Amit Shah’s virtual rally sets the tone for Assembly elections in Bengal

Pratim Ranjan Bose Kolkata. June 14 | Updated on June 14, 2020 Published on June 14, 2020

File photo of Union Home Minister and senior BJP leader Amit Shah during 'West Bangal Jan Samvad' virtual rally, at party headquarters in New Delhi   -  PTI

Aroop Biswas, a key minister in the Mamata Banerjee cabinet in West Bengal, is better known for his influence over the Bengali reel world.

On June 9, immediately after the Union Home Minister, Amit Shah, addressed BJP’s virtual rally for West Bengal, Biswas shrugged off the saffron party’s claim that it will win the 2021 elections and come to power. “It will remain a virtual force,” he reportedly told the media from the party office.

His leaders, starting with Banerjee, however, didn’t look half as confident. Between June 9 and 12, Trinamool came out at least four times to counter Shah. Party general secretary Partha Chatterjee met the press twice. But the responses were either muted or lacked the usual aggression.

In his speech, Shah took a broad swipe at the status of governance in West Bengal, starting with political violence, allegations of rampant corruption to preventing implementation of Central welfare schemes for narrow political gains.

West Bengal’s denial to implement health insurance for the poor (Ayushman Bharat) and ₹6,000 income support to farmers (PM-Kisan), found special reference. “You send us the names of farmers (for PM-Kisan) on Saturday, the money will reach them on Monday,” he said.

The allegations of corruption were not only hard-hitting but also verged on the personal. In an oblique reference to Mamata’s nephew (‘Bhaipo’ in Bengali) and Trinamool MP, Abhishek Banerjee, Shah mentioned “Bhaipo gate”.

On the backfoot

Yet, Banerjee didn’t come out with her signature counter-attack. On the contrary, she was visibly on the backfoot on Shah’s allegation that West Bengal didn’t show adequate interest vis-à-vis other States in ensuring return of the migrant Bengali labourers.

Shah reminded that Banerjee compared “Shramik Special” trains with “corona express”. Mamata denied the allegation. “I merely conveyed the public perception,” the Chief Minister said on June 10, giving rise to fresh controversy. The social media was flooded with video footage of her previous statement.

The Trinamool camp blamed Shah for the political rally at a time when the State was hit by twin disasters — Covid-19 and cyclone Amphan.

However, the rejoinder didn’t cut much ice as the State government itself was accused of using the health emergency for political advantage. Self-quarantine notices were served on BJP MPs at the slightest pretext, preventing them even from distributing relief.

The allegation was validated by a recent order by Calcutta High Court allowing Sukanta Mazumdar, MP of Alipurduar, to distribute relief material in his constituency. A similar situation recurred with regard to cyclone Amphan.

Major gain

According to official BJP sources, nearly two crore people tuned into the programme. “CN News”, a smaller Bengali channel, quoted Amazon analytics to report 22 lakh traffic on their web and social platforms, during the rally on June 9.

Beyond the number game, the rally was a major opportunity for BJP to revitalise its weak ground organisation.

According to observers, expenditure was minimal, when compared to any major rally that costs (including costs from preparatory stages) ₹20-25 crore, in West Bengal.

The biggest gain probably came in terms of sharpness and timing of the attack.

Trinamool suffered a major setback in the 2019 Lok Sabha election. Its seat-share was down from 34 to 22 and the difference in vote share with the BJP narrowed down to three percentage points.

It was, therefore, important for the party to recover some of the lost ground. The BJP’s poor organisational strength in the State and inaction by some of the BJP MPs offered an opportunity to Trinamool that won all three by-elections to the Assembly.

But the turn of events in the last three months has made it defensive.

Controversy on disclosure of Covid data, face-off with the Governor for allegedly ignoring his constitutional rights, angry public outbursts in districts, protests by police and health workers — the Trinamool government is on shaky ground.

Politics of isolation

The BJP wants to take advantage of the situation in the next election. But to do that Shah didn’t take recourse to rhetoric. Yes, he touched upon the Citizenship Amendment Act, on the abrogation of Article 370 with regard to Kashmir and the end of Triple talaq.

But these were passing references. He built his argument to impress voters that politics of isolation had cost the land and its people even the right to take advantage of national schemes, leave alone growth and development.

Closer scrutiny shows that the BJP likely took a considered approach to avoid rhetoric. The top leaders of the party, Prime Minister Naredra Modi, Amit Shah and the BJP’s national organisational secretary BL Santosh spoke on West Bengal in different forums between June 9 and June 12.

The Prime Minister spoke on the growth agenda at Indian Chamber. Santosh took a midway point between politics and economy, while speaking at FICCI. Shah had greater freedom as he was speaking on behalf of the party yet he kept the temper low.

No chest-thumping, no bravado, no reference of religion. In a lucid, yet matter-of-factly style, Shah focused on stoking the fire of aspiration among Bengalis to live a national dream. It looks like it might work.

Mamata Banerjee may find it difficult to prevent implementation of PM-Kisan scheme after Shah’s speech, as farmers start questioning the State’s decision. The pressure is likely to increase in the days to come.

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Published on June 14, 2020
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