Kolkata: Prime minister Narendra Modi was visibly perspiring under the March sun during the BJP’s poll rally at Brigade Parade ground in Kolkata on Sunday. Bengal is the most bitterly contested political battleground among the four poll-bound states. Political temperature has already soared above the mercury as the state is bracing up for an unprecedented eight rounds of polls for 294 seats in the state assembly that begins on March 27.
Modi’s campaign against chief minister Mamata Banerjee and her Trinamool Congress was focussed today on countering her claim to a third term in office as Banglar Meye or the Daughter of Bengal vis-a-vis Modi’s BJP as a party of rank outsiders. Even the presence of a bevy of Bengali-speaking Trinamool Congress turncoats at Brigade including Mithun Chakroborty, a former Bengali star of the Bollywood and a veteran of volta face in political circus did not assure Modi.
Nevertheless, Modi took pains to harp on BJP’s counterclaims to the ideals of best known Bengal icons, Vivekananda-Vidya Sagar- Rabindranath-Subhas Bose. He did it not only to appeal to Bengali sentiments but also to draw a straight connection between the four and Shyama Prasad Mukherjee, the leader of Hindu Mahasabha and later Jana Sangh, the progenitor of India’s ruling right-wing Hindu nationalist party. Despite being Bengalis, the former and latter were different in their world views like the proverbial cheese and chalk.
But historical details have never been a strong point in the narratives of either demagogue. Referring to an age-old cliche, Modi claimed his party’s creed being a ‘pure Deshi, unlike that of Congress of Nehru era or the Lefts who swear in the name of Lenin-Stalin-Mao’. Apparently, he forgot the heritage of Hitler and Mussolini which the RSS, the mother of BJP, had incorporated into its core project for Hindu communalism in the 1930s.
Communal campaign but no mention of CAA-NRC
Modi indeed harped on ‘menace of infiltration, politics of vote-bank and appeasement, the leitmotif of his party’s pet campaign for religious polarization. It was left to Subhendu Adhikary, the principal defector from Mamata camp and her deputy -turned rival in Nandigram to call his former benefactor ‘an aunt to the infiltrators and Rohingyas’. He even issued a warning to Bengali Hindus that Bengal would be turned into another Kashmir and they would await the fate of Pandits in the valley if BJP failed to bag Bengal.
Modi also showed special concerns for ‘refugees’, read, ‘persecuted Hindus from Bangladesh’. But the Motabhai kept mum over the implementation of the Citizenship Amendment Act for Matua, the main Dalit refugee group in Bengal and the National Register of Citizens project. Despite both being the cornerstones of the anti-Muslim citizenship matrix of the Hindu party, they have been proved two-edged swords for the BJP. The regime risks huge trouble over the CAA in neighboring Assam which is also poll-bound.
Wistful on Chaiwala friends, silent on Ambanis & Adanis
Modi tried his best to redeem his image as the messiah of economic development of the 2014 vintage. Thankfully, he did not waste time by counting his megalomaniac moves from demonetisation to sudden and prolonged lockdown and staggering fall in the economic well-being of Indian people. Neither mentioned the biggest and longest on-street stalemate that his regime is facing over the farmers’ movement against his farm laws, designed to serve his crony companies.
He raised this observer’s hope when he complained about Mamata and other Opposition charges about his continued largesse to corporate friends. Many thought he would refer to the farmers’ fear of the company raj of the Ambanis and Adanis, if not mentioning Rahul Gandhi’s Hum Do, Humara Do jibe. But he spun it to weave it into his favorite Bal Narendra narrative; his humble upbringing and friendship of chaiwala days. But he chose to be silent on tycoons like Ambanis and Adanis whom he had befriended while in high office.
India’s big brother mocked Bengal’s big sis for riding a scooty to her office to protest the hikes in petrol-prices but did not utter a single word to assure a rollback on the unprecedented price rises that is affecting millions across the political divides.
Modi tries to redeem the development plank
Urging Bengalis for a ‘real change’ this time after Mamata has failed to deliver during her decade-long rule, he promised a veritable El Dorado in Bengal for every possible target group among the voters. But it sounded like a re-run of his jumlas six years back.
His main theme was developed through private sector investments in industry and infrastructure, expansion of technological education, jobs for youth as well as arrear payments under central government projects for farmers, government employees, rural poor and tribals. He spent a lot of time wooing women of Bengal in an evident effort to derail Mamata’s move to cash on her popular schemes like Kanya Shree, Rupa Shree and Sabuj Sathi aimed at young girls and students.
Bengal is no heaven for girls as crimes against women are rising in an atmosphere of increasing criminalization of politics and society. The total capitulation of police- administration to the ruling party dictates for decades has only added to the mockery of rule of law. But Modi’s mention of the sushasan or good governance in UP was a classic example of post-truth unashamed lie a la Trump, considering the rapes and murders of girls and their family members under the Yogi-raj.
He also tried to harvest the growing discontent on the corruption- nepotism and political violence under the TMC rule. Targeting Mamata and her nephew Abhishek for running a rule of Bhai-Bhatizabad of Congress style, he promised a personal initiative to build a Sonar Bangla. He even spoke of a roadmap for a return to Bengal’s former glory in the next 25 years that will culminate into the 100 years of free India in 2047. Clearly, he has a grandiose vision to prolong his personal as well as BJP’s rule across India, a dream that both Hitler and Mussolini had shared as the dictator of Germany and Italy.
Mamata’s roadshow: Focus on Bengali identity and fuel-prices
Holding a roadshow in Siliguri, North Bengal’s main town, the chief minister was thundering against the prime minister and Amit Shah, the union home minister for trying to turn Bengal into a ‘centrally-ruled state under a remote-controlled party’. It was part of her strategy to counter BJP’s call for a ‘double engine government’, a euphemism for the rule of the same party at the Centre and the state.
Indian quasi-federal structure permits it as the prolonged Congress hegemony had witnessed. But Modi had resented it as the BJP chief minister of Gujarat. He stoked Gujarati Asmita or pride of the linguistic majority in his state to retain power under the Congress-led UPA.
It’s now Mamata’s turn to raise the banner of Bengali identity and federal diversity, a historically strong current that runs parallel to Indian nationalism since the days of Nehru. It has become politically more relevant in the wake of the BJP-RSS’ call for an Akhand Bharat and a Hindu Rastra, an over-centralized majoritarian polity under a single-party rule.
Realising that her earlier public censure of her unruly and corrupt partymen has become handy for BJP and Left-Congress-Indian Secular Front combine, Mamata now tries to do some damage control. She countered Modi’s rant on the ‘cut money’ that her minions had siphoned off by holding the prime minister and his party responsible for swallowing the ‘rat money’ from the sales of state-run airports, ports, railway properties. Calling Modi ‘the man who sells national wealth to domestic and foreign corporations’, she highlighted the soaring prices of petrol-diesel kerosene and cooking gas prices as his indifference to the poor and middle class.
Attack on Left-Congress
As Bengal is bracing up for a tri-corner fight, Modi criticised Lefts for holding the ‘black hand’ of the Congress, its traditional foe. Holding both Left-Congress and TMC responsible for the continued decay in Bengal’s industry and business, he counted all three in the same camp. It is another matter that the third forces have been training their guns primarily on Mamata. Both the CPM and TMC have refused to bury their hatchets despite the bigger threat of a BJP takeover looming larger.