Opinion

Wonder Woman As The Masked Crusader

BJP wants to restrict potential challenger Mamata to the state and away from the Centre, as a unified Opposition begins to coalesce

Wonder Woman As The Masked Crusader
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Mamta Banerjee did not get even a minute to rejoice her party’s thumping victory by destroying the myth of Narendra Modi and Amit Shah’s invincibility. It was a high-voltage battle of nerves, fought over two months—one woman alone, with more than a little help from Prashant Kishor’s organisation­—against the might of the party ruling at the Centre, which had so far exhibited nearly unchallenged authority across the country.

“What did the BJP not do to defeat Mamata in Bengal?.... But Mamata made Modi-Shah bite the dust.… The wounded tigress has given a new direction to politics of the country,” said an editorial in the May 3 edition of Saamana, the mouthpiece of Shiv Sena that is ruling Maharashtra in coalition with the Congress and Sharad Pawar’s Nationalist Congress Party (NCP).

These eulogising comments do not come as a surprise, not only because Saamana’s editor Sanjay Raut—a close confidante of Sena chief Uddhav Thackeray—had already been heaping praises on Banerjee, but also because the majority of India’s opposition ­parties were wishing for Banerjee’s victory and willing to play their part, as ­desired by the TMC.

Shiv Sena, NCP, Bihar’s Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) and Jharkhand’s ­ruling Jharkhand Mukti Morcha (JMM) usually put up candidates in some seats in the state, though with little eff­ect. They chose not to field any this time. The RJD’s Tejashwi Yadav campaigned for the TMC in seats with substantial Bihar-origin voters. Jharkhand CM Hemant Soren ­campaigned in some tribal-dominated seats bordering Jharkhand. Samajwadi Party sent Kiranmay Nanda and Jaya Bachchan, two of the party’s leaders with a background in Bengal, to ­campaign for the TMC in some seats.

Even though the Congress was ­challenging the TMC in alliance with the Left, Rahul Gandhi came to ­campaign only once and addressed two rallies in north Bengal—none of them in Bengal’s Muslim heartland-­cum-Congress’s final bastions—Malda and Murshidabad, both of which the TMC eventually swept.

Though she prevailed, she got hardly a night’s peaceful sleep, as the ­situation unfolded rapidly in the state since she took oath as chief minister for the third time on May 5.

The very next day, a four-member team from the home ministry, which is headed by Amit Shah, landed in Bengal to inquire into incidents of political vio­lence allegedly perpetrated by the TMC on supporters of opposition ­parties. A day later, governor Jagdeep Dhankhar, known as one of the TMC government’s harshest critics, ­sanctioned the CBI’s plea to file chargesheets against two newly sworn-in ministers, who were accused in the Narada sting operation case, which took place before the 2016 ­assembly elections.

There is, however, no news of the CBI getting such approval for Suvendu Adhikary and Mukul Roy, who too were accused in the Narada cash-for-favour case, but are now with the BJP. Adhikary is the newly elected leader of the Opposition in the assembly, and Roy is a BJP national vice president.

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A lawyer who worked for the CBI said, req­uesting anonymity, that since both were MPs when the alleged scam ­happened, sanction will have to come from the Speaker of Lok Sabha and the Chairman of Rajya Sabha, for Adhikary and Roy, res­pectively. Whether the CBI will seek or get approval to file chargesheets against two of the BJP’s top leaders in Bengal is something the state waits to see with curiosity.

Political observers point out an ­interesting feature in the CBI’s move—while assembly speaker Biman Banerjee said he never received a similar request from the CBI in the past five years, the request was placed ­before the governor when the new government was yet to be sworn in, giving him the right to sanction the plea.

“The BJP has started a dirty war, shamelessly using all central agencies to destabilise the Mamata Banerjee government that has just received a massive mandate from the people of the state,” says TMC Lok Sabha MP Kalyan Banerjee.

It has also been decided by the BJP leadership that 75 MLAs of the party’s alliance, including one from All Jharkhand Students’ Union and one Gorkha National Liberation Front ­candidate who won on a BJP ticket, will get security from central forces—a decision to which no parallel can be found in any other state, according to senior political observers.  Regarding the home ministry team’s visit, the TMC’s national spokesperson and Rajya Sabha leader Derek O’Brien ref­used to comment. “Not ­commenting on the BJP’s attempts to ­divert ­narratives,” he said.  By narratives, O’Brien most likely means the COVID-19 situation in the country, as his Twitter handle reflects. The party has been saying that ­handling Covid was the priority of the state government.  

