BACK IN THE RING
In the months leading to this year’s general elections, Trinamool Congress boss Mamata Banerjee had emerged as by far the most vocal critic and fiercest political rival of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his Bharatiya Janata Party.
However, after a bigger-than-ever Modi wave brought the BJP back to Raisina Hill with an unprecedented mandate even as it threateningly lashed Trinamool’s bastion, sweeping 18 out of the 42 Lok Sabha seats (compared to just two that the saffron party had managed five years ago) in West Bengal, Didi went somewhat quiet. While the BJP, much to the surprise of many, became the main opposition party in the state, she seemed too busy contemplating over the loss of a dozen seats from the thumping 34 that Trinamool had bagged in 2014.
So much so that she did not even comment on the recent Ayodhya verdict.
But as the time for bypolls to three assembly seats in West Bengal drew nearer last month, things began heating up once again. And for good reason. Although these byelections could by no means bring about a change of government, they were widely deemed to be the first trial of strength for the BJP and Trinamool after the latest Lok Sabha elections and, consequently, a bellwether of sorts for the Kolkata Municipal Corporation elections next year and even the 2021 assembly elections in the state.
The BJP’s most overtly aggressive move towards the battles ahead came on November 13 when its youth-wing activists attempted a march towards the KMC headquarters protesting against the civic body's failure to resolve the many important problems, especially the Dengue menace, in the city.
From throwing water bottles and stones to setting tyres on fire, Bharatiya Janata Yuva Morcha (BJYM) agitators tried to dismantle the guard rails and steel barricades set up by the police with sticks, rods and metal plates near Chandni Chowk in central Kolkata. This compelled the police to use batons, water jets and tear gas shells to disperse the protestors and prevent them from reaching their destination.
In the violent clashes that happened on the day, many BJYM workers, including state president Debjit Sarkar, were hospitalised or arrested and many police personnel sustained injuries as well.
Accusing the government of being responsible for the continuing prevalence of dengue through negligence and coverups, what with the vector-borne disease having reportedly affected around 44,000 people in the state, the protestors also called for a corruption-free KMC and a cleaner Kolkata with improved civic services and fewer cable wires, posters and hoardings.
However, most political analysts agreed, the prime objective of this agitation was to sway public opinion against the Trinamool and in favour of the BJP ahead of the upcoming polls.
This incident seemed to trigger Didi’s latest round of offensive against the BJP.
The day after the protest, she accused the Centre of not respecting the federal spirit with which it should work with the state – with clearly defined separate areas of power and responsibilities as per the Constitution – while tackling the aftermath of cyclone Bulbul.
Referring to Union minister Babul Supriyo’s tour of the affected areas, she said: “No individual politician, or some people, who are BJP supporters, should play a dirty game … Sometimes you have to see that people's interest is the greater interest. And humanity is greater than anything else. And that's why I will appeal to everybody: don't do politics, give justice to the people”.
The same day she also lambasted West Bengal Governor Jagdeep Dhankhar, accusing him of behaving like a "BJP mouthpiece" and trying to run a "parallel administration" in the state.
Although the two had been regularly at loggerheads on many issues ever since Dhankhar was sworn in on July 30, the latest jibe from Didi came after Dhankhar visited Singur in Hooghly district and interacted with employees at the BDO office and common people. The state governor’s openly expressed desire to stay for long durations in Singur and Nandigram (the nerve centres of the peasant movements that brought Didi and her party to power in 2011) as well as his announcement about possible visits to cyclone-hit areas, led Didi to remind him of his “nominated” status and warn him against overstepping his limits.
But this was just the beginning.
A few days later, the Trinamool supremo began countering the Modi government in earnest on key issues once again.
While addressing an administrative meeting in north Bengal's South Dinajpur district on November 19, she ruled out the possibility of implementation of the National Register of Citizens (NRC) and the proposed Citizenship Amendment Bill (CAB) even as she accused the BJP obliquely of trying to divide the people of the state on those two issues.
