Kolkata: On 10 June, just four days after she met political strategist Prashant Kishor for a two-hour-long meeting, West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee set up a grievance cell mechanism under the chief minister’s office (CMO). The grievance cell is run by government officials but is managed and supervised by a senior leader of Banerjee’s Trinamool Congress, who has also handled the party’s cyber cell.
Banerjee followed it up with her ‘cut money’ remarks on 22 June, in which she warned her party leaders from taking a percentage of the money from government schemes. The remarks, senior Trinamool leaders told ThePrint, had Kishor’s imprint.
In the month since, Kishor’s professionalism and strategies are all across the recent outreach programmes launched by a visibly restrained Banerjee. As the chief minister goes all-out to defend her turf against the rising clout of the BJP, her approach has become more professional and her responses measured.
The Kishor stamp was most recently evident Monday when Banerjee launched the website, ‘Didike Bolo’ (Tell Didi), a platform for people to provide feedback, air their problems and suggestions to the chief minister.
The website has a form where individuals need to write their suggestions or grievances and fill up all the required fields, including gender, phone number, WhatsApp number, district and constituency.
While launching the website, Banerjee made it a point to mention that it was no poll gimmick and managed to sneak in a veiled attack on the BJP.
“This is a step to modernise our party. It is not an election campaign as there are around 18 months left before the election. It is a campaign to strengthen the public-connect at the ground level,” she said. “We are not an organised party that way. There are several big parties that have huge money to spend and that keep collecting data. All those data they use for other purposes. We are only trying to reach people.”
The Kishor stamp
Banerjee met Kishor in Kolkata on 6 June, barely two weeks after the Lok Sabha election results.
To offset the BJP’s growing influence in her state, the West Bengal chief minister appears to be banking on the strategist credited with the poll victories of Prime Minister Narendra Modi in 2014, Nitish Kumar in Bihar (2015), Captain Amarinder Singh in Punjab (2017) and Jagan Reddy in Andhra Pradesh (2019).
A senior Trinamool Congress leader told the Print that Kishor’s organisation, the Indian Political Action Committee (I-PAC), began work right after the Kolkata meeting and travelled to Bengal’s rural heartland to understand the state’s political issues.
Following Kishor’s entry, Banerjee has revised some of her government policies that included her announcement of 10 per cent ‘upper caste’ quota and a review of the salary structure of the state police force, primary teachers and functionaries working at the three-tier panchayat system.
Banerjee also said her party leaders would travel to 10,000 villages in the state, give a patient hearing to local residents and also at times stay in the villages for a night or two to understand the situation. The leaders will also arrange for meals at the houses of booth-level workers, she said.
“The party will decide who will go where. None can move according to their own wish,” she added.
In another development, after almost two months, Banerjee began holding administrative meetings in the districts from 26 July. Sources in the government said that the chief minister will continue with such meetings in which she takes her team of officers to districts and interacts with MLAs, leaders, panchayats and other senior bureaucrats directly.
The chief minister has also cracked the whip, directing her party to follow all instructions and suggestions given by Kishor but that has received a mixed response within the party.
Senior Trinamool Congress leaders have endorsed the call to embrace Kishor’s methods while middle rung and grassroots workers are airing their suspicions.
“Didi has been running the show for long. She has a history of a very long and violent struggle. So at times, she too needs a backup,” said a Trinamool MP who did not want to be named.
“It is better to have professional back-up than rely on some random opportunist leader who can desert her anytime. We are in this situation because of the traitors we have had. We are convinced with what Prashantji has been telling us.”
Not all convinced
A section of the Trinamool Congress, however, is apprehensive of the latest entrant to Bengal politics. They haven’t yet bought into Kishor’s ideas and even claim that the chief minister’s ‘cut-money’ remark backfired on the party.
“We know that Didi was advised by our new strategist to speak about cut money. It is true that her remark makes her look honest and clean,” a party leader from Birbhum told The Print. “But what about leaders and workers at the bottom of the pyramid who interact with people daily? Are we not losing people’s confidence? We understand that Kishore is assigned to make a brand for Mamata Banerjee, but he should also take care of the party’s image.”
There is also a belief in some Trinamool circles that Kishor is a ‘Trojan horse’ planted by the BJP.
“Kishor is a senior functionary of the JD(U), which is a constituent of the (BJP-led) NDA,” another senior leader said. “How can we trust him as our friend? We were told by our leaders that he was a professional and that his success rate is over 80 per cent in the last five years. So, we have to rely on him.”