To compare Mamata Banerjee with her Odisha counterpart Naveen Patnaik is like attempting to distinguish chalk from cheese, though such an attempt has been happening since Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s post-cyclone meeting with the West Bengal chief minister ended in a fiasco on Friday.
Ever since Mamata skipped a planned meeting at Kalaikunda airbase with the Prime Minister, who visited West Bengal and Odisha to take stock of the damage done by Cyclone Yaas, BJP politicians and the Twitterati with a particular political bent of mind have been extremely harsh on the chief minister. That the PM had an extremely ‘cordial and civil’ meeting with the Odisha chief minister on the same day was cited to condemn Mamata.
“It’s a new low,” said Union home minister Amit Shah. Ministers from Rajnath Singh to Dharmendra Pradhan also criticised her heavily while some indulged in below-the-belt comments. Suhel Seth, a businessman and commentator with an opinion on almost anything, was caustic. “You need to remember refinement and class bring added value. As does a decent education and a high level of reading…” he tweeted referring to Naveen’s trademark civility that was again on display during the Prime Minister’s brief visit. But that the compliment was also a veiled barb on someone else with a less-privileged background and different temperament was not lost.
For all those commenting on the manner in which @Naveen_Odisha handles things: you need to remember refinement and class bring added value. As does a decent education and a high level of reading. Hence he is different…— SUHEL SETH (@Suhelseth) May 28, 2021
Whether Mamata was right in doing what she did is a matter of debate. Perhaps she could have shown more tact and attended the meeting irrespective of her intense displeasure over what she believes are constant and deliberate provocations by the Centre. But Mamata is mercurial and she chose to snub Modi in her way. She kept the Prime Minister, along with the state governor and two central ministers, waiting. Then she walked in with her chief secretary, handed over a list of demands to the Prime Minister and exited, leaving Modi to conduct the meeting. Photographs of the two meetings the Prime Minister held in Bengal and Odisha told the contrasting stories. Pictures of the Bengal meeting showed chairs on one side of the venue empty. In Odisha, the venue was full with the chief minister and other state officials in attendance.
Now, the question is why did the chief ministers of two neighbouring states hit by the same cyclone react differently to the PM’s visit for the purpose of determining damages and extending help in rebuilding? Well, the answer lies not just in the different personalities that Mamata and Naveen are, but also in the sharply different political realities of their respective states. No less important, the two are looking at different prospects for themselves. Aggressively challenged by the BJP, Mamata is fighting to hold on to her chair and secure her political future. In contrast, Naveen—currently the country’s longest-serving chief minister who has been in the position since 2000—has far less at stake for himself. In his seventies and not in perfect health, he is seeking to secure his legacy, and niceties are perfectly in order in his scheme of things.
Had a very productive review meeting in Bhubaneswar. We will continue working together to strengthen disaster management capabilities, an area where Odisha has made commendable strides. https://t.co/1mcAxub4nE— Narendra Modi (@narendramodi) May 29, 2021
But more than their contrasting personal traits and individual stakes, it is the political realities of the two states that are the reason behind Mamata and Naveen reacting differently. For example, Naveen won the 2019 re-election handsomely, defeating a resurgent BJP in the state squarely. It is not that the BJP did not go all out against him. But having bitten the dust at the polls, the saffron party has gone virtually quiet in Odisha. But for perfunctory statements and a few odd protest rallies, the BJP has left Naveen undisturbed. It is a tacit admission that the party cannot match Naveen in a state where polarisation is difficult because of its miniscule Muslim population.
It has, however, been an entirely different story in Bengal. Having lost the elections—securing a disappointing 77 against the projected tally of more than 200—the party has not given Mamata a respite even for a day. As soon as the results were announced, the party launched a high-decibel campaign against political violence that they claimed was targeted against their workers. The accusation though was only partly true. While more BJP workers were possibly killed in the violence, supporters of Mamata’s Trinamool Congress too were targeted in places. The BJP was also found to be giving the violence a communal spin by making specious claims.
For that matter, the BJP has not let the heat on Mamata ease at all. It has launched one offensive after the other, seeking to unsettle and provoke the state government. The arrest of two Bengal ministers and a legislator for their alleged involvement in the cash-for-favour Narada sting was no less a provocation, particularly when the central agency did not show similar alacrity in going after BJP politicians allegedly involved in the bribery scam. The most prominent of course is Suvendhu Adhikari, once Mamata’s trusted aide who switched sides, defeated the chief minister in Nandigram, and is now the leader of the Opposition in the assembly. He too was seen accepting cash, but has not yet found himself behind the bars.
That the BJP is attempting to roil Mamata is evident. And she was more than roiled when she was told that the same Suvendhu would be present at the meeting with the Prime Minister as the leader of the Opposition. The Opposition leader’s participation in such meetings is unusual. When Modi came visiting West Bengal last year following Cyclone Amphan, he held a similar meeting, but the then leader of Opposition, Abdul Mannan, was not invited. As a matter of fact, Modi went to Gujarat last week in the wake of Cyclone Tauktae, but the state’s leader of Opposition, Paresh Dhanani, was not to be seen. More significantly, when Modi held a similar meeting with Naveen on Friday, Odisha’s leader of Opposition, Pradipta Nayak—incidentally from the BJP—was absent. Officials, however, explained that Nayak was recovering from Covid and so couldn’t attend.
Still, the presence of the leader of Opposition at such meetings is rather unusual, and Mamata cannot be entirely faulted to suspect a plot. That the Centre recalled the West Bengal chief secretary Alapan Bandyopadhyay hours after the Modi-Mamata meeting fiasco will heighten her suspicion. As it is, the political slugfest that she is engaged in with the BJP has long degenerated into a personal fight. That the Prime Minister during his campaign had repeatedly resorted to taunts by calling her “Didi-O-Didi” was further proof of the lack of mutual respect. Mamata had responded in kind, calling her rivals names, including Amit Shah, as Hodolkutkut (rolly polly).
Soft-spoken and a man of few words, Naveen has never shot off his mouth in a similar manner. He has been spared by opponents of savage attacks too. When the BJP is working overtime to deride Rahul Gandhi as a ‘Pappu’ and lower his public standing, the party has never attempted a similar trick on Naveen—the original Pappu. Naveen’s nickname is Pappu and his close friends—very few now—call him so. The BJP has also desisted from making fun of Naveen by calling him Chhamu (king) that many Odias address the chief minister as in private.
There is an explanation for Mamata’s volatile reactions to the BJP’s constant needling. Unlike Naveen who grew up in a rarefied social circle and had his political position almost served on a platter because of his family lineage, Mamata had to struggle hard to achieve whatever she has. From a lower-middle-class background and minus a convent education, she is a street-fighter who battled entrenched Communists and braved murderous attacks to excel. Her struggle has been infinitely more intense and fierce than that of Naveen. And this explains why she would guard her turf against the marauding BJP more zealously. Naveen’s trademark niceties may mean nothing to her.