In politics, what you see is usually not what you get. And what you hear at campaign rallies is not what will necessarily echo in the legislative chambers, especially in the august Houses of Parliament. But never before have these truisms been more true than in the elections currently underway in West Bengal, where what is being said in the heat of the campaigning may well prove to be just words, words, words once the election fever subsides. And we are not speaking of electoral promises which few of us are gullible enough to fall for.
But you may think there is no way Mamata Banerjee will ever again go to 10 Janpath to wish Sonia Gandhi a happy birthday, that neither she nor her boudi or bhabiji will give each other even the time of day if their paths cross, as they have earlier, at the Central Hall of Parliament where Mamata Banerjee likes to escort novices like Delhi chief minister Arvind Kerjrwal when she is in Delhi. Not after the way the Congress president went full throttle at the Trinamool Congress during an election rally in West Bengal this week, accusing the TMC supremo of unleashing “tanashahi” (autocracy) in her state and painting the chief minister and prime minister Narendra Modi as “two sides of the same coin” and “eating from the same plate”, helping each other out in times of need. “When the BJP government gets into a trouble in Parliament, TMC helps it and in return Narendra Modi turns a blind eye to anti-people policies of Mamata Banerjee,” Sonia Gandhi declared.
For someone who was supposed to have a soft spot for the irrepressible chief minister of West Bengal, Sonia Gandhi minced no words, indicting “the one here who calls herself Didi” for “betraying the people of Bengal”, for reneging on promises made including to the UPA-II government at the Centre, for remaining silent when the governments of Arunachal and Uttarakhand were toppled recently. Effectively dispelling any notion that might have been created by Narendra Modi’s not so subtle hint about Congress-TMC collusion when he said Didi goes to Delhi, does not attend meetings called by the Centre but makes sure to visit Sonia Gandhi.
No wonder party spokesman Derek O’Brien was spluttering and searching for words: “How could you – how dare you, we would say – compare Mamata Banerjee to Narendra Modi? How could you even concoct something as devious and ridiculous as that? This is sad and unfortunate, it is also petty and speaks for political desperation,” his statement read.
Again, you may think you are seeing a fight to finish between Narendra Modi and Mamata Banerjee with the prime minister coining nasty slogans like the bridge collapse was “not an act of God but an act of fraud” and how “Ma Mati Manush” has been replaced with “Maut, Maut aur Maut” and that TMC today stands for “Terrorism, maut and corruption”, with Didi retorting that she could if she wanted to say the BJP was a “Bhayanak Jaali Party” but she won’t, preferring to fall back on her standard charges of the BJP’s penchant for communal riots, of the Centre being anti-people because it did not waive her debts, etc.
Think again. Campaign rhetoric and realpolitik are two different beasts and politicians have no difficulty swapping one for the other as and when they need to. This is not the first time Mamata Banerjee and Narendra Modi have traded charges. You only have to go back two years, to the Lok Sabha election campaign of 2014. “Danga Babu” or Mr Riot, Didi had called Narendra Modi, while the prime minister had poked fun at her paintings being bought at phenomenal prices by chit fund bosses. There were many meetings, many harsh words were spoken.
Words that lost their sting once the government was formed at the Centre and who needed what from whom became clear. Whatever the results of this round of elections, the BJP minority status in the Rajya Sabha will not change and the Modi government will still need the support of TMC to get the GST and other critical Bills passed which the TMC will do openly or by walking out (as it did with the Congress-Left’s proposed amendments to the Aadhar Bill) depending on its own compulsions. Come 2019, Sonia Gandhi may still turn to Didi if the numbers so dictate, and even Mamata Banerjee’s reactions (she does tend to take everything personally) will have little to do with what Sonia ji said or did not say at election rallies on 13 April 2016. Campaign speeches are more to energise party faithfuls, whip up emotions, rope in floating voters; they are not meant to be taken literally.
If anyone cares to remind them of their past indiscretions, an answer can be found in Arun Jaitley’s clinical, lawerly clarification at a press conference in Kolkata last week. Reminded of his recent kind words for the Bengal government, there is, the finance minister explained, a “constitutional relationship” between the States and the Centre and any praise he may have dished out to the West Bengal government should be seen in that light and not as a byproduct of the Modi government’s political compulsions. Which must why he said that while the Trinamool Congress was thoroughly corrupt, that one could find corruption in every transaction of that party, there was nothing he could do as “law and order and investigation of corruption are State subjects”. Anything can be explained away. Enjoy the campaign speeches for their entertainment value, not for their substance.