Bengal is slated to witness two high-voltage election rallies on Wednesday as Prime Minister Narendra Modi is scheduled to address a gathering in Siliguri and then move to the historic Brigade Parade Ground, seeking votes for the BJP, while Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee will campaign in Dinhata of Cooch Behar for her Trinamool (no longer) Congress.
The anticipation for the rallies is palpable in the atmosphere. In 2014, the BJP won two seats from the State. Babul Supriyo has been the MP from Asansol and Surender Singh Ahluwalia supported by Gorkha Janmukti Morcha (Bimal Gurung faction) won from Darjeeling Centre.
Three-corner fight in Bengal
But the situation has changed a lot in the past five years. While the mood in other States is for or against the BJP, in West Bengal, Modi is still a novelty, with curiosity and gossip more than facts surrounding his persona in the public psyche.
The Left and the Congress have failed to strike an alliance in the State. As a result, the BJP has become the main force against the Trinamool.
BJP cadre at the 6 Muralidhar Sen Lane office see a possibility of better results from north Bengal that is more acquainted with the scourge of Bangladeshi infiltration. This is most probably why the local leaders of the party suggested to Prime Minister Modi that he begin the campaign in the State from this region.
In 2014, when the BJP was not threatening to topple the Bengal government, Modi gave an ambiguous message to the people of the State in his election rallies. He said Mamata in Bengal and Modi at the Centre was the best deal for the State. The Trinamool, however, did not reciprocate with as much warmth. In the past five years, with the CPI(M) decimated, the Bengal chief minister perceives the BJP as the principal threat to her power.
Repeating folly of Congress (Indira)’s Bengal policy
It is believed that a year before the previous Assembly election in Bengal, the BJP had entered a tacit understanding with the Trinamool for support to some crucial bills in the Rajya Sabha (as the party ruling at the Centre did with the AIADMK as well). The other end of the quid pro quo involved Modi making the CBI and ED go soft or slow on the investigations into Ponzi schemes such as Saradha and Rose Valley and exposes such as the Narada sting operation. As warned by Bengal experts, the Trinamool was not impressed just as Jyoti Basu wasn’t when Indira Gandhi did not try to revive the Congress in the State, eyeing the communist support to her shaky government at the Centre.
Now that the deal has collapsed, the gloves are off on both the corners of the ring. A real duel is on.
Banerjee, in the meantime, tried to emerge as the axis of the opposition with her ‘United India’ rally in January. A mahagathbandhan, however, has hardly taken shape as even Mamata herself is not ready to leave any room for the dying Congress in Bengal. The oldest party of the country has not got favour from the SP-BSP-RLD alliance in Uttar Pradesh either. This is threatening the opposition of a Modi victory again as those against him make a house divided.
Mamata both scary and scared
It was observed in the January rally of the opposition in Kolkata, which received a tremendous response from the supporters of the local government, that those tentatively in support of Modi — and those drifting away with the belief that the Prime Minister has not served their constituency in the last five years — turned around in the support of the BJP, scared by the sheer probability of a rag-tag coalition government.
In between, Trinamool showed how jittery it was about the rise of the popularity of BJP by trying to block the passage of Amit Shah and Yogi Adityanath to Bengal. In both Malda and Purulia, the maximum the local ruling party could manage was make itself an object of ridicule.
While the BJP still cannot quite fathom the Bengali society — evident, for example, in its thrust upon Ram Navami in the land of Goddess Durga — it is getting many things right in its strategy for the State. Purulia, a district in Bengal where the Bihari influence is arguably the strongest, was a good choice for Yogi as the venue for his rally. Malda, where Hindus are a scared and cornered minority, was a good choice for Shah.
These choices are judicious also for the reason that the dying Congress still has a fighting chance in Malda (as much as in Raiganj) in north Bengal. A three-cornered fight may help the BJP in these places.
But as far as her own home State is concerned, Mamata will begin where Modi ends. The grassroot leaders’ mobilization is terrific for the Dinhata rally of the TMC. Attacking everything central from the CBI to the RBI, Mamata has coined the slogan “biyallishe 42”, meaning “42 out of 42”. The Trinamool is targeting 100% seats in Bengal the way Modi’s Gujarat used to target all the seats in his State.
BJP and Trinamool Congress will launch their respective Lok Sabha campaigns in West Bengal with PM Modi and Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee addressing rallies in Siliguri and Dinhata, both in North Bengal.https://t.co/qnHndAM21N
— TIMES NOW (@TimesNow) April 3, 2019
As Sirf News has pointed out earlier, it is no mean task to project Mamata as an anti-Hindu leader. Handling atheist communists was much easier. The moment she senses she has tilted too much towards the Muslims, disturbing an average Hindu Bengali, she tilts to the other side and questions the BJP how she could be accused of favouring just one community. Her antics — like those of Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal who comes across as her Ekalavya-like pupil — may appear as a burlesque fancy dress contest to neutral observers, but it keeps her constituency intact.
The Election Commission is keenly following the rallies of both the sides today with the apprehension of violations of the model code of conduct. According to the commission, the police administration prepared a blueprint in advance on the order of the Commission for any unpleasant situation.
BJP despite everything
The BJP, bereft of a tall leader or two in Bengal, may be struggling even to organise a rally at the Brigade Parade Ground, which even the CPI(M) at the peak of its popularity dared to do only when Basu would be the chief speaker. The ground has a capacity of over two lakh people. When a rally by Modi attracts a crowd of about 50,000, the empty spaces send a negative message to the BJP’s potential voters. This morning, even as the Prime Minister was all set to arrive from Siliguri, the organisers were seen struggling with the preparation of the stage, loudspeakers, screens and sitting arrangements.
Yet, sick and tired of the pro-Muslim rule — the opposition may call it an unimportant issue to its own peril — the BJP stands to gain massive support in all pockets where bhadraloks don’t decide the narrative. Don’t be surprised if the saffron party gives the grassroots party as severe a jolt as Rajiv Gandhi did to the CPI(M) in the Lok Sabha election that followed Indira Gandhi’s assassination.
All eyes are now on the EC’s ability to deploy the CRPF and other paramilitary forces in sensitive areas. Banerjee will try her best to keep the central security forces confined to the barracks as Lalu Prasad Yadav used to do in Bihar. If the elections to the 42 constituencies in Bengal are free and fair, we will know on 23 May that the BJP’s Bengal chapter has begun.