Deciphering Didi

Debaashish Bhattacharya | Updated on March 13, 2020 Published on March 13, 2020

Two to tango: Is Mamata Banerjee “softening” vis-a-vis the BJP, or is it all just about federalism?   -  SUSHIL KUMAR VERMA

After years of locking horns with Modi-Shah, Mamata Banerjee broke bread with them recently, prompting comparisons with the politics of her contemporaries Arvind Kejriwal and Naveen Patnaik

It was a defining moment, almost a sign of things to come. After all, Mamata Banerjee has been among the staunchest — and vocal — critics of the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA). But when it came to the crunch — the voting for the CAA Bill in the Lok Sabha on December 10, 2019 — eight of the 22 Trinamool Congress Members of Parliament were absent.

The Bill sailed through the BJP-dominated Lok Sabha, with 311 MPs voting for and 80 against it. The Trinamool boss absolved herself and her MPs of any blame. At a “No CAA and No NPR (National Register of Citizens)” rally organised by her party in Kolkata not long after, the West Bengal chief minister declared the Bill had been passed in Parliament “in absolute secrecy” without MPs being informed ahead of time. So, she argued, some MPs had failed to make it to the house that day.

Clearly, few were convinced, with Bengal CPI(M) and Congress leaders slamming the absence of Trinamool MPs as “proof” of Banerjee’s “double standards” in politics.

But if the Lok Sabha episode signalled anything, it is this: A “softening” of Banerjee’s hard-line position when it comes to the BJP government at the Centre. Or a “rethink”, as political observer Maidul Islam of the Centre for Studies in Social Sciences Calcutta (CSSSC) puts it.

Thaw time: The Bengal CM met Prime Minister Narendra Modi one-on-one during his recent Kolkata visit   -  PTI


To be sure, the Bengal CM has been at loggerheads with Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his closest aide, Amit Shah, the former BJP president and now Union home minister, right from the time the BJP came to power in 2014.

As a number of senior Trinamool and Bengal government functionaries were arrested one after another by the CBI and enforcement directorate in chit fund scams in the last few years, Banerjee — once a minister in the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government at the Centre — repeatedly accused Modi and Shah of harbouring a “political vendetta” against her and her party and government.

With Banerjee and the Modi-Shah duo railing relentlessly against each other, the relationship between the state and Centre reached an all-time low. The Bengal CM refused to attend Niti Ayog meetings chaired by the prime minister last year. She also pulled Bengal out of the Ayushman Bharat health scheme, a Modi pet project.

With the BJP steadily making inroads into Trinamool bastions, BJP and Trinamool workers are literally at each other’s throats, attacking and assaulting each other in towns and villages of Bengal. The BJP’s vote share jumped from 17 per cent in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections to a whopping 40 per cent in 2019, with the party bagging 18 of the 42 Lok Sabha seats against Trinamool’s 22 in Bengal.

The Kejriwal approach

But the “shift” in her approach is becoming increasingly apparent. She is clearly trying to do an Arvind Kejriwal. Or even a Naveen Patnaik.

The Delhi chief minister had refrained from attacking Modi or Shah in the run-up to the recent Assembly elections and still won decisively on the strength of his performance. Similarly, the Odisha chief minister, once part of the NDA, maintains a “friendly” relationship with the Modi government at the Centre while defeating the BJP in successive state elections.

In a departure from her earlier rigid position, the Bengal CM met the prime minister one-on-one at Raj Bhavan during his two-day visit to Kolkata on January 11. She described the meeting as “a courtesy and a constitutional responsibility”.

In the face of mounting criticism of her “political flipflop”, Trinamool struck back, saying it was “a government-to-government affair”. It said the party “did not need certificate from anyone” regarding the anti-CAA and anti-NRC movement, which it claimed to have started in the country.

A strong proponent of Opposition unity before the 2019 general elections, the Trinamool chief drew flak from the Left and Congress when she stayed away from an Opposition meeting called by Congress president Sonia Gandhi in Delhi on January 13 to discuss a nationwide movement against the CAA and NRC.

