Mamata Banerjee
Mamata Banerjee, seen as a force of nature, is a one-woman army against the might of the BJP's electoral apparatus Image Credit: Seyyed Llata/Gulf News

Remember the picture of a rain soaked Sharad Pawar addressing a rally in the 2019 Maharashtra assembly elections. The picture of the 80 year old leader defying the odds and the rain went viral and became the defining image of the Maharashtra elections.

Now consider the picture of Mamata Banerjee, 66, the chief minister of West Bengal addressing rallies while sitting in a wheelchair after she suffered serious leg injuries.

These two doughty leaders present optics which are a real flex of a underdog refusing to give up. The opponent in both cases is the party that is both in power at the centre and has deep pockets.

Yet voters across the world, it has been seen, respond to underdogs and fighters — equating both with leadership.

More op-eds on West Bengal polls

Leader in a pushchair

Banerjee in a wheelchair in visible pain yet fighting and addressing public meetings cements her legend among her voters in West Bengal. It brings back memories of when she was attacked and her head cracked open by the left and where it really all began for her.

Similarly when Mayawati was attacked by the Samajwadi Party in the infamous guesthouse incident in June 1995, voters showered sympathy.

West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee  hospital
West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee at SSKM Hospital in Kolkata on Thursday, March 11, 2021 after she was injured at Nandigram the previous day. Image Credit: ANI

Now unlike India’s all-wise election pundits, I don’t pretend to know the outcome of every election and have a window in to the voters mind. I can only report what I see and certain intangibles which affect how people vote.

Against the BJP’s all conquering electoral juggernaut, voters seem to appreciate feisty leaders who don’t simply roll over but stand and fight. Take the case of Arvind Kejriwal, chief minister Delhi, who simply sidestepped the BJP and won.

David versus Goliath in Bengal

In the case of the upcoming state elections, Banerjee is in a frontal fight with the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and is tapping Bengali emotions of sub-nationalism, identity and being the little guy — David taking on Goliath.

The BJP’s aggressive approach calling her a liar who injured herself and calling the incident “nautanki” (drama) is a serious misstep. It would have done better to pretend concern.

The very fact that Prime Minister, Narendra Modi, mocked her earlier in a public meeting saying “didi don’t fall off your scooty” is being used by the TMC to create a narrative that it is a conspiracy against Banerjee.

Normally Modi is fastest of the draw when it comes to tweeting best wishes to a host of leaders and other celebrities. The fact that no one from the BJP even tweeted a perfunctory get well message to Banerjee has been noted. (Shah did subsequently say in an election rally that he wishes her a speedy recovery)

BJP's visceral enmity towards Mamata 

While the political animus shows how debased the political discourse is, it also shows the visceral enmity the BJP has towards Banerjee.

In a democracy you have opponents not enemies. That has clearly changed in the up coming Bengal elections with the gloves being off.

The BJP is fielding its erstwhile Rajya Sabha MPs such as former journalist Swapan Dasgupta in the assembly elections. Clearly despite, a wholesale defection from the TMC, the BJP is still unsure about the candidates it fields against TMC.

The saffron party is bravely claiming that the lack of a CM face against Banerjee does not affect its chances of winning but, in most states voters like to have a face to judge against the incumbent. The BJP clearly does not feel that Dasgupta, Babul Supriyo, Dilip Ghosh or TMC turncoat Suvendhu Adhikari will be a game changer as the face against Banerjee.

The BJP has upped the rallies that Modi will address in Bengal adding on four more and making it a contest between Modi versus Didi. The party is also chartering flight to take its tame media corps to Bengal in a sign that it wants to change the Didi in a wheelchair narrative.

The Bengal elections are being played for huge stakes. Did I forget to mention that the doughty Maratha who flexed political muscles in Maharashtra Pawar is also heading to Kolkata to play consigliere to Banerjee.