In Serampore, a town less than 50 kilometres from Kolkata, Prime Minister Narendra Modi brought opprobrium upon the office he holds at a rally on Monday. Betraying the Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP’s) desperation to scrounge some crumbs from the West Bengal table, he said, astonishingly, that 40 Trinamool Congress MLAs were ‘in touch with’ him.
In some other context, one could argue, there was something of a studied ambiguity about this statement. But in the context of the entirety of his rhetorical excess, it can be seen as what it is: a not so veiled threat that the BJP is fully prepared to launch a variant of Operation Lotus in Bengal. "As of date, a total of 40 Trinamool MLAs are in touch with me. Didi, they will dump your party after lotus blooms all over the state when Lok Sabha election results are out on 23 May," Modi was reported saying.
The prime minister’s claim — that 40 Trinamool MLAs are in touch with him — was meant to be a boast. Unpacked, it meant that his party was prepared to, in fact, preparing to, destabilise an Opposition government by engineering defections. This would have been exceedingly improper coming from, say, the president of the state unit of the BJP, but coming from the prime minister of the country, no less, it is appalling. It goes against the letter and spirit of the anti-defection law.
Let us assume, in the first place, that it is true that 40 Trinamool MLAs are in touch with Modi. Note the continuous tense. They got in touch with him at some point of time in the possibly recent past and are still in touch with him. What would the plain duty of a prime minister be if such a thing had really happened? The answer is fairly obvious. He should have rebuffed them: that is his constitutional duty. And then he should have reported them to the relevant authority, who would probably be the Speaker of the West Bengal Legislative Assembly.
That the prime minister to encourage this improper contact beggars belief because it amounts to abetment, perhaps encouragement, of an improper, if not illegal, act. This is particularly true because Modi did not provide any details of the circumstances surrounding the contact. The claim that 40 MLAs are in touch with the prime minister elides the question of agency. How was this contact established? Did the MLAs in question approach the prime minister through whatever channel of their own accord? Or were they encouraged to do so through inducements of some sort by the prime minister through his aides? These are issues that need to be investigated, especially since Modi also claims that they will dump Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee’s party when the lotus blooms in Bengal.
The matter would have been different had it not been clandestine. If, for instance, these 40 supposed defectors had resigned their Assembly seats and approached the prime minister publicly seeking admission into his party, there would have been no question of impropriety.
There is also a crucial question of timing. It is to be remembered that an election is in progress. The prime minister was holding a campaign meeting. For him to spring this information in such a forum at such a time could well amount to an infringement of the Model Code of Conduct, which is, however, not something that he has baulked at throughout the election campaign. But this seems to be a particularly egregious violation. At the very least, the Election Commission must look into the matter without delay when the Trinamool Congress lodges a complaint, which it is going to do.
Modi’s claim tells us something that the BJP is as desperate to pick up a decent number of seats in Bengal as it is scared that it will fare no better than it did in 2014, when the ‘Modi wave’ failed to wash over Bengal. The 40 MLAs story could well be a figment of the prime ministerial imagination trotted out bang in the middle of the elections in the desperate hope that it will give the BJP the traction it desperately needs but does not have.
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Updated Date: Apr 30, 2019 21:05:56 IST