Political eyebrows were raised again when Banerjee met Shah at an eastern zonal council meeting in Bhubaneswar on February 28. She had lunch with Shah too. She said she ate nothing except raita but was at the lunch “in honour of” Shah and Odisha CM Patnaik, the host.

Banerjee said she had not raised the CAA or NRC with Shah since they were not part of the agenda. The council meeting took place in the shadow of the Delhi riots, where local BJP leaders were accused of fomenting trouble and the Delhi police under the Union home ministry of inaction.

“She stands exposed today. People are slowing realising that all her so-called fights against the CAA and NRC are nothing but attempts to garner minority votes,” says CPI(M) legislator Sujan Chakraborty.

Concurring with this, CPI(M) Politburo member Mohammad Salim says there is a “tacit understanding” between Banerjee and Modi. Stating that the BJP government is “letting loose the CBI, ED and income tax” authorities to cow down the Opposition, Salim accuses the Bengal CM of “simply trying to protect herself, her family and party leaders accused of looting public money in Sharada [chit fund] and Narada [bribery sting operation] scams” by acquiescing to the PM and HM.

A state Congress leader says the Trinamool chief got “so unnerved” by the arrest of former Union home and finance minister P Chidambaram, who spent nearly 105 days in Tihar jail before being freed on bail on December 4 last year, that “she is now trying to mend fences” with the top two BJP men.

The art of realpolitik

But then, things are often not what they seem. Political analyst Maidul Islam says Trinamool was “jolted” by the BJP’s success in Bengal in 2019, prompting it to rethink its ways, especially on governance. After all, the Bengal CM will have to deal with Modi and Shah for the next five years or so if she wins the next.

“They realised that there has to be a cooperative approach in governance. You can’t look at everything from the prism of political mobilisation only,” says Islam, who teaches political science at CSSSC. “But we should not read too much into it. Even former Marxist chief minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee used to meet BJP leader LK Advani when he (Advani) was Union home minister.”

Trinamool insiders say the state is saddled with mounting loans and repayment burdens — which they blame on the financial legacy left behind by the previous 34-year-long Left regime — and the CM has pressing financial compulsions to “stay in touch” with the Centre to recover its dues. In fact, Banerjee says she has repeatedly urged both Modi and Shah, whenever she met them in recent times, to clear the dues of nearly ₹38,000 crore on different counts, including cyclone Bulbul, which wrecked parts of the state.

“Mamata Banerjee is doing the right thing. What’s wrong with a chief minister meeting the prime minister and home minister? This is what federalism is all about,” senior Trinamool leader and state power minister Sovandeb Chattopadhyay says. He adds that the job of a CM is to run the state and “cooperating with the Centre is absolutely necessary”.

He says the Centre is deliberately depriving Bengal of its financial dues to “discredit” the state government in the eyes of the common people. “It is being done in a planned manner. They know common people won’t understand all these financial intricacies and will blame the state government for not doing enough for them,” Chattopadhyay says.

On the political front, too, Banerjee’s party, fearful of losing further ground to the BJP in the 2021 Assembly elections, is doing what analyst Islam calls “a balancing act”. If she once drew flak for giving stipends to Islamic clerics (imams) and was accused of minority appeasements, Trinamool-controlled Kolkata municipal corporations now pay purohits (Hindu Brahmins) at seven crematoriums ₹380 per cremation, for the last rites.

The party, like the BJP, has also started observing Ram Navami in a big way in the state. Last September, the Bengal CM increased doles for Durga puja committees, which she had set up a year earlier, from ₹10,000 to ₹25,000 each. This came at a cost of ₹70 crore to the state exchequer. Pujas organised by women were paid ₹5,000 more. Banerjee had also declared a 25 per cent discount on the electricity bills of the puja pandals.

“We don’t beg from anyone and nor do we need pity from anyone. But I won’t let anyone politicise our Durga puja,” she said in a veiled attack on the BJP attempt to corner a few well-known pujas.

Clearly, Mamata Banerjee is firing on all cylinders, with the Assembly elections barely a year away. Whether she successfully does a Kejriwal or Patnaik, only the results will tell.

Debaashish Bhattacharya is a journalist based in Kolkata

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Published on March 13, 2020
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