Kolkata: West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee, on the back foot for alleged manipulation of coronavirus positive cases in the state, has come up with a new strategy to salvage her political credentials: invoking Bengali pride.
The chief minister had gone into a shell after a Central team had pointed out discrepancies in West Bengal Covid-19 data, forcing the Trinamool Congress regime to revise it upwards, giving the opposition BJP a hot-button issue to corner Banerjee.
But after 12 days of apparent withdrawal from the public glare, Mamata in her first press re-appearance on Tuesday, played up Bengali pride taking a leaf out of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s ‘Gujarati Asmita’ narrative.
The press conference came a day after she emerged as the one of the most vocal during the CMs’ video conference with PM Modi.
Taking a dig at those “Bengalis who are maligning the image of Bengal”, Mamata said Tuesday they would realise one day what wrong they have done to the state. She even threw in a line from the Bible. “For them, I would say, God forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing,” she said.
“I have nothing against the Centre or anybody,” she added. “But I would only say why Bengal is always being targeted? Why is Bengal always being criticised when all of us are fighting against the virus?”
‘Bangla and Bangali’
This, however, isn’t the first time that Mamata has resorted to playing up the “Bangla” refrain. The chief minister has made it a habit of resorting to the native vs outsider narrative every time she is under attack from the opposition BJP.
In fact, her only public appearance between 29 April and 12 May was when she attended a Rabindra Jayanti programme on 8 March, to mark the birth anniversary of Rabindranath Tagore. She even sang a Rabindrasangeet with her cabinet colleague and singer Indranil Sen, emphasising her dedication to Bengali art and culture.
At the small programme organised by the state government on Cathedral Road near Rabindra Sadan, Banerjee said, “Due to the lockdown, everything has stopped and we are not able to celebrate Kabiguru’s birthday the way we do. He is our inspiration and he is our power to fight.”
Mamata’s transition as a self-styled champion of Bengali pride, however, began after the Lok Sabha elections in 2019 when the BJP made huge gains in the state.
Since then, the state government has begun calling the state Bangla as opposed to West Bengal, while the chief minister, in November last year, took on the Centre for making Bengali a medium of instruction for the JEE (Mains) exam. The test can currently be taken in English, Hindi and Gujarati. Mamata demanded that the paper be conducted in other languages too, including Bengali.
During her anti-CAA and anti-NRC movement in December, she claimed that this was Modi government’s plan to victimise Bengalis, saying they would suffer the most from the controversial legislations.
Noted political analyst Professor Biswanath Chakraborty said the chief minister has long attempted to nurture the narrative.
“The Bengal chief minister has long been trying this strategy to invoke Bengali pride and sub-nationalism. Whenever there is some failure or mismanagement, the ruling parties generally try to take cover under the ideological beliefs,” he told ThePrint. “This ‘Bangla and Bangalee’ statement is another reflection of her efforts to try to cover up the mishandling of the Corona crisis and stir the Bengali sentiment. As far as elections are concerned, it is too early to say whether this strategy will work electorally on the ground.”
Studied silence of 12 days
Before Tuesday, when the chief minister finally spoke to the media, the chief minister had not made any public appearance since 29 April, barring that short interaction during Rabindra Jayanti on 8 May.
This is a far cry from the early days of the pandemic when the chief minister was ever present before public eyes. She personally announced the lockdown, moving around different parts of Kolkata with a microphone in hand and announcing the guidelines. She also held televised meetings with bureaucrats, doctors and chambers.
The chief minister also took it upon herself to publicly teach the rules of social distancing while visiting hospitals to distribute masks and sanitisers and landing up at ration shops to oversee the Public Distribution System (PDS) in different parts of the city.
But as the state government began facing flak for its handling of the crisis, the chief minister began to withdraw from public appearances. As of Thursday, West Bengal has 2,290 cases with 207 deaths. The state’s death rate of 9.03 per cent is among the worst in the country.
A state government under fire
Of late, the Trinamool Congress government has come under fire for its handling of the pandemic. It has faced charges of data mismanagement, questionable moves in dealing with Covid-related deaths, disposal of bodies, changing rules repeatedly in terms of testing samples, allegations of looting food and ration meant for the poor, and repeated restructuring of the PDS.
The opposition BJP has also upped the ante, accusing the CM of “fudging Covid numbers” and alleging PDS scandal, while launching a survey on her performance.
All this forced the government to do a U-turn on its strategy, forcing it to revise its Covid-19 numbers and bring it at par with the central government.
But it has also got the chief minister in a confrontational mode. The press conference on 29 April, following the previous video conference with the PM, was the last time she addressed the media before Tuesday.
Back then, she had said she would not take any responsibility now and would follow what the Centre said as according to her, the Prime Minister had apparently mentioned that states with high numbers of cases can’t be blamed and similarly states with low numbers can’t be praised.
‘Self-imposed political quarantine’
Mamata’s near-public absence had prompted the opposition to call it an instance of “self-imposed political quarantine”.
“Mamata Banerjee has lost face to stand before the people or the media. She has lost all credibility and has nothing to say,” said senior Congress leader and MP Adhir Ranjan Chowdhury. “That is why she has chosen to be quarantined politically.”
The BJP has been equally scathing. “We are also trying to know what happened to our hyperactive chief minister. She was fighting against the virus on the street, and now she is nowhere to be seen,” state BJP unit president Dilip Ghosh said. “In fact, people wanted to know from her what issues she raised before the PM, but she decided not to face the media.”
The Trinamool Congress has termed the allegations as being mischievous. “The opposition leaders have nothing to do other than make mischievous comments. The CM is very much there at Nabanna. She is doing all her administrative work,” said veteran TMC MP Sougata Roy.
“Who will meet the press and when to appear before the public will be decided by her, not by others. When she was out moving on the streets, the BJP leaders asked why she was doing all of it. Now, they are speaking otherwise. It is better to ignore such mischief makers.”
Political observers, however, said Mamata is following the strategy of “zero publicity is better than negative publicity”.
“Mamata Banerjee’s initial activities and her decisions have now been challenged. Several government policies on testing and on giving figures, especially the death toll were questioned by all,” said political analyst Professor Partha Pratim Biswas.
“Recently, the government has also come up with new figures and admitted their mistakes. In this situation, her authority has been challenged. The clashes over ration distribution also points to weak governance. So she has perhaps chosen to stay away from public glare and give people some time to forget all these.”
Senior political commentator Professor Biswanath Chakraborty said, “The chief minister appears to be very upset. She can perhaps read the ground situation now and she knows that these mishandling on the part of her government will be used by the BJP during the assembly elections next year.”