After Nitish Kumar joined hands with Lalu Yadav in the 2015 Bihar assembly election, many thought the BJP would have an easy time dethroning the chief minister. All that Nitish had was his own clean and popular image, but now he had sullied it by coming together with the icon of Jungle Raj, Lalu Yadav. The BJP began asking voters if they wanted Jungle Raj 2.0.
Narendra Modi’s first rally for that election was in Muzaffarpur. Naturally, he was expected to start by talking about Nitish Kumar doing a deal with Jungle Raj. But Prashant Kishor, Nitish Kumar’s campaign manager at the time, made Kumar ask Narendra Modi 10 questions on Twitter that morning. At a welcome programme for the prime minister just before the Muzaffarpur rally, he made Nitish Kumar attack the Modi government strongly on issues of Bihar’s development such as the special status demand. And he also launched a new slogan that morning: “Jhanse mein na aayenge, Nitish ko jitayenge.” (We won’t be fooled, we’ll make Nitish win.)
The result was that Modi was forced to make his attack on Nitish Kumar the main pitch of his speech. Modi began by saying, those who used to mock me for using Twitter are now asking me questions on Twitter! Modi’s attack became personal when he said Nitish’s DNA was faulty, which Kishor promptly turned into an affront on Biharis as a community, thus making a case for the BJP as ‘outsiders’ in contrast to Bihar’s own man, Nitish Kumar. It was called the ‘Bihari vs Bahari’ debate. Something similar has just happened in West Bengal.
BJP gets trapped in ‘beti’ debate
The Trinamool Congress recently launched a new election slogan in West Bengal: “Bangla nijer meye-kei chaye”. Literally meaning: Bengal wants its own daughter.
Soon after the slogan was launched, Prime Minister Narendra Modi responded to it in his Hooghly rally. Accusing the Trinamool government of not implementing the central scheme for tap water, Jal Jeevan Mission, he asked if the daughters of Bengal did not deserve pure water. The BJP has since then gone into concussions over the “beti” question. A pro-BJP channel asked who was Bengal’s real beti, Didi or Modi!
As chief minister Mamata Banerjee transforms from sister (Didi) to daughter (Meye), the BJP is now trying to call her an aunt (Pishi). Referring to her controversial nephew Abhishek Banerjee, the BJP now wants her called ‘bua’ or ‘pishi’ (aunt), putting forth photos of top women leaders of the Bengal BJP and going on overdrive about how the daughters of Bengal are suffering under the TMC’s misrule.
This is a self-goal by the BJP, since the more they refer to the ‘Beti’ slogan, the more they make it work. The more discussion Bengal sees about ‘Beti’, the more they will be reminded of Mamata Banerjee, the fact that she’s a woman, the fact that the BJP does not have a chief ministerial candidate or even a leader worthy of being projected as one. By responding to the ‘Beti’ slogan, the BJP has fallen into a trap.
Why sister has become daughter
Mamata Banerjee has been called Didi forever. In fact, most people call her Didi, not Mamata. The Didi identity is so strong it could well be her real name. Why then has Prashant Kishor turned her into Beti? That too just a month before the election phases begin?
Didi or sister sounds like an elder sibling who’ll look after you, raise you, guide you, and take you forward. This worked for her as a challenger to the Left rule. But now that she’s defending her fort from the BJP, the Beti identity does something else. It seeks to make Bengal voters feel that she is the daughter of Bengal, their own daughter, and thus they need to protect her, they need to look after her. The relationship has been inverted.
Bengali vs Bahari
The corollary is that the BJP is not Bengal’s daughter. On the contrary, Bengal’s daughter is under attack from the BJP. Can there be an emotional appeal stronger than the one to protect your own daughter?
That’s a not-so-subtle way of saying the BJP is not Bengali enough to rule Bengal. Like ‘Bihari vs Bahari’ in 2015, this introduces a polarisation on the basis of sub-regional identity. Narendra Modi may be supremely popular in West Bengal as the 2019 Lok Sabha election showed us, but the TMC slogan reminds people that this is an election for Bengal, not for India.
Bengal wants its own daughter — the assertion leaves little room for a national icon like Modi. It makes the search for a Bengali icon a central question. This is why the BJP is having a hard time not responding to the slogan. Whether the BJP responds or ignores it, either way it makes the TMC play its strongest card: Mamata Banerjee.
The author is a contributing editor. Views are personal.