‘Mind Game’: How a Perception War Is Dominating the Bengal Election Campaign

India’s most prolonged assembly election is witnessing a battle of nerves as the psychological warfare intensifies.

Kolkata: “The time has come for you to know/ I’m victim of propaganda war,” say two lines from a track in the Serbian band Emir Kusturica & The No Smoking Orchestra’s 2000 album, ‘Devil In The Business Class’. Pratik Kumar Mandal, a young student who lives in Bandel town within Chinsurah assembly segment in Hooghly district, believes that these lines might perfectly fit himself and many other residents of West Bengal as they prepare to exercise their democratic franchise in a high-voltage electoral contest being fought in hyperboles.

“A psychological war is going on in great intensity. The BJP [Bharatiya Janata Party] managed to create a strong perception that they have nearly captured power but Prashant Kishor’s teams [representing the Trinamool Congress] are not lagging behind in this game either. As a result, I see people all around myself who are confused and clueless about which factor might work in which party’s favour determining the electoral outcome,” said Mandal.

Mandal identified himself as someone who has been politically indifferent and non-committal, but this time he is keeping a tab on the happenings and campaigns around the elections more closely than ever.

“It’s an unprecedented election. People who quite frankly expressed their opinion even two months ago have now gone silent. Both sides are bluffing and both sides are getting their bluffs called out. As one of the results of this high-octave propaganda battle trying to expose or exaggerate the weaknesses in the rival camp, the real issues are getting lost,” he said, adding, “I think both sides have managed, to a certain extent, to confuse their critics.”

Mainak Pal, a doctor based in the Bhatpara area of North 24-Parganas district, had similar views.

“The propaganda war is intense and, I must say that that either both camps have succeeded equally well or failed equally miserably, because supporters of both camps stand utterly clueless about the outcome,” Pal said, adding that an interesting trend he noticed was that supporters of the TMC thought that the party may not return to power, while supporters of the BJP thought that Mamata Banerjee was likely to sail through.

One of the features of this propaganda battle is, according to Pal, that personal attacks dominate politicians’ speeches instead of the real issues. “It’s become more about bullying and ridiculing the opponent camp without talking the real issues,” he said.

The battle over Nandigram

The ‘psychological war’ reached its peak on April 1, the day of the second phase polling, when Nandigram, the site of the state’s most high-voltage battle, voted to choose its representative.

When polling in Nandigram was still going on and chief minister Mamata Banerjee, the TMC candidate from the seat, was stranded inside a polling booth (no. 7 of Boyal gram panchayat) where she went to verify reports of alleged malpractices, Prime Minister Narendra Modi predicted Banerjee’s defeat in Nandigram and of her party in the rest of the state.

Modi said that the body language of the chief minister said it all about what the results were going to be.

“She realised after going to Nandigram that she made a mistake. The mood of polling that has been observed so far reveals that Nandigram has already done today what all of Bengal wanted to do. In anger, she now is insulting people,” Modi said, while addressing a rally in South 24-Parganas district.

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Later, from a rally in Howrah, he said, “Look at Didi and you’ll understand everything. Didi is the opinion poll, Didi is the exit poll. Everything is clear from her expressions and body language.”

Modi also said that people were talking about the possibility of Banerjee filing nomination from another assembly constituency. He asked, “Didi, is there any truth in the reports that you are going to contest from a second seat?”

Later, her principal rival in the seat, BJP’s Suvendu Adhikari appeared on a TV channel and claimed that Mamata Banerjee was going to contest from a second seat, Murarai in Birbhum district, because she knew that she had lost Nandigram.

In Nandigram, while alleging polling malpractices and false voting, Banerjee also accused the Union home ministry of instructing the paramilitary forces to influence the voting in the BJP’s favour.

“We will approach the [Election] Commission. We have made 63 complaints since morning but no action has been taken. We’ll take the legal course if needed,” she said while waiting at the polling booth for the paramilitary forces to clear her road to return.

Later, though she showed the media the ‘V’ sign, referring to her victory in Nandigram, and said, “My concern is not about Nandigram. I am winning. My concern is the larger threat democracy in India faces. There was cheating in the elections today.”

