Last Monday, the West Bengal Assembly passed a resolution against central investigation agencies for ‘selectively targeting’ leaders of the ruling Trinamool Congress and “creating an atmosphere of fear.”
That did little to bolster the confidence of TMC leaders and ministers. Prospects of life in jail and inconvenience to their families are weighing on the minds of many. A day after the resolution was passed, a minister was interacting with a group of people in the Assembly premises. Someone asked him if there was any proposal to convert Kolkata’s Presidency Jail into a museum. The context was the inauguration of a museum in Alipore Correctional Home by Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee the next day. The minister, who is being investigated by a central agency in an alleged corruption case, replied in negative. “Presidency Jail is near my place (residence). If they (CBI) arrest me, it would be convenient for my wife to visit me,” he said, seemingly half in jest, half in earnest.
One can’t vouch for the minister’s innocence or guilt in the corruption case but his apprehensions about arrest might not be unfounded, given the record of central investigating agencies. The ED, CBI, and IT are buzzwords in Bengal political circles nowadays, with these agencies becoming super active in the state where the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has high stakes.
Mamata Banerjee’s ‘clean chit’ to Prime Minister Narendra Modi on the alleged misuse of agencies has, therefore, evoked a lot of curiosity. Businessmen are leaving the country out of fear and misuse of the ED and the CBI, she said in the Assembly last week. “I believe Modi hasn’t done it. Many of you don’t know that the CBI doesn’t report to the PMO any more. It reports to the Home Ministry. Some BJP leaders are conspiring…,” she said.
The fact is that the CBI still reports to the prime minister. It comes under the Ministry of Personnel, Public Grievances and Pensions, a portfolio held by the PM. Banerjee was just taking potshots at Union Home Minister Amit Shah. Earlier this month, emerging out of the ED office after six hours of questioning in the alleged coal pilferage case, her nephew Abhishek had said, “Just because I attacked Amit Shah’s son over the national flag issue, I cannot be threatened by ED or CBI.”
The ED is under the administrative control of the department of revenue, Ministry of Finance, presided over by Nirmala Sitharaman.
It’s nobody’s case that Jitendra Singh, minister of state in the Ministry of Personnel, runs the CBI or Nirmala Sitharaman the ED, technicalities aside. There is also no point debating the public perception about Amit Shah’s writ running in the government. But to suggest that anyone at the Centre can do anything without PM Modi’s approval is erroneous.
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Mamata knows what Modi critics don’t
So, why did Mamata Banerjee give a ‘clean chit’ to Modi? Politicians and analysts in Bengal proffer broadly two explanations. First, that she, her family and her party colleagues are so much under pressure from the ED and the CBI that she is trying to buy peace with the PM.
This explanation doesn’t gel with what we have seen of Mamata Banerjee in the five decades of her political career. She has been a ferocious fighter. She fought against the Left Front government on the streets of West Bengal, taking on cops and comrades alike—frequently sustaining injuries, including one on the head that kept her in the hospital for weeks— through the 1980s and 1990s. She wouldn’t flinch from taking on the powers that be. In 1993, she publicly threatened to resign as the Union sports minister because the Narasimha Rao government had apparently not heeded to her ideas to improve sports in India. Three years later, she threatened to commit suicide because the Congress had fielded four tainted faces in the election. Between 2004 and 2009, she was the only Trinamool MP in the Lok Sabha. With 60-member Left contingent hooting her every time she got up to speak or intervene in a debate, any other politician would have wilted. Therefore, to suggest that Banerjee is scared of central agencies and seeking to buy ‘peace’ with Modi is as naive as to talk about Shah doing anything without Modi’s approval.
Also, such an explanation seems to assume that Banerjee and Modi are such political simpletons that one says a few good words in praise of the other and the latter just melts.
The second reason many people attribute to her clean chit to Modi is her perceived attempt to drive a wedge between Modi and Shah. Again, that amounts to treating Banerjee as a political nitwit. She is definitely not one.
There was a time when opposition politicians went soft on Atal Bihari Vajpayee and trained their guns on Lal Krishna Advani. That was because differences between the two BJP leaders were out in public domain and their political adversaries found it convenient to fish in troubled waters. Besides, with Vajpayee attaining a statesman’s image, the opposition found in Advani, a Hindutva hardliner, an easy target. The irony is that the same Advani today evokes empathy and sympathy in the opposition camp after Modi relegated his former mentor to the margdarshak mandal, forcing him into virtual political retirement.
