You can pick your metaphor: It takes iron to break iron. Diamond cuts diamond. If you so wish, you can even say, poison is the only antidote for poison. It means the same thing. But the last may be more appropriate, given that the election campaign we are talking about is our most venomously bitter yet.
The tone has been set by Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Nobody can deny him that proud distinction — calling opponents anti-national, in cahoots with Pakistan, families on bail/halfway to jail and so on. His party chief Amit Shah and Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath have taken this forward, one calling Muslim immigrants termites or other kinds of vermin, and the other pitching Bajrangbali versus Ali.
In large parts of the country, especially the Hindi heartland, this is working. But there is a distinction. It is working where the BJP’s main rival is the Congress.
In Maharashtra, Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh, Bihar, Delhi, Haryana, Uttarakhand and Himachal, the BJP sees this line working. Because it is mostly up against the Congress. It responds by asking how its patriotism can be questioned if Indira Gandhi broke up Pakistan, or how do you call us soft on terror when our father and grandmother were assassinated by terrorists. But it sounds defensive, and its tone isn’t right. Or not wrong enough. Because, as we know, it can’t cut poison with coconut water.
To understand how this works, come to West Bengal with me, going through the most verbally and physically violent election in the entire country. This is also where Modi and Shah have found their match, in ‘didi’ Mamata Banerjee — her loyalists prefer the old-style ‘Bandyopadhyay’ though. Not a word she says in response to the BJP is defensive, nothing is said to play the victim, and because you mocked her, she mocks you back like none else can, with the possible exception, lately, of Raj Thackeray.
The Modi-Shah BJP has been targeting Bengal for five years. If Hindu-Muslim polarisation is its ticket to power, Bengal should be even more amenable to it than Uttar Pradesh. That’s because Bengal, like Assam, has a nearly-30 per cent Muslim population. As with the Congress in Assam, there is a feeling that the rulers, first the Left and now Mamata, have been appeasing them for votes
It worked in Assam, so it must work in Bengal. That is the reason BJP leaders have been claiming a near-sweep, upwards of 22 seats out of its 42. After Uttar Pradesh (80) and Maharashtra (48), West Bengal sends the third largest contingent of MPs to the Lok Sabha.
If this is where the BJP expected to partly make up for the losses it might suffer in Uttar Pradesh and other states it had swept in 2014, it should rethink. It is true that the prime minister’s rallies have been enthusiastic and big. But given the low base, the BJP has an electoral Kanchenjunga to climb here.
Mamata also isn’t impressed by BJP’s shock-and-awe tactic. She is probably the toughest politician in India now, tougher than Mayawati. She is also a street-fighter, which Rahul Gandhi and Priyanka Gandhi, Kamal Nath and Akhilesh Yadav aren’t. But, for further clarity, Arvind Kejriwal is.
Steeled through survival in a state that was no better than a Left Front concentration camp for her, she also knows the art of turning adversity into opportunity. Or grabbing the opportunity when Narendra Modi says it’s become difficult for Bengalis to even hold Durga Pujas.
I track her through rallies on a day when the menacing advance vanguard of the coming Cyclone Fani stalks her helicopter. Durga Puja is the theme running through these rallies, in Bhatapara (Barrackpore, where former railways minister Dinesh Trivedi is contesting) and Rajarhat, on Kolkata’s outskirts, where Kakoli Ghosh Dastidar seeks her third term.
“Modi babu, you must do your homework before you shout expletives at us Bengalis,” she speaks at a pace that even that other fast-talker Gautam Gambhir can’t keep pace with, striding left to right and back on her stage with the wireless microphone, without looking anybody in the eye.
“Even kids get scolded by didimonis (teachers) when they go to school without doing their homework. What will people do when you lie? You come to Bengal and tell people that there’s no Durga Puja?
“Now, tell me mothers & sisters here — do we have Durga Puja or not?
Crowd: We do.
Mamata: Does anyone stop you from celebrating Durga Puja?
Mamata: Louder, does Durga Puja take place here?
Mamata: Lakshmi Puja?
Mamata: Saraswati Puja?
Mamata: Boro din (Christmas)?
Mamata: Chhath Puja?
But there’s only one thing that doesn’t happen here — Modi. Modi hoy na (Modi doesn’t happen here)… BJP hoy na, mithya (falsehood) hoy na, kutsha (character assassination) hoy na.
Mamata turns the knife and not slowly. Do your homework, and set it on your teleprompter, so you don’t make a fool of yourself here, “Modi Babu”, she says, a hundred times more mockingly than Modi calls Rahul shahzada or how Rahul may call Modi chor. She lists, in one breath, all the various pujas that take place in Bengal, taunts Modi if he even knows the Saraswati Mantra, then recites it in Sanskrit — her crowds, including hundreds of Muslims, cheering. What does Modi know about each religion?
She quickly moves to food. “Modi babu,” if we come to Gujarat, we eat dhokla, idli in Tamil Nadu, upma in Kerala, litti-chokha in Bihar, halwa in Gurudwara, lassi in Punjab. You order people, don’t eat fish, meat, eggs. Pregnant women should not eat eggs. “Hey brother, who are you to order what women can eat or not?” The country, she says, is being told to eat what Modi eats, buy the waist-coats he wears, watch him on TV all day. “I used to think he was a selfless RSS pracharak,” she says, “but now these RSS men who paraded in khaki knickers (short-pants) roam shopping malls in trousers carrying briefcases and make crores.”
She attacks him on demonetisation, never wastes a second on Rafale, and delivers the final blow: “A party that was starving not long ago and used to smoke the same beedi thrice a day, now owns billions.”
“And then they call themselves, chowkidar,” she says as crowds sets up a “chowkidar chor hai” chant that is louder and more spontaneous than any you hear from the front-rows in Rahul’s rallies. In Bengal, Rahul’s party is her rival too. But she has neatly appropriated his slogan.
Also read: Bengal stands up to ask for more
The question then: Why does this slogan look so effective in the hands of a one-state leader when the Congress invented it and spread it across the country? The short answer is, the Congress is yet to understand the Modi-Shah method. Unlike Vajpayee and Advani, these two are street fighters and they have accordingly changed their party’s DNA. To fight street-fighters, you need street-fighters. Remember, just as we said in the very beginning, iron breaks iron, diamond cuts diamond, and only poison counters poison. If Modi and Shah have made a poisonous, polarising campaign their brahmastra for 2019, Mamata Banerjee is showing them its limitations. Or why it will “hoy na” (won’t happen) in her state of 42 MPs.