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Mamata Banerjee vs Narendra Modi: As Lok Sabha election kicks into full swing, war of words escalates

One rules over Delhi and the other aspires to 'capture' the Capital. One is loved intensely, hated bitterly and criticised severely and the other is largely unknown beyond the borders of West Bengal. One creates waves through oratory. The other is a fearless speaker, but a poor orator. The war of words between them — Prime Minister and Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) leader Narendra Modi and Bengal chief minister and Trinamool Congress (TMC) chief Mamata Banerjee — rages on. It's election time, after all.

For the electorate in West Bengal the war is extremely entertaining — and sometimes a trifle annoying. Mostly though, it is only perceived to be part of the election circus in West Bengal. The rallies — especially in north Bengal, where political pundits think there still is a level playing field — have been scheduled in a way that allows Modi the first opportunity to fire his missiles. Then Didi comes up with her counter-rallies, unleashing her rich repertoire of invective against the 'Expiry (sic) PM'.

Modi has a formula when it comes to electioneering. He believes in carpet bombing and, whenever possible, he takes his audience along. His primary strategy has been to begin his speeches by congratulating the congregation for arriving in such large numbers despite the state government's efforts to stop it from reaching the venue. And then he goes on to say that the presence of the huge crowd sends out a signal that Didi's days are numbered.

 Mamata Banerjee vs Narendra Modi: As Lok Sabha election kicks into full swing, war of words escalates

File image of Mamata Banerjee and Narendra Modi. Reuters

In fact, Didi and her acolytes leave no stones unturned — from blocking roads to refusing to let choppers land at the venue — to prevent BJP leaders from reaching their rally venues. Often, BJP supporters have to cross several hurdles just to reach the rally grounds.

Interestingly, both politicians and their voters — not to speak of the police and bureaucracy — in Bengal have accepted the state of affairs as a model they have to cope with. Democracy is alive and kicking as long as there are elections and parties win them to form governments and enjoy the fruits of power for five years.

The second prong of Modi's rhetoric has been to encourage sub-nationalistic feelings among his audience by invoking the glorious past of the people he is addressing — but nationalism in a professed and exaggerated respect for the armed forces is always the main theme. Finally, he dwells on the present, releasing his choicest missiles, one after another. With sarcasm, rage, humour and pop analyses of politics and history, his election speeches are a treat for the listener — a complete entertainment package.

Between his attempts at direct interaction with the crowd through question-answer sessions or sloganeering, Modi goes on to show how Didi has deliberately kept the state poor, by discouraging industry and not implementing Central schemes. Then he rolls out a long list of Centrally-funded schemes that have been renamed in Bengal. And the whole diatribe is peppered with references to the Saradha and Narada scandals.

Mamata, who generally doesn't have the patience to counter Modi's allegations point-by-point, plunges directly into attacking the prime minister with weathered comments on the Rafael deal, federalism, communal politics and the Centre's injustice towards the state. She sprinkles her speech with testy comments on the PM as a person.

On the Saradha-Narada issues, Banerjee has very little to say, except that they are conspiracies to smear the excellent performance of her government. According to her, the Saradha scam began during the Left Front's tenure, while the Narada sting operation was staged — in that some BJP agent met TMC leaders and offered money for the party's election kitty and trapped them. Initially, she had said the video was morphed.

Of late, she has had another ace up her sleeve — good BJP and bad BJP. The present BJP disposition under Modi and party president Amit Shah is bad BJP, since it allegedly believes and propagates religious fascism, besides having designs on West Bengal, threatening to implement the National Register of Citizens (NRC) in the state, where illegal Bangladeshi migrants have always been a social and economic problem.

Mamata cannot accept the NRC since more than 30 percent of the state's voters are Muslim. If implemented properly, the NRC may reveal just how much of that vote bank is made up of Bangladeshi immigrants. The good BJP under the previous leadership of Atal Bihari Vajpayee and LK Advani are acceptable to her. First, she was a minister in the Vajpayee government. Second, they are not in power now. And third, they never made any serious attempt to win elections in West Bengal.

Banerjee's bitterness against the present leadership often reaches such a crescendo that Modi and Shah loom large in her speeches as personal enemies. Calling the prime minister 'Modi babu' and declaring that the 'Chowkidar PM' is a thief who took a cut from the Rafale deal (parroting the speeches of Congress president Rahul Gandhi), sometimes crosses the very thin line of decorum in a state that respects it — even as it relishes the repartee between political rivals amid the election drama.

Not allowing Central agencies like the CBI and the customs to operate freely in the state is an extension of Mamata's defence strategy against the Modi-led BJP government at the Centre. But Didi has to protect her turf. It's election time, after all.

The war has now turned so bitter and the terms of engagement so loose that election rhetoric has ceased to be weapons of just a political battle. Perhaps, the two leaders never even noticed when their sparring turned personal, from political.

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Updated Date: Apr 18, 2019 20:20:08 IST