Leading this bitter political feud from the front is none other than Mamata Banerjee herself.
Bhoy Peyechhe Mamata. Mamata Daha Fail. Mithyebadi BJP. TMC Chhi.
If all this is sounding “hocus pocus” to you, suggest you log in again. Or better still, give a shout out to your Bengali friend.
Over the last two months, ever since the dreaded novel coronavirus decided to announce its arrival in Kolkata on 17 March to be precise, these expressions have become intrinsic to the highly vitriolic polity of West Bengal. Be it the BJP or the TMC, no one is going to bed these days before making sure these hashtags are liked, tweeted and re-tweeted over and again by hundreds and thousands of handles to make them trend on social media platforms.
Never mind the global pandemic, which has crippled countries worldwide, never mind the road to recovery spelt out by Prime Minister Narendra Modi or the Rs 20 lakh crore stimulus package being spelt out by Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman to rev up the Indian economy, never mind the Shramik Special trains being run by the Railway Ministry or special fights being arranged to bring back stranded Indians as a part of Vande Bharat Mission or special ships being sent to foreign shores to get our own back home, it’s politics first in West Bengal.
And leading this bitter political feud from the front is none other than Mamata Banerjee. Who, as those who have watched her from close quarters say, is seeing this as a golden opportunity to “expose” the BJP, consolidate her core minority vote base, go all guns blazing against BJP’s “communal designs” in the run-up to what promises to be the mother of all state elections next year—the Bengal elections.
Street fighter Didi is out on the streets once again and is firing from all cylinders at the BJP, quite unlike what other non-BJP Chief Ministers including Captain Amarinder Singh, Arvind Kejriwal or Naveen Patnaik are resorting to in these trying times.
Armed with masks and marking social distancing rings on the road, Didi, as advised by her image strategists, is trying her best to reinforce her people connect. But the problem is, while she is out on the streets with a broom in hand to clear the dust, she is being accused by the BJP and even the Left and Congress of brushing under the carpet the real Covid-19 numbers, misreporting facts, downplaying death figures and playing up co-morbidities of deceased patients to stamp her point.
Any question which doesn’t quite figure in her political script is met with a censure or dismissed as a “communal question”. A case in point is her response to a question asked by a journalist on the Tablighi Jamaat event held at Nizamuddin in Delhi which led to an exponential rise in the number of infected cases. While the Centre harped on identifying the event participants, test and isolate them and carry out aggressive contact tracing, Didi worked overtime to ensure the minorities—who were put under scanner if a Tablighi link emerged—could be whisked away from the public eye. Her lieutenants including MPs and MLAs went all out, accusing the BJP of spreading the “communal virus”. The very fact that suppression of crucial facts could have disastrous results by putting lives at risk, hardly mattered. What mattered was the nearly one-third minority vote bank of Bengal who she felt would not let her down during polls.
Armed with ground reports—which however many in the TMC camp dub as fake—and hard facts, BJP is wasting no time in cornering Didi. The fact that Bengal’s Covid-19 mortality rate is possibly the highest in the country and way above the national indices cannot be overlooked, but all this started coming to the fore only after the Centre, which Mamata has accused over and over again of breaking the federal structure by taking unilateral decisions, sent down an Inter Ministerial Central Team (IMCT) for a ground check a few days ago, only to be met and greeted with royal ignore.
From the way she went against the Centre and interlinked the pandemic containment measures as a means to deflect attention from the Delhi riots to giving instructions to the police to ensure there were no excesses, which many say is aimed at protecting one particular community, Mamata’s actions have been under BJP’s scanner. Weak surveillance, underreporting numbers, negligible tracking, crumbling health infrastructure, SOS letters by doctors working round the clock and a deluge of complaints coming in from patients and relatives armed the BJP with undeniable proof.
Videos of ambulances arriving in front of hospital morgues to whisk off dead bodies have only added to Mamata’s sleepless nights. With Bengal demanding answers and journalists raising questions, Didi is possibly fighting a battle like never before. She may have banned mobile phones in hospitals for “fear of getting exposed further’, as BJP says, but Didi for sure is under constant attack.
And Governor Jagdeep Dhankar, who has spoken out in favour of freeing the “PDS from the political cage”, has made multiple overtures to the Chief Minister, reminding her of her Constitutional obligations. Under constant attack from Didi’s MPs, Derek O’Brien and Mohua Moitra, the Governor has however minced no words to expose the Covid-19 mismanagement in West Bengal. Urging Mamata to bury the hatchet, Dhankar has also urged the Chief Minister, who is also the Home Minister of the state, to ensure administration and police act without any political overtones while dealing with reports of communal violence coming in from Telenipara in Hooghly and Chandipur in Malda. Unfortunately, Didi has stonewalled all his efforts and given full leeway to her leaders to tarnish the Raj Bhavan and dub it as an extension of the BJP office.
Playing the victim card in her meeting with Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Mamata has questioned as to why the BJP government has taken a step-motherly stand vis-a-vis Bengal. Her ministers have gone hammer and tongs to say how Bengal has been left out of Vande Bharat Mission’s aviation map and how the Railways Ministry has put brakes on running Shramik Special trains to bring back migrant workers to the state. The fact is, while Railway Minister Piyush Goyal says to take migrant workers back to Bengal, at least 100 trains need to run every day, Didi has given nod to run just 105 trains spread over 30 days. Also, the fact is Ministry of External Affairs has clarified that flights to Kolkata will be facilitated if government confirms arrangements, prompting another round of caustic diatribe.
By restricting the free movement of BJP MPs to attacking Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Home Minister Amit Shah and firing missiles at Governor Dhankar to cover up for her government’s failings, Mamata is only ending up putting herself under the microscope every single moment. For the BJP, the poll bugle is buzzing loud and clear. The need of the hour is to fight the pandemic and lay bare the facts and force the government to answer. If arrangements could be made to get back pilgrims from Ajmer Sharif, why not arrange for trains for getting back stranded migrant workers?
For the BJP, which faces the “Mamata vs Who” question every single day, the need of the hour is to pick up the loose threads and join the dots. Has the novel coronavirus then taken centre stage in Bengal’s dramatic political pulpit? Only time will tell.
Sourav Sanyal is a senior journalist and political commentator.