Narendra Modi's Midnapore rally a crowd puller but may not be enough to shake Trinamool Congress in West Bengal
The themes the prime minister chose to attack the ruling party, too, were, on the face of it, less than inspired.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to Midnapore and the public meeting he addressed there was possibly meant to jumpstart the Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP’s) campaign for the 2019 elections in Bengal. That it has come 10-odd months before the elections are due signals serious intent.
At present, however, it seems unlikely that the Modi factor will have any serious impact. What will happen 10 months on is, of course, an imponderable, but any doubts about Trinamool Congress’ invulnerability can be ruled out. The Communist Party of India (CPM) is on life support, the Congress is likely to haemorrhage leaders and workers and is only a bit player anyway, and the BJP and Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh have neither the organisational muscle nor general acceptance, let alone popularity, to seriously challenge the ruling party.
It would be both instructive to examine Modi’s meeting in this context. Media reports peg the attendance at something between 100,000 and 500,000: that is, the police estimate is 100,000, while the BJP claims 500,000 people attended the rally. Neutral estimates are in the region of the BJP’s claim. Trinamool leaders say that the overwhelming majority of people at the rally were bussed in from neighbouring states, but that seems unlikely given the BJP’s unexpectedly good performance in that region – the districts of West Midnapore, Jhargram, Purulia and Bankura, to a lesser extent – in the panchayat elections. Let us just assume then that the attendance was impressive, by any standard.
For most political observers it is almost axiomatic that crowds at public rallies and meetings do not necessarily reflect voting preferences. In the case of the Modi meeting, this understanding is probably even truer. Many of those attending the meeting probably just went to it to see Modi on the podium and hear him speak, because without any doubt the prime minister is both a charismatic leader and powerful orator. Many of these people will probably vote for the Trinamool next year.
Whatever the attendance may have been, the meeting also served to place under the spotlight the bumbling of the Bengal BJP unit. First, there was the inability to exercise due diligence in organising the meeting, which indirectly led to the collapse of the marquee, injuring almost a hundred persons. The assumption that various agencies of the state were guilty of negligence does not absolve the BJP brass. Initially, state BJP president alleged a conspiracy, blaming the state government for the fiasco. On Thursday, however, he owned responsibility, citing the inexperience of the party in organising meetings of such magnitude. Media reports quoted BJP ‘insiders’ as having said this was a clear indication that the teams sent to investigate had found no fault with the administration.
Then, of course, was the very public showdown between Union minister Babul Supriyo and state president Dilip Ghosh. The reasons for it need not detain us, nor is it necessary for us to adjudicate in the dispute. But the very fact that two of the most senior leaders in the state went toe to toe at the venue, even though it happened before the prime minister arrived, says a lot about the state of the leadership. Read that alongside the profiles of the top leaders of the Bengal BJP, most of them are political flyweights with very little statewide connect, and you don’t really see a recipe for regime change.
The themes the prime minister chose to attack the ruling party, too, were, on the face of it, less than inspired. The characterisation of the current dispensation as a syndicate raj was legitimate, even if par for the course. But Modi’s constant references to the agricultural sector does not appear to be a fruitful line of attack. It would have been understandable had Modi highlighted the increase in the minimum support price for a number of kharif crops, but he chose also to harp on the promise that farm incomes would be doubled by 2022, while attacking the Trinamool’s record.
After four years, and amid the debris of unfulfilled promises, that wouldn’t have cut much ice with the farmers at the rally, especially because it is not inevitable that the BJP will be in power this time next year. In any case, since the Trinamool came to power in 2011, Bengal’s performance in the farm sector has been above the national average, even if somewhat erratic. A Trinamool statement pointed out, citing a parliamentary report, that in the first quarter of 2017 the number of farmers’ suicides in Bengal was zero compared to 635 in Maharashtra.
Add to that a counter-intuitive fact. Though the Trinamool government has the image of being a poor performer when it comes to managing the economy, official statistics show that under Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee, Bengal has become one of the top performers in terms of per capita net state domestic product growth. Critics could legitimately say that this is because Bengal has been growing from a low baseline, but politically that nicety doesn’t mean much, especially if the people experience the fruits of growth, however small, on the ground. The indications are that this is happening. In other words, the prime minister may have been incompletely briefed.
Modi predicted at the rally that the Trinamool government would collapse in a few months. He was obviously grandstanding. In fact, there is every indication that the Trinamool will sweep the 2019 Lok Sabha elections and the 2021 Assembly elections. In Bengal, the BJP has a long wait ahead of it.
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