If Mamata Banerjee had a hint of a smile while walking through a colourful parade of tribal dancers set up to welcome her and Mithun Chakraborty last week, it was because she knew she was in command — in neighbouring Jharkhand.
“Ham chahta to aaj hi sarkar ko fenk sakta tha. Lekin hum aisa nahi kiya (If I wanted, I could have thrown the government out of power today. But I did not do any such thing),” she declared, sounding the bugle in a politically turbulent state where the stakes are high in this election.
Mamata was referring to Chamra Linda and Bandhu Tirkey, two Independent MLAs who have joined Trinamul, along with about 10 local leaders. Linda and Tirkey are backing the Hemant Soren regime, which is surviving on a wafer-thin majority in the Assembly that has an effective strength of 79 MLAs.
Suddenly, Trinamul is a player in Jharkhand, which has seen nine governments and three stints of President’s rule in the 13-plus years of its existence. Trinamul burnt its fingers in 2011, when it fielded Suman Mahto, the widow of former JMM MP Sunil Mahto, in the Jamshedpur bypoll, hoping a sympathy factor would see her through.
This time it was different. Jharkhand seemed a perfect hunting ground. Mamata’s right-hand man Mukul Roy, with a little help from an industrialist and former Rajya Sabha member from the state, targeted disgruntled elements desperate for tickets.
“We have been holding talks with people from other states who are in favour of the development model projected by Mamata Banerjee in Bengal,” said Roy.
Linda and Tirkey were easy to pick. The two had been hoping the Congress would give them tickets in return for their support to the JMM-Congress-RJD coalition government but were disappointed.
So, they joined Trinamul but continued to pledge support to the Soren government, a bargaining chip Mamata’s party has earned by proxy.
“So, you see we have two MLAs in Jharkhand without fighting an election,” said Mahbob Alam, a local leader.
Trinamul is fielding 10 candidates in Jharkhand that will elect 14 MPs over three days beginning April 10. While Linda will contest from Lohardaga, Palamau MP Kameshwar Baitha — he has quit the JMM and joined Mamata — will contest from his own seat. Tirkey is in the fray from Ranchi, where he will take on the Congress’s Subodh Kant Sahay and the BJP’s Ram Tahal Chaudhary.
Not that Trinamul expects too many of them to win. But that the party has become a talking point outside Bengal — it has fielded nominees in Assam, Tripura, Manipur and Odisha, too — is a crucial enough sidelight for it to hold on to this election.
Among the motley group of wannabe MPs, Linda has acquired the stature of a serious contender in Lohardaga. The one-time student leader gained prominence when he floated the Adivasi Chhatra Morcha to fight for a separate official identity for Sarnas, a tribal sect that worships nature.
The Congress’s Rameshwar Oraon — he was pushed to third place from Lohardaga in 2009 by Linda, who lost to BJP’s Sudarshan Bhagat — is dismissive of the Trinamul challenge.
“Sometimes in cricket, a tailender hits some good shots. But that doesn’t mean he should be treated as a batsman. Linda is that kind of case. Voters will dispatch candidates like them into the Bay of Bengal,” he claimed.
State Congress chief Sukhdeo Bhagat added: “Remember, this is a general election contested on national issues.”
Trinamul leaders are upbeat. Spokesperson Sashikant Tirkey said: “See how we have changed perceptions. Our rivals are now taking us seriously. Don’t you think that’s an achievement worth talking about?”