New Delhi: As acerbic as the current Lok Sabha polls have been, the one thing that has stood out is the acrimonious exchange of words between Prime Minister Narendra Modi and West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee.
Both have hurled innumerable accusations at each other, and, more importantly, treated their political rivalry as some sort of personal enmity.
Modi has persistently challenged Banerjee by taking the battle right to her doorstep and launching an offensive against her at each of his rallies in West Bengal, even giving her the unflattering moniker “speedbreaker didi”.
Not one to be overshadowed, Banerjee has, in turn, called him “expiry babu [he is past his expiry day]”, and said he is a “danger to the country” and should be given a “slap of democracy”, comparing him to Ravan.
This extreme bitterness, however, was not always a part of the Modi-Banerjee equation. Besides the fact that the Trinamool Congress (TMC) and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) have been allies in the past, there was a time when Modi and Banerjee were not only cordial but would also praise each other.
The BJP-TMC past
The BJP and TMC have had a chequered history. The Trinamool Congress was part of the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) from 1998 to 2006 — except for a brief period in 2001, when it quit following the Tehelka expose — and Banerjee even served as Union railways minister in the Atal Bihari Vajpayee cabinet.
The party fought the 2006 assembly polls in alliance with the BJP. The TMC went on to become a Congress ally, but parted ways later.
The cordial past
Modi, who was chief minister of Gujarat from 2001-2014, and Banerjee, who uprooted 34 years of Left rule to storm to power in West Bengal in 2011, have not always been sworn enemies. Far from that.
Consider this: In 2014, giving his maiden reply to the debate on the Motion of Thanks on the President’s address, Modi digressed from the expected script and made it a point to praise the West Bengal Chief Minister.
“My sister Mamata is working really hard to bring West Bengal out of the evils of 35 years [sic], we respect her,” he said.
Even the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) had nice things to say about Banerjee. In December 2012, RSS mouthpiece Organiser described Banerjee as part of a “rare breed of politicians, who have not made money-making their raison d’être in politics”.
Days later, Banerjee talked about how Gujarat, which was then completing a decade under Modi, was “progressing”.
“Gujarat has been nurtured and it is progressing,” she said, addressing the 85th annual general meeting of the Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry (FICCI).
Banerjee was urging business leaders to invest in her state and cautioning against a comparison between West Bengal and Gujarat given the vast difference between the two states.
At one point, the Modi-Banerjee ‘friendship’ even seemed to bother their political rivals. In June 2015, Congress president Rahul Gandhi questioned this bonhomie after the West Bengal CM joined Modi on an official visit to Bangladesh.
“When our government was there, our PM wanted to go to Bangladesh. We spoke to her (Banerjee) and requested her to go with us. She said no, ‘ekla chalo re (go alone)’,” he said during a visit to the state.
“Now, Modiji is there, so no ‘ekla chalo re’. We will go together. Why is this happening? What is the friendship about? You must be knowing the reason,” he added.
Contrast Modi and Banerjee’s compliments to each other with their current attacks.
Where Modi once respected her for “working hard” in West Bengal, today he claims she is a “speedbreaker” in the path of the state’s development. Banerjee, meanwhile, had once praised how Gujarat was being “nurtured” under his rule but now feels Modi has done nothing for the country.
Meanwhile, the RSS has, in recent Organiser editorials, termed her “frustrated” and “tyrannical”. The leader they once termed honest was targeted in a February article for being a “suspect” in the Saradha Ponzi scam.
It was with the 2016 assembly election in West Bengal that the sharp downward spiral in the Modi-Banerjee equation began.
In that election, the BJP polled 55 lakh votes with a 10.2 per cent vote share. The 2014 Lok Sabha polls saw the BJP manage a 17 per cent vote share in the state, where it wasn’t known to be a major player, and Banerjee’s worries began then. But it was in 2016 that the BJP made it clear West Bengal was a key element in its electoral ambitions.
In a rally before the state polls, towards the end of March 2016, Modi gave a combative, hour-long speech and took the Banerjee-led TMC government head on.
He attacked the CM directly, accusing her government of corruption and extortion, and mentioning the Saradha scam and Narada bribery sting.
At yet another rally in April, Modi said the Kolkata flyover tragedy, in which 26 people were killed, was “God’s message to people to save Bengal from the Trinamool Congress”.
In a bypoll for an assembly seat in April 2017, the BJP rose sharply to the second position with over 30 per cent of the voteshare, adding to the TMC’s insecurities.
In the May 2018 panchayat polls in the state, the BJP finished a distant second to the TMC, but surged past the other traditional players in the state — the Left and the Congress.
The bitterness continued to brew, with top BJP and TMC leaders taking each other on, even as party workers clashed on the ground. The BJP and Modi’s direct attacks on Banerjee over Saradha and Narada only added fuel to an already blazing political fire.
The enmity saw a brief reprieve last month when Modi, in an interview to actor Akshay Kumar, claimed Banerjee “personally selects and sends” him kurtas every year, along with Bengali sweets.
This, however, was short-lived and the acrimony resumed in no time.
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