By Nazarul Islam, Copy Edited by Adam Rizvi, The India Observer, TIO, USA: West Bengal’s Chief Minister, Mamata Banerjee’s supporters, lovingly call her ‘didi’ (elder sister). She has cherished her image as a street fighter, and never seemed to back down. Rising from a modest background, Ms. Banerjee has taken decades to build her large grass-roots base. And, many of her supporters have liked her for her true grit— she has remained a front-line fighter, who never hesitated to take her chances.
Once again, Mamata Banerjee has done the unpredictable. What may have appeared like a political flip more than a decade ago, has now taken the character of a wise, prudent manoeuvre. So just what has the Didi of Bengal has been up to?
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By not following the lead provided by the Leftists and Congress in Kerala, she refused to bring a resolution in the Bengal Assembly against the Citizenship (Amendment) Act. Next, the Bengal chief minister decided to boycott a meeting of Opposition parties, convened at her instance by Sonia Gandhi, blaming the Congress for playing ‘dirty politics’ in the state!
During a recent debate in the Assembly, she had declared that henceforth she would fight the battle against the CAA and the National Register of Citizens (NRC) all alone. She brought up something else that rung out loud. ‘What the Left and the Congress are doing in the name of CAA-NRC is not a movement, but vandalism,’ she held. Ironically, this is what the BJP has accused the Congress-Left of doing at the national level.
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For her part, Ms. Banerjee frequently used campaign rallies to go after Mr. Modi, saying she wanted to give Mr. Modi ‘a tight slap of democracy’ and ‘throw Modi out of the country.’ Nor did she spare the personal life of the prime minister, who left his wife for politics soon after an arranged marriage decades ago: ‘He can’t take care of his wife, but he will take care of Indians?’
Didi has done away, in one single stroke with Opposition unity, that she had relentlessly worked to build over the last few years. To many, it may sound like a sudden volte-face by the ever mercurial Banerjee. But to understand what infuriated the Bengal CM so much, we have to rewind a month in time.
Bengal and Assam were the first states that witnessed widespread violence in the aftermath of the smooth passage of the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill in the parliament. In Bengal, five trains were burnt, rail lines uprooted, stations torched, buses and cars set on fire in many places in the Muslim majority districts of Murshidabad and Malda, as well as in other Muslim-majority regions. It went on for three days starting on December 14. Fortunately, people were not targeted, and so the acts did not snowball into a communal clash.
The state administration had reports that not only the workers of AIMIM, the party led by Asaduddin Owaisi but also the allegedly radical fundamentalist organizations like the Popular Front of India (PFI) and the banned SIMI were involved. Mamata Banerjee appealed for calm in a video message warning people not to fall for communal provocation. The situation came under control within a few days and calm returned even in Murshidabad district, the most-affected area.
Then came January 8, the day of the nationwide strike called by the Congress and the Left through their trade union fronts. Mamata Banerjee declined to support a ‘bandh’ (strike) that would harm the economy. It was in tune with the line she was following since she became CM.
Peeved by her stand, both the Congress and the Left chose the disturbed Murshidabad district to incite passion against the union and state governments. At Sujapur, in the same district, people set a police vehicle on fire, pelted stones at the police. Later videos came out showing the police retaliating by smashing the windows of cars.
Meanwhile, road and rail blockades and clashes with the police were reported from many places all over Bengal.
It was in these circumstances that Mamata Banerjee accused the Congress-Left combine — ‘two dead forces’, in her words — of resorting to vandalism.
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Mamata’s stance appears fraught with danger for her own party. She is being accused of ‘duplicity’ by state-level leaders of the Left and the Congress. They may even attempt to incite minorities against her, reminding them that she was once an ally of the BJP. Such a campaign may also help the AIMIM get a foothold in the state, and finally, cause a shift of some votes to the party. The shift will harm the Trinamool Congress the most.
When this ‘street fighter’ lady reached power in 2011, her party turned victory into an opportunity to obliterate old foes. Critics say her control of the state police meant protection for the party as it snatched communist offices and threatened candidates in local elections. Her rule became increasingly autocratic.
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During the parliamentary elections this spring, the B.J.P. promised the communists protection and won a large share of their vote in return. It was a remarkable development because leftist leaders had previously described any alliance with the Hindu nationalist B.J.P. as akin to jumping from the frying pan into the fire.
Still, what Mamata has done shows she is still politically agile and capable of fighting the BJP in Bengal the right way. She knows that the acts of arson and violence against the police have already polarised the Hindus. If the trend goes unabated, the BJP will surely emerge as the undisputed political frontrunner.
So, by condemning ‘vandalism’ and distancing herself from it, she has sent three strong messages: First, she is aware of the ground reality and will not allow the situation to deteriorate further, whatever be the political consequences. Second, if the Muslims really want to fight CAA-NRC, they will have to follow her non-violent path. Finally, the Hindus must understand that she will protect them, provided they do not follow radical Hinduism.
Bengal’s biggest casualty is Mamata’s standing, both as a political leader and an administrator. Always known to be impulsive, she is perhaps coming across as someone ill-tempered as well. Her loss of composure is cause for celebration among her opponents, the BJP included. The state is already polarised—something that helped the BJP win 18 of the 42 Lok Sabha seats in the state this time against its paltry tally of two in 2014—and the communal divide is getting wider with Mamata refusing to go in for a course correction.
While her trademark stubbornness has yielded huge political dividends earlier and helped shape her image as a staunch anti-CPI(M) leader, the same trait is now weighing her down. Much of the voters’ anger this time was against her political lieutenants such as Anubrata Mandal, the TMC Birbhum district party president. Mamata though is sticking with them, no matter how repulsive they seem to be to an ordinary citizen.
Perhaps, Mamata has few options. Hundreds of Trinamool Congress workers have in recent months crossed over to the BJP and without her trusted party men, there, after all, will be no party. She is also publicly defending her relatives such as parliamentarian and nephew Abhishek Banerjee and refusing to answer questions about their new-found affluence. Pushed to a corner, she has chosen to brazen it out.
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The messages, in the short run, will spare Bengal from falling into a trap of spiraling communal violence. At the same time, it will give Trinamool Congress some space to fight the BJP back. Didi has chalked out her own strategy and looks like the right strategy too.
Mamata’s future, therefore, looks tense. Always quick to read the writing on the wall, the police and bureaucracy are reportedly beginning to drag feet. Trouble begins when they do, and sniff at a new master knocking on the door.
Good luck Mamata, in the days ahead!
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