In Bengal, it's also Mamata versus Aveek Sarkar

The war between the incumbent chief minister and the state's most powerful media mogul has peaked.

 |  6-minute read |   18-05-2016
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The wait for the final results of an epic battle in West Bengal has reached its penultimate leg. On the face of it, Mamata may be taking on a combined opposition onslaught of the Left, Congress and BJP on the electoral front.

However, there is another battle that has caught the public imagination lately. One between an incumbent chief minister and Bengal's most powerful media mogul.

"Field is wide open," declared The Telegraph on its front page on Tuesday morning even as all exit and post-poll surveys gave Mamata an easy win.

tt2_051816123135.jpg 

The ABP survey has come up with a rider. While it gives the Trinamool Congress 163 seats (far more than the halfway mark, that is 148), it says there are 25 seats in which the party is ahead on a slender margin that could perilously tilt the results the other way.

No wonder, 24 hours before the ballots open, the big question on everyone's mind in Kolkata is who will have the last laugh, Mamata Banerjee or Aveek Sarkar?

In what was a bitterly fought election, Mamata had to face what she calls, a "malicious campaign" against her government by the ABP Group led by Sarkar.

Many say, it is perhaps unprecedented in the history of Bengal politics. While the Left did have its share of bad press during the fag end of Jyoti Basu's long tenure, nothing matches what Mamata perhaps had to deal with in her very first term as CM.

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It perhaps explains why a leader who has mostly remained accessible all her life suddenly became reticent. She banned the media across the new state secretariat - Nabanna - restricting them only to the media enclosure.

Faced with the 24x7 scrutiny of an ever-proliferating electronic media, the press became her enemy number one.

"I have tolerated enough, they have contacts at various places, they own channels, but I only have this one mike in my hand, this is my strength," said an emotional Mamata, just before her own constituency Bhawanipur went to vote on April 30.

Her dramatic appeal took many by surprise. "Let me ask my 'Maa, maati, maanush', if you think I have committed a mistake, slap me, I wouldn't mind. I will accept it. But it hurts if you call me a thief, a liar," Mamata said.

mamata-banerjee-hero_051816123718.jpg Mamata Banerjee. (PTI)

The image of a dozen Trinamool leaders accepting cash caught in a sting released just before the polls had clearly rattled her. While most in the Bengali media reported about the sting, the ABP almost gave it blanket coverage, often targeting Mamata personally.

Thereby, creating a general public discourse in Bengal that the ABP is out on a witch-hunt against Mamata. A perception shared even by her fierce critics.

But it has not always been the case. When Mamata drove home with her historic mandate in 2011, many still remember the lengthy interviews she gave to ABP Ananda, the most prominent Bengali news channel led by Suman Dey and of course owned by Aveek Sarkar. Titled "Mukho Mukhi Mukhyomontri" or "Face-to-Face with the Chief Minister", they were interviews that would extend for hours at a stretch, often without ad breaks on prime time!

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Fresh into administration, many had then questioned her ability to govern. Curiously enough, it was a careful PR exercise at an image makeover, assisted by the ABP then. Mamata was the face Bengal loved to watch, and ABP was only too happy to oblige.

Perhaps it did not come as a surprise then that ABP chose Mamata as "Sherar Shera Bangali" or Bengali-of-the-year in 2011, with Aveek Sarkar himself felicitating the Trinamool supremo at a glittering ceremony televised live across Bengal.

"If you need any cooperation from the government, we can discuss, we can settle the issue. Don't worry," Mamata had assured Rakhi Sarkar in return while speaking at the foundation stone laying ceremony of her pet project, the KMOMA Art Gallery.

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But the honeymoon soon gave way to bitter acrimony. The reason perhaps - a piece of land given by the West Bengal government to the ABP Group in Kolkata. According to a report published by the Millennium Post, Mamata had blocked the ABP Group's attempt to use the plot given on lease solely for media-related activities for real estate development.

The Kolkata Municipal Corporation had given the 3.26 acre land on lease for media activities for a paltry sum of Rs 3 crores. The report claims, Aveek Sarkar was pressurising Mamata to amend the lease agreement thereby allowing his company to exploit the prime plot commercially.

The report had also published a letter dated January 15, 2014 written by ABP Group to Mamata seeking a change in the lease agreement. Following which, the Kolkata Municipal Corporation cancelled the lease in July 2014. Which meant, the KMC could technically take possession of the said land back from ABP.

Also read - How two Bengal universities can play a role in deciding fate of the state

However, ABP moved court and got a stay order. If the TMC returns to power, it could mean immediate repossession of the land in question, the projected value of which is said to be Rs 500 crore, claims the report.

Another reason for the break in relations could be Aveek Sarkar's long-standing demand to modify the Land Ceiling Act in Bengal, a demand that has often met with cold response from Mamata.

"Go tell ABP that they are the most destructive elements in Bengal. They are conspiring against us because they asked me to forcefully acquire land from farmers. They wanted me to remove urban land ceiling. I cannot do that," she declared at an election rally in Durgapur.

Also read - Mamata Banerjee is the worst thing to happen to West Bengal

As for Mamata, she credits Sarkar for "orchestrating" the Left-Congress alliance - an unthinkable political combination in Bengal till recently. Ironically, in the run-up to the 2014 Lok Sabha elections, it was Aveek Sarkar's personal equation with Narendra Modi that was on Mamata's mind. (Kolkata was abuzz with speculation as Modi reportedly met Sarkar at his south Kolkata residence.)

She once said, "I challenge him (Aveek Sarkar) to contest in the elections. He goes to Delhi and meets Rajnath Singh and asks him to arrest Abhishek (Banerjee) and Mukul (Roy). What interest could the owner of a newspaper have in such a situation? He meets Rahul Gandhi often in Delhi."

Yet, amid deteriorating ties, Mamata surprised everyone by attending ABP's "Shera Bangali-2015" award ceremony last year. While she sat next to Sarkar all through the event, the breach in the once cordial relations was clearly evident.

Perhaps she was testing the water, some would say. A careful olive branch to see the reciprocation at the other end. Since then, it has been a no-holds-barred attack from both sides. Barely has Bengal seen an election where a ruling chief minister has engaged in such a bitter public spat with a newspaper editor.

With all eyes now on May 19, the wait perhaps is to see who blinks first. Till then the battle of nerves continues.

Writer

Indrajit Kundu Indrajit Kundu @iindrojit

The writer is Kolkata correspondent, India Today TV

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