Does BJP's cancellation of Modi's Kolkata rally betray party's lack of preparedness for showdown with TMC?

It is not often that the BJP's well-oiled campaign machinery stumbles. So when a rally scheduled on 8 February to be addressed by the BJP's most trusted face, Prime Minister Narendra Modi, is cancelled and the reason the party provides is that the time available is "too short to organise such a rally", then the question arises as to whether the venue of the rally could have played a role in the cancellation. Is the BJP afraid to take on the TMC so close on the heels of Mamata Banerjee's mega Opposition show of strength at the very same Brigade Parade Grounds in Kolkata?

The grounds are in the heart of Kolkata and have seen some of the biggest political mass gatherings in the history of the country. The vastness of the grounds is a direct testament to the support a party can garner. If the mass turnout is paltry, then it is acutely visible. For instance, even a gathering of ten lakh at the Opposition rally on 19 January left the grounds looking unpopulated in parts, reported DNA.

File image of Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Twitter/@BJP4India

File image of Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Twitter/@BJP4India

If the BJP is not ready for a challenge at the historic grounds, then surely Narendra Modi cannot be made the scapegoat of a dismal show. Modi will instead address a public meeting in Asansol the same day, state party chief Dilip Ghosh had said. Ghosh also announced Modi rallies at Siliguri on 28 January and Bongaon on 31 January. All three are smaller cities and will no doubt boost the BJP's grassroots hopes.

Yet, is 8 February indeed too soon for the BJP and its slick staff force to put together a rally? Modi’s rally, reported The Telegraph, had originally been scheduled for 23 January but was rescheduled twice — first to 29 January and then to 8 February. The report spoke of unnamed BJP leaders pointing out that the rally was announced as early as "July last year". In December, 2018, reported Economic Times, BJP leaders from Bengal were invited to lengthy discussions in Delhi over the prime minister's travel plans in the state.

The largest spanner in the BJP's works is, of course, the TMC-run West Bengal government and the BJP could well have foreseen the administrative hurdles that the state government would have thrown at the party ahead of Modi's visit. If the debate over the landing of BJP national president Amit Shah's helicopter is any indication, then the saffron party is not only wary of faltering in a show of popularity, but also in putting together the infrastructure of a rally in an environment fraught with alleged lack of cooperation from the Mamata Banerjee government.

On Monday, high drama ensued as Amit Shah's chopper was barred from landing at Malda airstrip. The Bengal government cited ongoing construction work on the runway. The BJP cried sabotage, with Union Law Minister Ravi Shankar Prasad alleging Bengal chief minister Banerjee's helicopter landed there "a few days ago."

Union Railway Minister Piyush Goyal accused Banerjee of presiding over an "undemocratic government" and asserted that "law and order has completely collapsed" under her in Bengal, reported Business Line.

Permission was eventually granted for Shah to land his chopper at an airfield nearby. However, even as the Malda meeting was underway, Shah and other BJP leaders were quick to draw the media's attention to alleged non-cooperation by the Malda district administration, which was allegedly not allowing all the people who had gathered there into the meeting venue, reported India Today.

File image of West Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee. PTI

File image of West Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee. PTI

As the BJP posits itself as the main challenger to TMC's dominance in Bengal, the TMC, which had until now blamed the Left rule of 34 years for most of the troubles in Bengal, has grown to focus on foiling all sweeping attempts made by the BJP to preach its party line. The government's dogged opposition to the BJP's Rath Yatra which would have covered all the 42 Lok Sabha constituencies of the state, culminated in the Supreme Court denying permission to hold the rally in Bengal.

The TMC has reason to stop the BJP from expanding its grassroots-level connect in Bengal. Buoyed by the BJP's performance in the rural polls where it won more than 7,000 seats in the panchayats, party chief Amit Shah has set a target of winning at least 22 of 42 Lok Sabha seats in the state, reported Moneycontrol.

Bengal outside Kolkata, long since loyal to the Left, has only in the years leading up to the 2011 Assembly elections, changed allegiance to the TMC. However, infighting within the Bengal ruling party, which often reveals itself in bloody battles and deaths, has rendered many TMC leaders vulnerable to the BJP's efforts in tapping dissidents. A key figure Mamata lost to the BJP was Mukul Roy, long believed to be her Man Friday.

Roy not only called Mamata's show on Saturday a mark of the fact that the TMC had "killed democracy" in the state, he criticised the money that had ostensibly gone into setting it up, in a move that clearly foreshadowed the BJP's backtracking from a Modi rally which would undoubtedly demand the same degree of spending.

The newly minted BJP leader, reported Indian Express, also claimed that many Trinamool MPs and MLAs are about to leave the party. "Some are in touch with us. But they feel right now if they leave they will be harassed by police through false cases," Roy was quoted as having said. Shortly after Roy, former TMC minister Humayun Kabir joined the BJP. In Tripura in 2017, as many as six Trinamool MLAs signed up for the saffron party, charting a path that is bound to worry the TMC, as pointed out by

On 9 January, TMC's Bishnupur MP Saumitra Khan joined the BJP in the presence of party president Amit Shah. He too had alleged that "many TMC leaders" were all too eager to join hands with the BJP, reported India Today.

The TMC, eager to occupy its space in the politics of the whole nation, remains the BJP's foremost challenge in Bengal. For now, India's party in power may just have moved away from an open comparison of supporters with the TMC in Kolkata.

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Updated Date: Jan 22, 2019 13:52:08 IST

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