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West Bengal: Didi on warpath

Thursday, February 07, 2019
By Bharatkumar Raut

The West Bengal Strong woman Chief Minister Mamata Bannerji apparently has now decided to be tough with the Centre and the Bharatiya Janata Party in general and Prime Minister Narendra Modi in particular. The fact that the West Bengal Government not only prevented but detained CBI officers to probe in Kolkata has made it amply clear that Didi is now on a war-path with the Centre. She herself sat on a 'Dharna' agitation for what she described her fight to protect 'federalism of the Union.'

Didi's new Avatar surely has reasons those lead you to the forthcoming Lok Sabha elections. Didi has thrown her hat into the ring for the leadership and her every move is aimed at fulfilling her ambition. Last month, her state witnessed an enormous rally. Leaders from 23 political parties from various states took the stage at Kolkata’s Brigade Parade Grounds, led by Didi. It was a show of strength against the BJP-led government at the Centre. On Saturday, Prime Minister Narendra Modi launched the election campaign in West Bengal. West Bengal has traditionally been a Left-leaning state. When BJP president Amit Shah chose Naxalbari, home of the Naxal movement, as the starting point of his nationwide tour in April 2017, Left leaders saw it as a statement by the BJP-RSS combine against Left and extreme-Left ideology. This was the narrative in Tripura too, where the BJP dislodged a 25-year-old Left government last year.

Right Vs Left
Right versus Left aside, the size of West Bengal and the strength of the TMC too, are important. The party is often described as a possible kingmaker in the Lok Sabha elections. West Bengal has 42 seats, behind only Uttar Pradesh (80) and Maharashtra (48), which could determine post-poll government formation. Even in the 2014 elections that were marked by a huge mandate for Narendra Modi, the TMC won 34 of these 42 seats, conceding only Darjeeling and Asansol to the BJP. If it does well in 2019, all eyes will be on whether the party would pitch Mamata as a possible prime ministerial candidate in a coalition.

By April 2017, the RSS-BJP combine had announced 175 Ram Navami celebrations across districts. Over the next two years, the state witnessed unprecedented “armed processions’’ for Ram Navami. These resulted in the TMC taking out its own Ram Navami processions. Both parties later announced celebrations on Hanuman Jayanti, also unprecedented in Bengal. Some of the Ram Navami processions were marked by communal clashes — Hooghly in 2017, Ranigunj and Asansol and Purulia in 2018. There also were other violent clashes, including in Dhulagarh and Uluberia (Howrah) in December-January 2016-17; the BJP eventually displaced the CPM as the main opposition in last year’s Uluberia bypoll.

So, is the battle really between the Trinamool and the BJP? That is the way it is being viewed, although both the CPM and the Congress continue to be players. Critics  of the TMC say the tide is turning against the party after the violent panchayat polls in May 2018, in which the party won 34% of the seats uncontested, amid allegations that it did not allow opposition candidates to contest or voters to vote. Critics say this loss of image will turn TMC voters towards the BJP, and that factionalism too will drag the ruling party down. Other observers, however, say it remains to be seen whether the votes gained by the BJP will translate into a significant number of seats, and whether the votes lost by the TMC will go mostly to the BJP or will also be shared by the Left Front and Congress. Its immediate plank appears to be the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill, hoping that it will attract the votes of Bengali Hindu immigrants from Bangladesh with the prospect of easy citizenship. Before Modi’s Thakurbari rally, Amit Shah had announced that the Bill would be a major poll issue in Bengal. Analysts say it is too early, however, to guess how much traction the Bill will gain in the state.

Didi retains mass appeal
Besides, the BJP is up against the state ruling party that will count several factors in its favour. Didi retains much of her mass appeal, even after the perceived decline in popularity following the Panchayat polls. Her political narrative over the last few years has been about targeting the Centre and advocating federalism. Analysts believe that just as Jyoti Basu benefited from a fractured opposition during the Left Front years, so will Didi consolidated strongly after its first two terms, with 252 out of 294 Assembly seats; Mamata is now in her second term. And while the Congress enjoys Muslim support in certain districts, the TMC is still confident of winning  of this segment (30% of the population) by pitching itself as a counter to the BJP. The party has also consolidated the voter base of the poor, handing out benefits including rice at Rs 2 per kg, and free bicycles for schoolchildren.

In short, not only Didi but the state of West Bengal has now started occupying significant spot in the East India politics. The ongoing show-down between Didi and the Centre is just a glimpse.

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