, where BJP’s Babul Supriyo was ahead by 53,820 votes.
June Malia, who has been a regular in TMC campaigns, told CNN-News18: “I am glad that she thought I was able, and she had the confidence that she gave me this tough seat.”
State BJP’s chief spokesperson Samik Bhattacharya says: “After TMC’s candidate list has been declared, one thing is clear TMC has been politically defeated. TMC has no political narrative. They have fielded film stars in important political seats.”
Claimed Bhattacharya: “The depoliticization of TMC has begun.”
But all the criticism aside, political observers agree that celebrities are Mamata Banerjee’s biggest bet against an ascendant BJP.
“Celebrities are already well known to all sections of the society, irrespective of their political lobbies,” said Gargi Mukhopadhyay, the associate political science professor. “It is, therefore, much easier for them to ask for votes, even without properly explaining the agendas of the political parties they stand for.”
As Mamata Banerjee herself puts it, she is the candidate in all 294 seats at the end of the day. The workers are supposed to work for the supreme leader. The voters are expected to vote for “Bengal’s daughter” irrespective of the TMC candidate.
This article was first published by Scroll.in on March 9, 2021