The verbal war, especially from BJP, shows a determination to attain better fortunes in the upcoming elections. In the spirit of the Presidential debate, this was a gladiatorial fight. The crossfire between second time prime ministerial aspirant Narendra Modi and his archrival and Trinamool Congress (TMC) chief Mamata Banerjee. Visceral spectacles such as these, what with open dares and debates, heat up the campaign and the news wires. So when Banerjee tweaked her schedule around Modi’s rallies so that she could drive home the counterpoint equally strongly and rob him of monopolising the optics, it made for a day of colourful rhetoric. He called her a “speedbreaker” in Bengal’s development, she called him the “expiry PM”, he called her out for questioning the surgical strikes, she shot back with “voter strikes” to deflate his tall claims. And in the end, the war of words headlined election reportage in the media. It is significant that Modi doesn’t even engage with Congress chief Rahul Gandhi, the supposed national claimant to the top chair, as blisteringly as he does with the Bengal Chief Minister. This speaks a lot about Banerjee’s national relevance as the key architect of the Opposition front or mahagathbandhan, which at least has a mathematical possibility of posing a challenge to the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) at the hustings though the chemistry may have gone a bit askew. Besides, West Bengal has the third largest number of seats in the Lok Sabha at 42, just behind Uttar Pradesh and Maharashtra, and its Chief Minister, therefore, is in a position to be the kingmaker. Perhaps that explains why Modi accords his adversary equal status in a rather back-handed manner because he wants to breach the monolithic citadel of Bengal. Whatever the josh of the muscular militarism displayed in the Balakot airstrikes and even the A-SAT space tests, fact is these are not palpable on the ground and in the 24-hour amnesia of news cycles, are not good enough to swell up a tide till voting day. So the BJP is taking rearguard action and planning an insurance policy should there be a dip in the heartland due to anti-incumbency and a poor showing in the South. The Northeast, where the BJP has its own or alliance governments and which it has cultivated as its new votebank, has just 25 seats that are not enough for the party to offset losses.
It is, therefore, hoping that Bengal becomes its happy hunting ground. Of course, in the last Lok Sabha elections, it had just two seats in its kitty despite a tidal Modi wave. But that election still held a semblance of a multi-cornered fight. Five years later, the Congress and the Left have all but been decimated while the BJP, though way behind the TMC, has notched up the second highest vote share in all the byelections held in the State since 2015, most of it by default. Its performance in last year’s panchayat polls further fed its possibility of making inroads. Armed with a clutch of anti-TMC votebanks and scientific assessment of where it can play its communal card to polarise sentiments on voting day (Bengal has about 30 per cent Muslims), even re-igniting the historical animosity of the Partition among the usually assimilative gentry, the BJP is ambitiously staking its all in Bengal. It is targetting the dissatisfied industrial belt — Modi even taking up the plight of tea garden workers in Siliguri — the border seats and south Bengal, supposedly with the most victims of a chit fund scam. But raising issues selectively has a limited pitch considering Banerjee is solid in her receptiveness to people’s issues and her organisational matrix. Then there is her overarching persona. She draws on popular pulse and has lived the best campaign pitch all her life, as a self-made leader who has fought an oppressive Left regime and won despite a hostile State machinery. True after over 30 years of the Left’s politics of denial, the expectations were huge and she has delivered but a bit of them, working assiduously in the rural areas. True she has been compelled to adapt a system that was in use for her electoral ends and this has cost her goodwill. But her change-making effort is still in stark contrast to the projected and crafted glory of Modi and perceptibly more hard-won. And in this titular clash, she doesn’t want to remain David anymore or yield the slightest ground but be the Goliath. That story still has takers, one that Modi has to push over.
Courtesy: The Pioneer