MLAs and office-bearers of the Trinamool Congress are these days busy going from one village to another. It is not election time, and they are not going around talking about politics. They are talking about governance issues, a surprising change in the over-politicised state of West Bengal.
The functionaries first go to a village or an urban neighbourhood that’s already been selected for them by the Indian Political Action Committee (I-PAC), a consulting firm mentored by Prashant Kishor. The MLAs and leaders first interact with 3-5 key influencers in the area, and then sit down to listen to people’s grievances for three hours straight (‘Jana Sanjog Sabha’). Over 1,000 party leaders will undertake this exercise in 10,000 pre-identified locations.
TMC MLAs and leaders have dinner with local party cadres and booth workers. Night stay is at the house of one such worker. It’s not over yet. Next morning, they have to go to each house distributing a visiting card that says “Didi Ke Bolo” — just tell Didi, as Mamata Banerjee is popularly called. There’s a phone number on which people can call and say anything they like or even register a complaint.
In the first 24 hours since the campaign was launched, there were 1 lakh calls, mostly recorded by an interactive voice response (IVR), although there’s an army of 250 people to speak to callers as well. People are calling to say all kinds of things, according to I-PAC professionals managing the campaign. They’re calling to register individual complaints, raise community issues, demand financial help, give suggestions and opinions, or to just say thank you for starting this helpline. This expression of relief is perhaps from people who like Didi but not her party, and find it helpful that Didi herself – or the chief minister’s office — now seems accessible.
For the fear of Didi
The TMC cadres in West Bengal cannot be any more hated than they are right now. They are seen as corrupt and violent. The corruption money they took — “cut money”— had recently become a big issue in the state. Mamata Banerjee had said in response that panchayat officials should return the cut money, leading to protests across the state with people demanding their money back. The rival BJP made a lot of political capital out of this fiasco. People anyway resented panchayat leaders since they are known to win panchayat elections through rigging and intimidation. In last year’s panchayat elections, the TMC had won nearly one-third of the seats unopposed.
Unsurprisingly then, there are calls on the Didi Ke Bolo number with complaints against the TMC leaders and cadres. These range from corruption, land grab or intimidation to just inaccessibility and arrogance. These calls can now be used to reform the party organisation – the TMC is known to have poached the lumpen elements of the Left Front. The Didi Ke Bolo number thus seeks to instill the fear of Didi in the minds of the TMC workers.
For the love of Didi
It is not simply a grievance redressal campaign to fight anti-incumbency. Its central aim is to play up the party’s trump card, Didi. Except for the perception of Muslim appeasement, she is still undisputedly the tallest politician in the state. The BJP has no face to match her. This advantage is thus being used by taking Didi to every house, making her look accessible, and thereby reducing the importance of the TMC cadre in people’s minds. The name of the campaign, Didi Ke Bolo, loosely translates into “just tell Didi”. Implicitly, it makes Mamata Banerjee sound like the person who can solve people’s problems.
It is not possible to imagine West Bengal politics without the lumpen elements and political violence. Politics in the state is conducted like warfare, capturing every village, every house, every vote. Prashant Kishor has already persuaded Mamata Banerjee to give up this traditional Bengal way of politics. Party cadres have been told to avoid violence, and not conduct themselves as if there’s an election tomorrow. They must focus on governance and solving people’s problems. Should the BJP workers take to violence, let the police handle them, Kishor is learnt to have advised the party.
It takes two to have a fight, but no matter who starts the fight and who suffers more casualties, it is the BJP which benefits. Whether a BJP worker dies or a TMC worker’s house is set on fire, it is Mamata Banerjee who looks like she’s not in control.
Kishor has also advised Mamata Banerjee to not put undemocratic restraints on political activity by other parties. Doing so only provoked their cadres, especially the BJP’s, to pick a fight with the local TMC cadres. The BJP is not the CPM, and may be easier to defeat in a bloodless battle. Kishor has also told Didi and the TMC to stop complaining about the BJP’s communal polarisation, and talk only about governance.
Didi vs Modi
With Didi Ke Bolo, Mamata Banerjee is trying to wrest the public narrative back from the BJP. For the moment, the discourse over West Bengal politics is shifting from Jai Shri Ram to governance. Until now, it was the BJP, which was setting the agenda and Didi was on the defensive. For the first time in months that has changed. BJP vice president Shivraj Singh Chouhan has said, “Didi ke chhoro aur Modi ke bolo (leave didi and speak to Modi)”.
As the festival season approaches, Hindu-Muslim polarisation will be back in Bengal. This is just the beginning of a long season of competitive politics between the TMC and the BJP. What’s certain is that the 2021 election will be Didi versus Modi.
Views are personal.