West Bengal CM and TMC supremo Mamata Banerjee addresses an election campaign rally for Assembly polls, at Baruipur in South 24 Parganas, Sunday, April 4, 2021. Photo: PTI

Soon after Modi’s rallies, TMC Rajya Sabha leader Derek O’Brien addressed a press conference in Kolkata and slammed Modi for spreading rumours. “We have won Nandigram. We have got sufficient internal inputs to say so. But we may still approach the ECI over a few booths,” O’Brien said.

April 6 is the last day for filing nominations for the eighth phase voting scheduled on April 29.

The party also wrote a tweet, saying, “Didi is winning Nandigram. The question of her fighting from another seat doesn’t arise. @narendramodi Ji, retract from your efforts to mislead people before they see your lies with the end of nomination in WB. Look for a safer seat in 2024, as you will be challenged in Varanasi.”

Significantly, in the afternoon on polling day, Adhikari had told the media in Nandigram that the TMC failed to put up polling agents in about 80 of the total 355 polling booths, indicating that the TMC had lost the battle even before polling. He also laughed at how Banerjee did not leave her residence till afternoon and did not visit any booth except one.

TMC spokesperson Kunal Ghosh rubbished Adhikari’s charges, saying that Banerjee did not go out because of her confidence and that she went to only one booth because there the BJP was not allowing TMC supporters to vote.

Ghosh said, “He has gone mad sensing a loss. He is trying to put up a brave face in front of BJP leaders. Overall, the BJP created problems in only about three booths and those too were managed later. All the BJP is trying to do is to create a false perception among the voters of the next phases about their prospect.”

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Speaking of the second phase polling day, columnist and political analyst Suman Bhattacharya said that Banerjee did look concerned, while Adhikari tried to look relaxed. However, he pointed out that Banerjee’s body language ‘has always been deceptive’.

“It is playing the victim card that she has been best at. The TMC is repeatedly trying to raise the morale of their workers by speaking of a connivance between the BJP, the Election Commission and the central forces. On the other hand, the BJP is depending on playing to the gallery. Thursday’s events were in tune with that game of perception building, which will intensify as the election progresses,” Bhattacharya said.

It is interesting to note that though the BJP on Thursday claimed that Banerjee getting stranded in one booth and sporting a concerned look reflected her defeat from Nandigram, the very next day Union minister Prakash Javadekar submitted a deputation with the EC, alleging that Banerjee tried to manipulate voting by staying put near the booth for nearly two hours.

“She sat in a polling booth. How is it possible? We want the ECI to see how a sitting CM was taking part in a protest,” Javadekar alleged on Friday.

Perfecting perceptions

Political observers and common people said that both the TMC and the BJP were trying to influence public perception using the happenings in Nandigram on Thursday and the ‘body language’ of Banerjee and Adhikari during the day, keeping in mind the coming six phases of the elections when 234 seats will go to the polls.

According to Avik Banerjee, a physics research scholar based in Bhatpara town of North 24-Parganas, the mind game is played with two intensions: to influence the ‘floating voters’ and to keep morale of their respective camps high.

“There seems to be a significant chunk of indecisive voters this time. The floating voters, who are not committed to any party, usually tend to vote for the party that has greater prospect of winning. That is why both parties are trying hard to portray itself as a winner without even a contest,” the lecturer said.

He said that one of the plans of the BJP supporters in this perception game is to create confusion in the name of Prashant Kishor, the poll strategist working with Mamata Banerjee’s party since June 2019.

Avik Banerjee cited examples of fake ‘survey reports’ attributed to Prashant Kishor’s organisation predicting the BJP’s victory in Nandigram and fake ‘news reports’ in nondescript web portals reporting Kishor snapping ties with the TMC even before the elections were over, sensing the TMC’s defeat. Kishor’s organisation has called these out as fakes.

“An agonisingly long, high-stakes poker game is going on, and the players are so busy playing it, they are comfortably choosing to ignore serious national issues like massive unemployment, farmers protests, the crisis in academics etc,” he said.

Pratik Mandal pointed out that it was Kishor who first took this perception battle head on with the BJP by predicting less than 100 seats for the saffron party.

Kaushik Mandal, a small trader based in Palta town of North 24-Parganas, agrees about the perception battle. He thinks it would be better for the state if the BJP comes to power as it would be able to draw investments to the state. But he also thinks that the party would fall short of the required numbers.

“It is because both parties are clueless about their real strength, since a lot of things happened since the Lok Sabha elections that can favour or affect a party in myriad ways, that both are trying to break the confidence and the morale of the opponent camp,” Mandal said.