Mamata Banerjee knows better than anyone that driving a wedge between Modi and Shah is a futile exercise. If at all it happens any time in future, it won’t be because an opposition politician triggered it.
As it is, Banerjee’s ‘clean chit’ to Modi may signal a shift in her political strategy. Rahul Gandhi may still believe that politics is a battle of ideologies and so ‘chowkidar chor hai’ is a battle cry he must stick to, no matter how much it backfires in elections. But politicians who are more focused on electoral victories have started recalibrating their strategy. Deriding Modi or attacking him personally doesn’t seem to bring electoral dividends. His personality cult is too strong to be demolished with mere jibes and unproved allegations.
Modi asked the people to “stand up, raise hands and clap in honour of” cheetahs—the “guests” who came after a long journey from Namibia. They happily followed his instructions. He asked them to turn off the lights, clap and clang utensils to fight against coronavirus. They all did. After demonetisation of high value notes, he asked the country to give him 50 daysand if they still found any shortcomings in his action, he was ready for any punishment they gave him. The demonetisation failed in its objectives but voters’ trust in him hasn’t.
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Opposition’s adjustment on Modi
Most opposition leaders, except Rahul Gandhi, have come to accept the reality—that attacking Modi doesn’t bring votes. And so, they have all made their adjustments.
Odisha Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik might have faced intense heat from the BJP in the run-up to the 2019 Assembly and Lok Sabha elections. But he focused on his own government’s works in the election campaign. He won the Assembly election convincingly and managed to contain the Modi-led BJP’s upsurge in the Lok Sabha polls, too. The BJP secured 8 of 21 Lok Sabha seats in Odisha but Patnaik’s party, the Biju Janata Dal (BJD), could have done worse. Over the last three years, the BJP has been losing ground in Odisha while Patnaik has refrained from attacking Modi all through.
M.K. Stalin of Tamil Nadu also draws a fine distinction, attacking the Centre but not Modi. Y.S. Jagan Mohan Reddy of Andhra Pradesh focuses on his own government’s welfare schemes. It has worked for their parties—DMK and YSRCP—in both Lok Sabha and Assembly elections. One may argue that Modi magic doesn’t work in South India that much. That may be true but there is no denying his appeal even in southern India and that’s where Reddy and Stalin have done better, showcasing their own visions for their states.
In the run-up to the 2019 Lok Sabha election, Delhi CM Arvind Kejriwal made blistering attacks on Modi, calling him Class 12-pass and raking up corruption charges in the Rafale fighter jet deal.
After the BJP swept all Lok Sabha seats in Delhi, the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) leader changed his strategy, refraining from any direct attack on the PM and focusing on his own government’s achievements. It worked for the AAP in the 2020 Assembly election. If Kejriwal has gone back to Modi-bashing now, it’s because his main target is the Congress. He has to emerge as the principal challenger to Modi at the Centre in the 2024 Lok Sabha election to set the stage for the 2029 contest when Modi would have hung up his boots and the voters would be looking for an alternative.
Mamata Banerjee, like Kejriwal, went ballistic against Modi in the run-up to the 2019 Lok Sabha election, only to see her tally come down to 22 from 34 and the BJP’s go up to 18 from 2. In the 2021 Assembly election, the TMC shifted its strategy, focusing on Mamata Banerjee and not on Modi. It was, in fact, Modi who made the mistake of launching personal attacks on Banerjee. The TMC won a brute majority but Banerjee knows that the BJP didn’t do badly as it secured 38 per cent votes.
Post-Bengal polls, as commentators started projecting her as Modi’s prospective challenger nationally, she went back to Modi-bashing. Her party’s failure in Goa seems to have played a dampener in her national plan though. So have the AAP’s victory in Punjab and seeming surge in Gujarat. It has forced her to do a re-think on her strategy, about 20 months before the next Lok Sabha election. She seems to have understood that attacking M0odi may not bring her any extra votes. His persona has come to transcend any party or ideology. All Modi voters aren’t necessarily BJP and RSS loyalists. Every Modi fan is not a Hindutva follower. It’s, therefore, politically wiser to keep channels open with those Modi voters who aren’t politically or ideologically committed to the BJP. Her comment that everyone is the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) is not bad should also be seen in the same context. Everybody who goes to an RSS shakha isn’t necessarily a BJP voter. Mamata Banerjee’s clean chit to Modi must be seen in this context.
The author is Political Editor, ThePrint. He tweets @dksingh73. Views are personal.
(Edited by Prashant)