Trinamool Congress supremo Mamata Banerjee.
Kolkata: As she led thousands of hungry, half-clad and angry farmers on the dusty streets of Singur and Nandigram over a decade ago, defying the mighty Communist regime of West Bengal, little did she know she was on the threshold of scripting history.
Mamata Banerjee, the tempestuous Trinamool Congress supremo, might well be at the doorstep of making history yet again, if the BJP-led NDA fails to secure a majority in the Lok Sabha polls, ending up becoming a kingmaker in national politics if not the king.
One of the bitterest critics of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and the BJP, she firmly pitched herself as a leader who could act as the glue to unite disparate political parties seeking to oust the NDA from power when she mustered leaders of 23 parties at rally here in January this year.
"We would play an important role in the new government formation under the leadership of Mamata Banerjee. The people of this country are looking up to her and TMC to save them from the reign of fear of Narendra Modi," TMC leader in the outgoing Lok Sabha Sudip Bandopadhyay told PTI, indicating that the fiery West Bengal leader has set her sights on New Delhi.
For the 64-year-old spinster, the political journey from the restive streets of Nandigram and Singur in 2007-08, when she waged a relentless battle against the Left Front government, to 'Nabanna', the seat of power in Kolkata, was as captivating as it was punishing.
Though she cut her political teeth as a young Congress volunteer in her student days and rose to become a minister in UPA and NDA governments, it was in the crucible of Nandigram and Singur movements against forcible acquisition of farm land by the Communist government for industrialisation that her destiny and that of the TMC took shape. She founded the TMC in January 1998 after parting ways with the Congress and it was through struggles, big and small, against the Communist dispensation that her party grew.
In 2001, when the state had its first assembly polls after the launch of the TMC, the party bagged an impressive 60 seats in the 294-member House, while the Left Front clinched a staggering 192.
In its second outing in the 2006 assembly elections, the TMC's strength came down by half as it could pocket only 30 seats, while the Left scored a resounding victory with 219 seats.
The four years that followed were the most momentous in the contemporary political history of West Bengal as she put up a spirited fight against the Left Front government over alleged excesses in Singur and Nandigram.
The assembly elections of 2011 were historic, as she decimated the Left in one of its longest-standing bastions. Banerjee's party ended the Left Front's 34-year unbroken stint in power, winning a whopping 184 seats riding the crest of massive public outrage against the Communists, who were restricted to just 60 seats.
The street fighter-politician further tightened her hold on the levers of power in West Bengal in the assembly elections of 2016, when she beat the Communists hollow winning 211 seats. The Left Front, with just 32 seats in its kitty, even lost its position as the main opposition party which went to the Congress that clinched 44 seats.
According to a senior party leader, it was time for the party to make a mark in the national political arena.
At a time when the Congress has lost much of its political heft and is not in a position to take on the BJP single-handedly, many in the TMC feel that regional players could call the shots in the corridors of power in New Delhi.
"And we would be one the most important players at the national level. If we are able to win most of the Lok Sabha seats from the state, we will play a major role in formation of the next government. The question of the PM candidate would be decided after the polls and we would be one of the main claimants. Our party supremo, who had been both a Union minister and chief minister, has acceptability across party lines," said a senior TMC MP who did not wish to be named.
The TMC had 34 MPs in the outgoing Lok Sabha. Another party leader said the "faulty" policies of the Modi government and the "vacuum in the opposition space" has provided the TMC an opportunity to position itself firmly as a pre-eminent anti-BJP and anti-Modi force.
Banerjee's characteristic belligerence on issues like demonetization, implementation of Goods and Services Tax (GST), the contentious National Register of Citizens (NRC) in Assam, and alleged politicisation of Pulwama terror strike and "destruction" of institutions like the CBI and Enforcement Directorate has found resonance with other opposition parties, he said.
However, power has many a pitfall. Infighting is one of them, and the TMC is no exception despite its strong-willed leader's iron fist. It was due to the infighting and the slowly but surely growing clout of the BJP, that Banerjee dropped 10 of her sitting Lok Sabha MPs and brought in 18 new faces.
Speaking on condition of anonymity, a senior TMC leader conceded as much. "There is factionalism at various levels and some of the aspirants who didn't get tickets might cause problems in some areas. But we hope to remove such irritants soon," he said.
The BJP, which has been trying to occupy a substantial part of the opposition space in the state, feels that the TMC supremo is fast losing ground.
"Before eyeing to become the prime minister Mamata Banerjee should protect her own turf because she is fast losing ground and people of this state want to get rid of her misrule," BJP national general Kailash Vijayvargiya told PTI.
The Congress, a potential post-election ally of the TMC, is also not too happy with Banerjee as it feels she was more concerned about blocking Rahul Gandhi's chances of becoming the prime minister instead of fighting the BJP.
"When Congress recently won elections in three states, only TMC didn't congratulate Rahul ji. There are many other instances which show she is more averse to Rahul Gandhi becoming the prime minister than preventing Narendra Modi from occupying the post," West Bengal Congress president Somen Mitra said.