MOST READ LAST WEEK | Mamata vs Modi war of wits turns into a slugfest

For both sides the stakes are so high that the election in Bengal is turning into an unpredictable, no-holds-barred spectacle. Whatever be the result of the election, it will be a turning point

West Bengal CM Mamata Banerjee has turned BJP’s usual identity politics upside down
West Bengal CM Mamata Banerjee has turned BJP’s usual identity politics upside down

Zafar Agha

Thanks to the Election Commission, which in its wisdom decided to conduct polling in Bengal over a protracted period of a month between March 27 and April 29, the result of the election is anybody’s guess at this point of time.

There will be enough political twists and turns during this period to keep the suspense alive. But with the first phase of polling in the state a week away, what is clear is that BJP and Prime Minister Modi are being made to sweat by Mamata Banerjee, who is giving them a run for their money.

Is the BJP finding the going tough? Media reports do suggest that the party faces serious internal dissension following its decision to field defector from Trinamool Congress in preference to its own old timers.

The joke doing the rounds in Bengal is that the contest is actually between Trinamool ‘A’ team vrs Trinamool ‘B’ team with virtually half the candidates fielded by BJP being defectors from Trinamool, some joining BJP as recently as this month after they were dropped by Trinamool Congress.

Unable to find winnable candidates, the party has also been forced to field several of its Members of Parliament from the state. There are other straws in the wind. BJP leaders are finding it tough to draw crowds and if they are managing to draw crowds to their rallies, they are not very responsive.

While BJP’s Bengal president has asked supporters to put the country, Prime Minister and the party above themselves, the violent protests by BJP supporters against the party high command show that it will take a lot more to placate them. This would have come as a serious jolt to the BJP, which has been planning to ‘conquer’ Bengal ever since 2015, if not earlier.

And when the party increased its vote share to 40% in the 2019 general election and bagged 18 of the 42 Lok Sabha seats, BJP leaders cannot be faulted for assuming that the assembly election will be a cakewalk in 2021.

It is turning out to be anything but a cakewalk. Despite the Prime Minister and the Home Minister barnstorming the state, despite the party having unleashed all its resources and its formidable IT Cell loose, the election by all accounts promises to be a cliff hanger.

Not even the Prime Minister’s makeover, his long Tagore-like beard and his attempts to speak in Bengali do not seem to be working as effectively as the BJP would have believed. No wonder the Prime Minister has now fallen back on the threat of terrorism, Pulwama and the Balakot air strike.

It will be foolish to write off the BJP and the Prime Minister because of their passion to contest and win elections. While there is a big question mark on their record of governance and though the Prime Minister thankfully does not mention the ‘Gujarat Model’ in his speeches any longer, their hunger to win cannot be questioned. What they may have up their sleeves and what they will resort to in the coming weeks is what should worry people in Bengal.

Narendra Modi is one of those rare politicians who can rouse the rabble and conjures enemies to strike terror in the mind of voters. Once the fear of an imaginary enemy sinks into the voters’ mind, he turns himself into their saviour (ang rakshak) slaying the ‘enemy of the masses’ who get mesmerised at his perceived immense god like shakti and vote for ‘the saviour’, forgetting their daily woes of price-rise, joblessness, income loss and general hardship.

This trick has been used in successive elections, beginning with Muslims in Gujarat, and the same trick could again be used in Bengal. When the going was seen to be tough ahead of the 2019 general election, Pulwama terror attack and the Balakot air strike in Pakistan came to his rescue. Two years after the terror attack, there are unanswered questions on intelligence failure that the Government is reluctant to answer. But will these time-tested ploys work again in Bengal?

Mamata Banerjee has turned BJP’s usual identity politics upside down. Responding to BJP’s Hindu vs Muslim narrative, she has made it into a Bengalis vs outsiders issue, a question of Bengali ‘asmita’ as opposed to Gujarati ‘asmita’ that Modi has successfully played upon in his home state. Liberal Bengali ethos is under attack by an alien culture is what Mamata Banerjee has successfully projected.

Bengal and Kolkata have always distanced themselves from Delhi, viewing ‘North Indian politics’ with suspicion. BJP and Modi tapped into this alienation and used it to their advantage. But the ploy has now turned against themselves, it would seem, and they are now being painted as the new villains and marauders.

The Bengali’s contempt for money and material wellbeing is also being tapped by Mamata, who is increasingly pointing to the money and muscle power of the BJP as proof that a class of traders and mercenaries are out to capture Bengal.

BJP’s avowed war cry Jai Shri Ram has been met in Bengal by cries of Jai Siya Ram, Jai Ma Kaali and Jai Ma Durga. Bengali pride has been invoked by pointing out how Nobel Laureate Amartya Sen has been humiliated and ridiculed by the Modi Government and the BJP. While BJP gloats at Trinamool defectors deserting the sinking ship, Mamata calls them traitors and Mir Jafars and paints Amit Shah as the unscrupulous broker. She has also pushed the BJP on the backfoot by casting doubts on the independence of the Election Commission of India. The ECI has not helped its cause by appearing to be partisan.

Rallying sub-Bengali nationalism, women and minorities to her side, she has taken the battle into BJP ranks. Pointing out that record of her party’s governance in Bengal has been better than Modi’s in BJP, she has blunted the edge of the attack on her government. Reeling out the central government’s own statistics, she has been able to convey how Bengal has performed better than Gujarat on several development indices.

It certainly promises to be a battle royal. And observers are keeping their fingers crossed. BJP knows that a setback in Bengal will be a turning point in national politics. It can therefore be trusted to make the election ‘costly’ in more than one way.

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Published: 21 Mar 2021, 1:28 PM