With Migrant Train Allegation, Shah Throws A Stick At Mamata

Mamata needs to realise that how she tackles the COVID-19 crisis hereon will decide her political future.

Updated09 May 2020, 03:22 PM IST
5 min read

Just as a murmur of questions over Union Home Minister Amit Shah's political 'whereabouts' was threatening to spill over into the realm beyond rumour and gossip, he chose to announce his continued presence on his favourite combative political turf -- throwing another cudgel at his bête noir for long, West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee.

In an act which showed that politics indeed makes strange bedfellows, Shah utilised an opening provided to him by the leader of the Congress party in Lok Sabha, Adhir Ranjan Chowdhury, who complained to Shah that the stormy petrel of Bengal politics was disinclined to take back more stranded patients, students and migrant workers.

Pot Calling The Kettle Black?

In a letter which became public probably even before it was delivered to Banerjee, Shah accused Mamata of not facilitating the return to the state of those migrants who were keen to return in the second wave of the now underway reverse migration.

The letter was an unbelievable irony for those watching politics in the times of the pandemic. After having failed not once, but twice, in anticipating and then addressing the anxiety and basic necessities of migrant workers and all those temporarily out of their states, to return home braving every conceivable adversity, Shah’s accusation was like the pot calling the kettle black.

For a government which has showed little sensitivity as people literally fell to their deaths while negotiating hundreds of kilometres to their homes, the BJP leader accusing Mamata Banerjee of being heartless was indeed ironical.

That Shah's charge at Banerjee came within hours of a tweet by the Bharatiya Janata Party's Information Technology Cell convenor, Amit Malviya, pointing out that the West Bengal Chief Minister had not addressed a press conference for several days was one paradox too many.

The BJP and its senior leadership have many attributes but one, they do not like addressing press conferences.

Predictably, the Trinamool Congress denied the Home Minister's charge. Abhishek Banerjee, the Chief Minister's nephew and Lok Sabha member, not just denied the charge saying Shah's letter was a "bundle of lies", but also indicted Shah for "failing to discharge his duties during this crisis." He even challenged Shah to prove his allegation and in its failure, should apologise.

The Truth Lies In The Middle

Truth, as always, is somewhere in the middle. This is also no media inquest. Yet, there is proof, by way of media reports as well as Mamata Banerjee's statement that migrants returned to the state very recently from Rajasthan and Kerala and even before the dust on the controversy stirred by Shah's missive settled, the state government announced allowing eight trains to bring back the migrants.

But Indian Railways disclosed that of the 47 trains that were scheduled on 9 May, none was headed for West Bengal. Certainly, the Centre is also not anxious to coordinate with West Bengal with little care about the desolate migrants. The poor anyway are always pawns in the game of thrones.

This episode establishes a few issues insofar as the COVID-19 narrative in West Bengal is concerned. Most importantly, it is beyond doubt that the West Bengal government has not exactly covered itself with glory regarding its management of the pandemic. Not just has the government been blundering its way through the crisis but it also has been opaque with data and information.

The Battle Of Public Perception

Politics is all about perception and if one has lost the battle for it, the game is as good as over. Mamata Banerjee has often allowed anger to be her public visage and this created an image of a rabble-rouser who cries wolf although the situation does not warrant it. Contrast Banerjee's public image with at least two other chief ministers who have had their shares of run-ins with the BJP and Prime Minister Narendra Modi -- Pinarayi Vijayan and Uddhav Thackeray.

Both these leaders have had more than one reason for crossing swords with Modi. But they used the COVID-19 crisis as opportunity to bolster public image within the state and even outside. They came across as able administrators who were open about sharing information and data and ever so willing to face an impending challenge. For instance, the Kerala Chief Minister said on 8 May that although the state has successfully flattened the curve within 100 days of the first reported case, he was prepared for a possible third wave of the virus.

In contrast, the West Bengal Chief Minister has acted myopically and has come across as someone with something to hide. She has gained little by remaining in denial and has willy-nilly fallen into the trap set by the BJP and Modi. Just as the Centre has made no effort to utilise this crisis as an opportunity for public awareness and has scared people, Banerjee made the cardinal error of conveying that infection from the novel coronavirus was little but a scourge. She thus tried showing West Bengal as a state that escaped the 'wrath' of the pandemic.

As a result, she has been a pale shadow of the leader who bolstered her image by consistent pursuit of development programmes in the state. It was her piqued response to every missive from the Centre that gave Modi and his colleagues opportunities galore to project that Banerjee and West Bengal government had something to hide. She created the ground for the Centre to justify sending the two Inter Ministerial Central Teams to seven locations in the state to assess the situation.

Banerjee claimed this was an instance of the Centre violating the spirit of federalism. Kerala too had to face its share of Central intrusions but these were handled more tactfully by Vijayan. Ever since she emerged on the nation's political theatre in the mid-1980s, Mamata Banerjee was every inch of her frame, a dogged street fighter. As Chief Minister she should have shed anger and make herself open to scrutiny. While her one-time friend, Arvind Kejriwal, learnt these tricks over the past few years, Didi, as she is popularly called, continues to act like the proverbial Dada, more brawn than brain.

True, West Bengal's social composition is not going to make it easy for the BJP in next year's assembly elections. But, the ground that the Trinamool Congress gained between the Lok Sabha polls and the outbreak of the pandemic, has been lost. While the BJP loses no opportunity to make matters tougher and also rile her simultaneously, it is time Banerjee realises that she faces her most challenging administrative and economic tests. How she tackles the crisis hereon, shall decide her political future. The sooner she realises this, the better for her.

(The writer is an author and journalist based in Delhi. He has authored the book ‘The Demolition: India at the Crossroads’ and ‘Narendra Modi: The Man, The Times’. He can be reached @NilanjanUdwin. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)

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Published: 09 May 2020, 03:16 PM IST
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