Modi Shouldn’t ‘Threaten’ Mamata If He’s Sure of Winning Bengal

The Modi-Mamata battle may look unequal, but she shares the Bengali’s usual love for such a fight. 

Updated
Opinion
4 min read
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If Narendra Modi has largely usurped the centre-stage of India's parliamentary election this summer, his bitter battle with West Bengal's chief minister Mamata Banerjee has hogged the limelight, with every passing round in this long seven-phase election. After it emerged that a seemingly formidable Priyanka Gandhi wasn’t going to contest from Varanasi, BJP cried ‘cowardly retreat’.

The real ‘Jhansi ki Rani’ now seems to be Mamata Banerjee, who is leading a do-or-die charge against a far more formidable adversary, matching its money power with raw muscle and mobilisation.

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TV anchors and pundits blame her government for the poll violence in Bengal, but most grudgingly praise her ability to “give the BJP as best as she gets”.

Mamata Banerjee’s ‘Guerrilla Spirit’ Undeterred by the Saffron Brigade

The Modi-Mamata battle may look unequal, but she shares the Bengali's usual love for such a fight. Both leaders share underclass origins, a strong populist streak, revel in political combat and are known for a ruthless ‘never-give-up’ streak that endear them to supporters, and worry their foes. But Modi presides over one of the largest political parties in the world, endowed with seemingly limitless resources and backed by an ever-expanding and dedicated RSS.

Mamata’s All India Trinamool Congress (TMC) is essentially a Bengali regional party, largely limited to West Bengal. But she is the first Congress leader in Bengal who revolted against the party at the Centre (a long line beginning with Chittaranjan Das and Subhas Bose) and could establish her party in power after decimating first the Congress, and the then ruling Left front. So she is like a Vietnamese guerrilla fighter arrayed against an Uncle Sam like BJP.

The ‘saffron challenge’ instead of deterring Mamata, has spurred her into a no-holds barred battle. Mamata Banerjee has lived up to her reputation as an uncompromising street fighter, in the best traditions of Bengal's violent politics, in the following ways:

  • Floating the 'federal front' idea,
  • Persistent efforts to get regional satraps on a single platform to consolidate the third force in Indian politics
  • Bravely standing up to the BJP juggernaut in West Bengal and fighting its moves round-for-round
  • Upholding the flag of Indian secularism against the all-conquering saffron flag of unabashed Hindutva

Mamata’s ‘Bengali Pride’ Narrative

The interest in the ongoing Lok Sabha polls is as much about whether Modi can carry the BJP – or at least the NDA – past the 272-mark, as it is to check on Mamata's boast that she will sweep the polls in West Bengal.

Modi’s sidekicks have claimed that the BJP is all set to win 22 – or even 30 seats – in Bengal. But then, why has Modi come to address more rallies in West Bengal than any PM in the past? He has gone to the extent of first saying that Mamata ‘sends him gifts’, and then threatened her with the breakup of her party when he suggested that 40 Trinamool MLAs are ‘in touch with me and will desert you after 23 May’.

One would imagine that mowing down Mamata is as high on the BJP’s priority list as stopping a Congress turnaround or a resurgence of the SP-BSP alliance is.

Mamata is relying on her narrative of Bengali pride ( “will shake up Delhi if you give me enough seats”) and victimhood (NRC exclusions in BJP-ruled Assam to a possible raw deal from the 15th Finance Commission). But she has also carefully crafted and articulated an alternative vision of a strong Centre-driven muscular Hindi-Hindu centred nationalism, by projecting a ‘truly federal India’ as the future of the Union.

Modi’s Attack on ‘Speed-Breaker Didi’ Does Not Wash

Mamata's finance minister Amit Mitra is closely liasing with Odisha and the southern states to challenge the 15th Finance Commission's plans to give weightage to the 2011 population figures to finalise the devolution of central taxes. Since West Bengal and Odisha, along with the southern states, have a low decadel population growth rate unlike northern states like Bihar and Rajasthan, they are keen that the 14th Finance Commission's formula of giving less weightage to population, as compared to the earlier finance commissions, is followed.

On the other hand, the BJP is harping on Mamata’s ‘minority appeasement’, failure to get big ticket investments, and ‘worsening law and order’. Since Bengal has performed much better than the BJP states in implementing central schemes, Modi’s attack on ‘speed-breaker Didi denying development’, does not wash.

For instance, Bengal's implementation of the rural job scheme has been lauded by the union rural development ministry as ‘a model for best practices’ under the scheme. Mitra's management of state finances has been much better than his predecessor – and surely better than most other states.

Mamata’s Hold Over Bengal Is Due to Much More Than Just Muscle-Power

Mamata, like her Communist predecessors, has never been averse to the use of muscle power in political mobilisation, but it would be wrong to imagine that she has remained in power only because of muscle. Though she suffers from the Singur stigma and has failed to get big time industrial investments, Mamata Banerjee’s government has delivered at the grassroots, from the beautification of Calcutta to promoting tourism, to efficient implementation of Central funds for rural poverty alleviation.

The village women with sticks (one saw on the TV screens in Birbhum on 29 April) were not goons but die-hard Didi supporters .

A section of the BJP leadership is already thinking in terms of imposing President's Rule in West Bengal if the party comes back to power in Delhi with a clear majority, and to win a few more seats in Bengal. The saffrons would do better to work on their local organisation with better state-level leaders to challenge Mamata in the 2022 assembly polls, than try something rash. Bengalis love martyrs.

(The writer is a veteran BBC journalist and an author. He can be reached @SubirBhowmik. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)

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