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LS polls: Mamata takes politics of grievance too far in West Bengal, allows Modi and Shah to turn tables

Grievance is grist for great politics. Its consummate cultivation as an art is a rare skill that West Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee has perfected to the hilt. Recall the visual of a young Mamata being dragged out from the Writer’s Building, the state secretariat, by Jyoti Basu’s administration in 1993 when she was a junior minister in the PV Narasimha Rao government.

She nursed that grievance and successfully channelised it into her politics. In her state, where the Communist Party of India-Marxist (CPM) had evolved a vicious strain of statecraft that was authoritarian to the core, Banerjee was seen as an effective antidote. It was not without reason that she got the first congratulatory message from her Gujarat counterpart, Narendra Modi, after her first electoral victory in the West Bengal Assembly in 2011. At the time, Modi also looked at her as a loner who fought relentlessly to create her own space against a cadre-based strong political party. She showed the potential of a great leader in the making.

 LS polls: Mamata takes politics of grievance too far in West Bengal, allows Modi and Shah to turn tables

File image of West Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee. PTI

But Banerjee did not realise the fact that politics of perpetual grievance creates its own antidotes and has severe limitations. Since her ascension to power in 2011, she could not evolve in the role of an effective administrator whose governance is not constrained by politics. In February, she tried to intimidate CBI officials and stall the inquiry against IPS officer Rajeev Kumar — her favourite — in the Saradha chit-fund scam. She not only went on a fast against the CBI,but also encouraged the IPS officer to join her. For the first time, the chief executive of a state was egging on and encouraging rebellion against the State.

This was followed up by the slapping of criminal cases against officials of the CBI posted in Kolkata by the state police. The retribution against the central agency was a clear violation of the constitutional arrangement of a federal structure. Yet, Banerjee got away with this indiscretion without any rap on her knuckles. She was further emboldened to declare that the state would not let the central agencies function. As a result, the state police started interfering with customs officials at Kolkata airport and forced them not to take action against the wife of a Trinamool Congress leader reportedly caught with contraband.

In effect, Banerjee seems to be taking her politics of grievance a bit too far. Short of declaring West Bengal a separate republic, she has been defying all tenets of the Constitution on the pretext of fighting ‘communal forces’ represented by the BJP, which has replaced the Congress and the CPM as the main Opposition in the state. Her stranglehold over the state bureaucracy and co-option of criminals in the cadre have combined to give a feeling of déjà vu for people of the state. The Trinamool Congress acquired the features of a lumpenised CPM.

Like the CPM, which grossly underestimated Banerjee’s challenge, she  has grossly overestimated garrulousness as her political strength and trusted her instincts more than a well-crafted political strategy. Given the demographic change that occurred in the border districts of West Bengal, she seemed to have ignored simmering social discontent and communal fault lines. This social discontent was further accentuated by her image as a leader who pursues anti-industry policies, a fact borne out by her opposition to industrial projects in Singur and Nandigram.

As the last round of polls draws near and West Bengal is in the eye of a storm, there is no doubt that Banerjee must have been conscious of the reality that her assessment of Modi and BJP president Amit Shah has gone horribly wrong. The reason is obvious. During her NDA years, she was quite adept in dealing with leaders like Atal Bihari Vajpayee and LK Advani and found them quite amenable to her tantrums. There were instances when she raised a banner of revolt against the BJP leadership, but maintained cordial ties with both top BJP leaders.

In the NDA government, she forced Vajpayee’s hand and had George Fernandes removed as defence minister in the Tehelka bribery case. That led to en masse resignation of the JD(U) cabinet members. Apparently Vajpayee and Advani looked at Banerjee as a potential ally in West Bengal where the BJP was non-existent and yet did not have political ambitions for the state either.

However, the Modi-Shah duo changed the game and found a political vacuum waiting to be filled by the BJP. Grievances that were once Banerjee’s weapon became an effective instrument for the BJP, which expanded its organisational network by co-opting ‘notables’ or well-known personalities and celebrities as well as trained political cadres who drifted away either from the Congress or the CPM.

Within the past five years, the party has built a formidable organisation suitably bolstered by the central leadership to mount an effective challenge to Banerjee. Her indiscretions and her dismal governance proved to be a catalyst for the BJP’s mobilisation of people on grievances. In essence, she has found more than a match in the Modi-Shah duo.

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Updated Date: May 16, 2019 21:23:12 IST