Their focus is understandable, as the Centre is facing flak from different ­corners, including international media, for mismanagement and lack of preparedness to tackle the second wave of the pandemic. The TMC does not want to give the BJP any breather on this issue. The battle for 2024 has started and no one wants to lag behind. For both camps, Lok Sabha elections in the state has special significance. For the BJP, ret­aining its 2014 tally in Bengal is ­important for returning to power at the Centre. For the TMC, toppling the government at the Centre in 2024 is the best way to secure a fourth term in the state in 2026.

Unsurprisingly, the TMC, too, has taken some quick steps. Two days after Banerjee was sworn in, the TMC’s Cooch Behar district president Partha Pratim Roy convinced the family of Ananda Barman, who died in firing by alleged TMC supporters at Sitalkuchui area during polling on April 10, to ­accept a job offered by the state ­government. Apart from Barman, four others were killed that day—all of them TMC supporters—in firing by central forces. Banerjee had promised jobs to all five, but Barman’s family had ­initially rej­ected the offer.

A day after Roy’s success, Banerjee announced compensation for families of 16 persons, supporters of both the TMC and the BJP, who died in political clashes between May 2 and May 6.

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Saffron Under Seige

BJP leaders during a demonstration against post-poll violence in Bengal..

“This was done with two objectives — to take the wind out of the BJP’s ­campaign on post-poll violence, and to portray Mamata Banerjee as the chief minister of all, inc­luding supporters of the Opposition,” says a minister who got a third term in her ministry.

Mamata promptly wrote to the prime minister, urging him to fulfill his poll promise of paying Rs 18,000 to farmers in the state who are eligible for the PM Kisan Samman Nidhi—something Modi had said farmers will get as soon as the obs­tacle called Didi was ­removed. She wrote a second letter to Modi, repeating her demand for ­universal free vaccination. Her party even moved a petition in the Supreme Court demanding free nat­ionwide ­vaccination for all. If things go according to the TMC’s plan, Mamata will keep her focus on the state, while the likes of O’Brien, TMC’s Lok Sabha leader Sudip Bandyopadhyay and Lok Sabha MP Mahua Moitra would coordinate with Opposition parties for national-scale programmes, under guidance from Abhishek Banerjee, Mamata’s nephew and heir-apparent.

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Sabyasachi Basu Ray Chaudhury, a professor of political science at Rabindra Bharati University in Calcutta, says the battle for 2024 has already started because the BJP was sensing a threat from Mamata, not only with her prospective role in a prospective Opposition alliance, but also for getting enough seats from West Bengal in the next Lok Sabha elections.   

“The BJP played a very high-stakes game in Bengal, where the PM, home minister, several Cabinet ministers and CMs of other BJP-ruled states lite­rally became daily passengers. Having defea­ted the BJP res­oundingly despite all these, Mamata has increased her stature among leaders of national opposi­tion parties. So, the BJP is trying to keep her under pressure and busy with Bengal, to draw her focus away from national politics,” says Basu Ray Chaudhury.

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A senior BJP leader of the state, who did not want to be identified, cites the assembly election analysis behind the Centre’s proactive role in Bengal soon after the elections. Going by poll data, the TMC was leading in 33 of the state’s 42 Lok Sabha seats, while the BJP was leading in only nine—two of them with thin margins. In 2019, the BJP got 18 seats from the state. Retain­ing their Lok Sabha tally from Bengal was “abs­olutely necessary” for it to return to power at the Centre in 2024, he says.

“After their massive victory, there is a possibility that the TMC will try to poach our MLAs and other leaders to weaken the state unit ahead of Lok Sabha elections. Hence, the central leadership is very sensitive about the Bengal situation,” he says.

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The TMC also has its goal clear. A senior Rajya Sabha leader, unwilling to be identified, says the party knows it will be “game over” for the BJP in the 2026 ass­embly elections if the government at the Centre falls in 2024.

“Defeating Modi’s government in 2024 is the best way to keep the BJP out of the race in the 2026 state elections,” the MP says.

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