He mentioned certain perceptions among the people that he noticed during his business travels. One of the widespread perceptions he mentioned is that there could be a hung assembly.

“While BJP supporters believe the party can buy off MLAs even if it falls a little short of the required numbers, the Left supporters believe the third front, or the Samyukta Morcha, would hold the key to the government in case neither TMC or BJP get the numbers,” Mandal said.

Mandal also said that an unusual number of voters were staying silent this time and these silent voters could actually hold the key to the results.

Union Home Minister Amit Shah during a roadshow in support of BJP candidates ahead of the third phase of West Bengal Assembly polls, at Baruipur Paschim in South 24 Parganas, Friday, April 2, 2021. Photo: PTI/Swapan Mahapatra

Incidentally, it is to address this specific perception that Mamata Banerjee recently urged voted to give her more than 200 seats to foil the BJP’s chance of forming the government by buying off MLAs from other parties.

Abhijit Sengupta, a chartered accountant based in south Kolkata’s Garia area, said that neither of the camps seemed to have emerged victorious in this propaganda war, which was evident from how a good number of people believed there could be a hung assembly.

“I have been voting since the 1970s and I have never witnessed an election with such tension, uncertainty, anxiety and war of words. Every fault and lacuna in one camp is being magnified by the other, often disproportionately, making it very difficult for the people to assess the situation,” Sengupta said.

Sengupta felt that the propaganda may influence only a small section of the indecisive voters, as the people have, over the years, become more conscious about fake news and have started verifying information.

However, Suniti Kumar Bhattacharya, a primary school teacher based in Baruipur town of South 24-Parganas district, felt that propaganda did influence people in rural areas.

“More than those speeches from mega political rallies, it is the localised WhatsApp groups that are playing the most important role in this perception building,” Bhattacharya said.

It is as part of this perception game that the media teams of both the BJP and the TMC are keeping an eye on the rallies of the opponent parties, taking photos of those every time the crowd is thin and chairs remained empty. These photographs are promptly shared with journalists, showing how the rallies by the opponent party were drawing no crowds.

The claims and counter claims over winnability continued. Amit Shah, after claiming that the party had won 26 of the 30 seats that polled in the first phase, claimed after the second phase that they party had won over 50 of the total 60 seats where votes were polled.

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Responding to this, TMC’s Rajya Sabha leader Derek O’Brien said, “I am amused by the ‘Mind Games’ of Amit Shah. Overall, Trinamool held a 3% vote share advantage over BJP in Lok Sabha elections of 2019. In spite of the big talk from the ‘tourist gang’, Trinamool has substantially built on that lead in 2021. Catch us if you can. #KhelaHobe,” he tweeted.

Mamata Banerjee, on the other hand, has claimed the party’s tally will be even higher than the 221 seats won in 2016.

Modi, on his part, had earlier claimed that the BJP will win more than 200 seats. But on Saturday, he went a step ahead, said that elections had been won, and urged government employees to start the work of collecting data on farmers and prepare the list of beneficiaries of the new government’s projects in the state.

According to Biswanath Chakraborty, a psephologist and professor of political science at Kolkata’s Rabindra Bharati University, one camp was trying to show its might and portraying itself as victorious, while the other is trying to play the victim card, hinting at humiliation by a grand conspiracy involving the powerful who have come from outside the state, and trying to gain in sympathies.

“The BJP would have won the propaganda battle hands down had there not been Prashant Kishor’s team, who have emerged as quite adept in spreading propaganda and creating perceptions. It is difficult to assess at this point which party has the edge over the other,” Chakraborty said.

Notably, it was only a few days ago, on March 28, that Banerjee wrote to the leaders of all parties opposed to the BJP, urging them to unite against the Modi government at the Centre, which she accused of “brazenly and vindictively misusing the CBI, ED and other institutions against leaders and functionaries of non-BJP parties for its own partisan political ends”.

The TMC has tried to portray the battle for Bengal as one between one woman (Banerjee) and the might of the Union cabinet, central investing agencies, paramilitary forces, BJP leaders from other states and even the EC. But when they refer to that woman, they refer to her as a born fighter who cannot be scared by any mighty power.

Snigdhendu Bhattacharya is a journalist and author based in Kolkata.