It is an universal truth that there are no permanent friends or enemies in politics. Even so, it was astonishing to hear Trinamool Congress(TMC) Supremo and West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee, an avowed critic of Prime Minister Narendra Modi till the other day, suddenly express her high opinion of him.
Earlier this week, Mamata declared that she believed that the PM was not responsible for the so-called 'excesses' of the Enforcement Directorate (ED) and the Central Bureau of Investigation(CBI) in probing cases of alleged corruption against Opposition leaders.
“The CBI is no longer under the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO). This agency is now run by the Union Ministry of Home Affairs. ED has conducted 21 raids in Kolkata. The ED and CBI have registered 108 cases in one month. I believe Narendra Modi is not doing this. BJP state leaders are doing these things,” Mamata said.
Mamata declared that she believed that the PM was not responsible for the so-called 'excesses' of the Enforcement Directorate (ED) and the in probing cases of alleged corruption against Opposition leaders.
TMC General Secretary Abhishek Banerjee, are facing the heat from these investigative agencies. Two former TMC ministers, Partha Chatterjee and Paresh Chandra Adhikary are in jail for their alleged involvement in a teacher recruitment scam. Party heavyweight is in custody too.
Congress and the Opposition immediately labelled her a closet sympathiser of right-wing forces, recalling that she and her party had once belonged to the National Democratic Alliance(NDA) led by the BJP
West Bengal is in severe financial straits and in need of the smooth flow of central funds into its coffers, and there is fear that the BJP could do to the TMC in Bengal what it succeeded in doing to Uddhav Thackeray’s Shiv Sena in Maharashtra.
Mamata's Free Pass To Modi Amid Party Tensions
This vote of confidence in the PM, absolving him of all blame in the apparent targeting of opposition leaders by the CBI and ED, comes at a time when several leaders of Mamata’s own party, including her nephew and TMC General Secretary Abhishek Banerjee, are facing the heat from these investigative agencies. Two former TMC ministers, Partha Chatterjee and Paresh Chandra Adhikary are in jail for their alleged involvement in a teacher recruitment scam. Party heavyweight Anubrata Mandal is in custody too, and Abhishek Banerjee and his wife are being probed for their possible links to a multi-crore coal scam.
The Bengal chief minister’s favourable remark about Modi drew a sharp reaction from other Opposition parties like the Congress and the CPI(M), who accused the TMC chief of going soft on the Prime Minister, and giving him a “clean chit” when it is widely believed that the central government has been misusing the ED and CBI to single out and harass Opposition leaders.
Needless to say, it is also widely believed that decisions to launch the might of the investigative agencies against key Opposition leaders are rarely taken unless they are green-lighted by the PM and his Home Minister Amit Shah.
What Does Mamata Softening Her Tone on Modi Signal?
So has Mamata really gone “soft” on Modi? After waging a virulent battle against Modi and the BJP during the Bengal Assembly election in 2021, and winning it comprehensively, has she decided that it is now time to sing a conciliatory tune with the PM? And if so, what prompted this dramatic pivot — from her default position of showing displeasure with Modi to discerning admirable qualities in him?
Let’s not forget that this is the same chief minister who has made the prime minister wait for her on multiple occasions, walked out of meetings with him, taken a dig at him for putting his picture on Covid vaccine certificates, and, made a 'not-so-subtle' bid to pitch herself as a leader of a unified Opposition and a likely challenger to him in 2024.
But that was then. In the course of the last few months, Mamata seems to have dialled down on the ferocity of her public display of opposition to the BJP in general and Modi in particular. Instead, she had chosen to concentrate her ire on state BJP leaders. Noticeably, she did not mention Modi at all during her annual mega rally in Kolkata on 21 July.
TMC’s Selective Targeting Of BJP Irks Opposition Bloc
But the first real indication of shape-shifting became clear in August when the TMC chose not to oppose the BJP’s candidate for Vice-President(VP), Jagdeep Dhankhar. This, despite the fact that as Governor of Bengal, Dhankhar had had a famously bitter and fractious relationship with Mamata. To everyone’s surprise, the TMC abstained from the voting, indirectly supporting his election as VP.
If that was a shocker, no less so was Mamata’s statement early this month that “not everyone in the RSS is bad”. Of course, the Congress and the Opposition immediately labelled her a closet sympathiser of right-wing forces, recalling that she and her party had once belonged to the National Democratic Alliance(NDA) led by the BJP. And then came Mamata’s touching attempt to separate the Prime Minister from any politics of vengeance that may or may not lie beneath the CBI and ED’s plethora of corruption cases against Opposition leaders.
Little wonder then that the million rupee question being debated in Bengal’s political circles today is: Why has Mamata executed this volte-face and why has she decided to refrain from attacking Modi personally?
Mamata’s Modi Appeasement Guided by Vested Interest?
The answers lie in the realm of speculation and conspiracy theories. The buzz on Bengal’s political grapevine is that there has been a “setting” between Mamata and Modi both of whom had a one-on-one meeting in Delhi in early August.
With the chief minister’s immediate family facing probes by the central agencies for alleged corruption, the talk on the streets is that some kind of a deal has been worked out between the CM and the PM, wherein the cases would be soft-pedalled in return for the TMC’s behind-the-scenes support to the BJP in the Lok Sabha elections in Bengal in 2024. In that case, it makes sense for Mamata to limit her attacks against the BJP solely to its leaders in the state, rather than go gunning for its supreme leader, ie, Narendra Modi.
Will Mamata Dial Down As Modi’s Chief Challenger?
The other theory doing the rounds is that the TMC chief may have come to the conclusion that it would be tough to cobble together a unified anti-BJP platform in the run-up to 2024, given that Aam Aadmi Party(AAP) leader Arvind Kejriwal fancies his chances as a challenger to Modi, and the Congress is also in no mood to accept any other party’s leadership in the effort to defeat the BJP. Janata Dal (United)chief Nitish Kumar and Telangana Chief Minister K Chandrashekhar Rao have their own agendas as well. In such a scenario, it would be even more difficult for Mamata to take the leap from the regional to the national stage.
Hence, she may have decided that she has more to lose than gain by amping up hostilities with the Prime Minister at this point. But adopting a non-combative attitude towards Modi could benefit her — given that West Bengal is in severe financial straits and in need of the smooth flow of central funds into its coffers, and given that there is always the fear that the BJP could do to the TMC in Bengal what it succeeded in doing to Uddhav Thackeray’s Shiv Sena in Maharashtra.
The coming months will lift the veil from the actual truth behind Mamata Banerjee’s newfound regard for Narendra Modi. Until that happens, don’t be surprised if she comes out with some more generous remarks about the Prime Minister.
(Shuma Raha is a journalist and author. She tweets @ShumaRaha. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)