"The Citizenship Amendment Bill has provisions that will make you a foreigner for six years. Just imagine, today you have citizenship, you have all the documents and you are a voter. Now, from being an Indian, you will suddenly become a foreigner for six years. Then it will be decided whether you are a citizen of this country," Banerjee said.
That is a fact, because once the CAB is passed, minorities in Pakistan, Bangladesh and Afghanistan can receive Indian citizenship only after living in the country or serving the government for no less than six years.
However, Didi said at the meeting: “There will neither be CAB, nor NRC. So don't worry … I must tell you that all of you are Indian citizens. There is not a single person who is not a citizen – irrespective of whether you are a Rajbanshi, Santhal, Hindu or Muslim, Bengali or Gokha.
"Whoever lives in Bengal, has a ration card, who run their own business or do some other work, or whose children study in schools or whoever receives benefits of government schemes, you are all citizens," she assured.
Once again referring to the BJP, the Chief Minister said the saffron party is trying to separate Bengalis who arrived in the state as refugees from those who have been residing there for generations, just as it was making attempts to divide Hindus and Muslims and Christians.
She dismissed the BJP’s focus on the CAB as a “big farce” as she urged people not to believe in such propaganda. "Unity in diversity is a salient feature of West Bengal. If anybody tries to spread misinformation, don't panic," she added.
Over the next couple of days, Didi took on the BJP leadership far more directly.
Union Home Minister Amit Shah told Rajya Sabha on November 20 that the NRC will be implemented across the country and no person from any religion needs to be worried about it. "The NRC exercise is monitored by the Supreme Court. No religion has been targeted or isolated during the NRC exercise," he said in response to a query of Congress leader Syed Nasir Hussain.
A few hours later, Didi declared at a public meeting in Murshidabad district that her government will never allow any such list to come into being in the state.
Stating that no person can be deprived of citizenship or turned into a refugee, Banerjee challenged the BJP to explain why the names of 14 lakh Hindus and Bengalis were left out of the final NRC released in Assam.
“I would like to make it very clear that we will never allow the NRC exercise in Bengal… We won't allow anybody to divide people on the basis of religion," she added.
On November 21, the Trinamool Congress president took her fight against the Modi government well beyond the NRC and CAB issues.
Soon after the Cabinet Committee on Economic Affairs (CCEA) approved strategic disinvestment in five large public sector undertakings (PSUs) – BPCL, CONCOR, SCI, THDC and NEEPCO – along with change in management at these companies, Banerjee fervently decried the move.
Contending that it could gradually lead to disinvestment of the country itself, she urged Prime Minister Modi to consult experts and, if necessary, call an all-party meeting on the issue.
"Disinvesting the public sector and using the money to manage the immediate crisis is not a permanent or the only solution. You need economic stability for a permanent solution, because otherwise the economic disaster will only intensify," Banerjee said from a meeting in Baharampur of Murshidabad district.
Commenting on the NDA government’s claim that it would receive Rs 1.76 lakh crore to Rs 1.80 lakh crore from multiple disinvestments, she said the central government will be left with nothing to run the country. Hence it should hold consultations on the issue and consider everybody's opinion in a "positive sense", she added.
Expressing her support for a middle ground where mergers would not lead to loss of jobs for officers and other personnel, Banerjee expressed suspicion over the Central government’s decision to move the headquarters of the West Bengal’s top bank UBI out of Kolkata.
"We found that in the name of merger of some banks, the headquarters of UBI was moved away from the state. Now if such things happen, then what would be the future of the large number of schemes which operate through banks?" she asked.
As India First went to press, Trinamool Congress swept all the three seats in the assembly bypolls, while the BJP failed to open its account. The two prestigious seats – Kaliaganj and Kharagpur – that the saffron party was bullish about all along (thanks to its candidates’ massive leads there during the Lok Sabha polls earlier this year) were lost to Trinamool as the ruling party retained Karimpur.
"The arrogance of the BJP has been rejected by the people," said a delighted Didi after the results were announced, making it ever clearer that she will be a rather tough nut to crack for the BJP in the coming elections.