Mamata Banerjee
West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee, sitting in a wheel-chair, seen while being discharged from SSKM Hospital in Kolkata, on Friday. Image Credit: PTI

The English language often throws up metaphors that sound strange even to its native speakers. What then of non-native, or “auntie tongue-walas” such as ourselves? One of these unusual phrases would surely be “break a leg.” Used to wish someone good luck, it means just the opposite of what it says.

The idiom comes to us from English theatre, for which, thanks to its greatest author, William Shakespeare, it became world-famous. Actors were a superstitious lot, who believed that wishing anyone good luck before they headed onstage to act would actually bring them bad luck. So instead they said, “break a leg,” meaning giving a fabulous performance.

In the theatre that is Indian politics, which ranks among the greatest shows on earth, perhaps a similar logic of opposites is about to unfold. Mamata Banerjee, the formidable Chief Minister of West Bengal and the one-woman boss of the All India Trinamool Congress (AITC), is in a do-or-die fight against the party in power at the centre, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). The state goes into its assembly polls in 8 phases from Sat, 27 Mar, 2021 to Sun, 2 May, 2021.

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It is another matter, though, that despite its official “all India” tag, Trinamool Congress, has practically no presence outside her state. The BJP, on the other hand, is like an unstoppable juggernaut, having equalled the AITC’s tally of 42 seats in the 2019 Lok Sabha elections, while lagging behind just a couple points in the vote share, with over 40% of the popular mandate.

Of course, state elections can play out differently from national polls. Many local factors, including community, region, caste, language, and religion play an important role. But, going by the recent trends, what seems to matter more to the ordinary men and women of India is the development and progress of their state.

Well-stacked opposition applecart

And it is here that the BJP, led by the dynamic and popular prime minister, Narendra Modi, seems to score, upsetting, to use another metaphor, many a well-stacked opposition applecart.

Would that explain how Didi literally broke a leg on her campaign trail? In what might have been a desperate attempt to gain the people’s sympathy, Banerjee, popularly known as “Didi” or elder sister, alleged last Wednesday, March 10, that four or five people pushed her against her car to attack her.

The next day, however, without mentioning the assault, she said that it was her car that crushed her foot: “It is true that I was very badly hurt yesterday and that I have a foot injury, a bone injury and in the ligament and I had pain in my head and chest as a result of the injury.”

Her party, on the other hand, decided to ratchet up the rhetoric by lodging an official complaint on Friday, March 12th, with the Election Commission (EC) of India. AITC leader Madan Mitra, speaking to Asia News International (ANI), asserted that a murderous attack had been launched against his party’s supremo: “It seems it was done by well-trained people who take training in ‘nikkar’.

It was a case of attempt to murder.” “Nikkar” was an obvious reference to the shorts that the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) members formerly used to wear in their shakhas or meetings. It is another matter that Didi has Z-plus security, the highest in the land with the exception of the President of India and the Prime Minister, who are guarded by Special Protection Group (SPG).

“Attempt to murder”

The charge of “attempt to murder” was promptly investigated by the Election Commission (EC). On Sunday morning, March 14, even as the 66-year old Banerjee re-emerged on the campaign trail, literally hitting the streets in a wheelchair, the EC issued its findings. Dismissing an attack on Didi, they ruled that her injury was the result of an accident.

If Didi literally “broke a leg” during her campaign, does this spell the opposite — a terrible performance at the hustings? Is a poribartan (change) in the offing? Given the ongoing political violence in the state, with frequent attacks and counter attacks by rival party cadres, the electorate is guarded and tight-lipped. When few are willing to speak out publicly, it is still too early to detect a wave in either direction.

In any case, crystal-gazing in Indian elections is perilous. The electorate is too smart by half, making a laughing-stock of pundits and psephologists. But if I were to hazard a guess, the pendulum seems to be swinging away from Banerjee and AITC, who have been in power since 2011, towards the BJP and it’s as yet undeclared chief ministerial face.

Besides the inherent anti-incumbency, the AITMC has also been plagued by numerous defections and setbacks.

The BJP, on the other hand, has spared no efforts to capture the state, including fielding formidable sitting Lok Sabha and Rajya Sabha Members of Parliament such as Babul Supriyo and Swapan Dasgupta to contest in the forthcoming state elections.

We must not forget that Didi’s accident happened in Nandigram, the same place that catapulted her to power ten years back. Has the wheel come full circle now? By crying wolf once too often, blaming the centre for all her woes, has Banerjee lost the confidence of the electorate?

It would seem that the people of Bengal want a change. They are tired of Didi’s reactive regionalism and wish to join the Modi-led national mainstream again.