Kolkata: India’s best-known footballer Baichung Bhutia kicks off in a new match for the West Bengal elections this month, and captain Mamata Banerjee has not handed him an easy task.
Mr Bhutia, 39, takes on veteran comrade Ashok Bhattacharya in Siliguri, at the foothills of Darjeeling.
If the CPM saw revival in the state last year, it was in Siliguri under Mr Bhattacharya, who has also been a minister many times over in the past and was once jokingly called the Chief Minister of North Bengal when the Left was in power.
The star footballer on the other hand, has not even made his electoral debut. He did try for Parliament in 2014, but the Modi wave swept him aside. Didi has trusted him once again and Siliguri is turning into a cliffhanger.
Locals waiting to cast their votes on April 17, the second of Bengal’s six phases, see both candidates as “heavyweights” and are talking about youth versus experience, insider versus outsider.
“It’ll be a tough fight,” says local shopkeeper Biswanath Saha. “Right now it is 50-50.”
67-year-old Ashok Bhattacharya lost in 2011 when Mamata Banerjee swept to power vanquishing the Left after three decades of rule. But the comrade bounced right back as Siliguri mayor and played a key role in the alliance with the Congress this time.
“Baichung is not from Siliguri. He came here in 2014 to contest the Lok Sabha polls. He lost and he disappeared. Now he has again showed up to contest Siliguri,” said Mr Bhattacharya, adding, “I can’t take him seriously.”
Baichung Bhutia shrugs off the barb. “Mr Bhattacharya is politically experienced but this is a new match, this is a new election. People want to know what is the future and not what has been done in the past,” he says.
He also says he does not expect to get tripped by issues that have put his party, the Trinamool Congress, on the backfoot.
Many here reckon Baichung Bhutia may be underestimating the rival alliance.