TMC ropes in Naxalbari couple: Mamata Banerjee may have committed a tactical error, offered BJP an advantage in Bengal

By roping in the Naxalbari adivasi couple — who had on 25 April hosted visiting BJP president Amit Shah for lunch — into the party fold on Wednesday, the All India Trinamool Congress has conveyed a rare insecurity. It could also turn out to be a tactical error.

Amit Shah and Mamata Banerjee. PTI

Amit Shah and Mamata Banerjee. PTI

Media reports make it obvious that a significant amount of coercion was involved in the process. Geeta and Raju Mahali, members of the Mahali tribe in north Bengal, went "missing" on Tuesday from their residence in Naxalbari's South Katiajote village, only to "emerge" the following day sitting alongside state tourism minister Gautam Deb and local TMC leaders to announce that they were joining the ruling party out of happiness and own volition.

A News18 report quoted the minister, as saying: "(The) Mahalis have willingly joined TMC today. There was no pressure on them. They have decided to join TMC after being convinced by Mamata Banerjee’s immense developmental work in the state."

In fact, Geeta and Raju Mahali were so impressed with the chief minister's "development work" that both reportedly had tears in their eyes as they accepted TMC membership. It is not clear, though, what "immense development" took place in the intervening week between their hosting of BJP president and decision to join TMC and why both husband and wife were teary eyed.

The BJP, obviously, is crying foul. Its local unit tried to lodge FIR at Naxalbari police station alleging that the couple has been kidnapped but the police allegedly refused to register one. The officer-in-charge told News18 that they have received BJP leader Dilip Barui's complaint and are "looking into the matter".

To dispel any residual doubts over the Mahalis' sudden decision to join TMC, Deb offered yet another explanation. According to him, the tribal couple joined TMC because they believe in "secularism", raising more questions whether the coupe were "not secular" when they served lunch to Shah and Dilip Ghosh, BJP's Bengal unit chief, on 25 April.

Their neighbours appeared apprehensive about speaking on the issue. One local resident told Times of India that the couple may have joined TMC under duress. "Else, why would Geeta read out a written statement at the TMC party office? But we can't say anything unless the couple speaks up," the local resident was quoted as saying.

The incident indicates a certain clumsiness on the TMC's part where they seem to feel threatened enough by Shah's subaltern outreach to stage a charade of sorts. This is like muscle-flexing to intimidate the opponents. The question, however, is, why did TMC feel the need to do so?

It is evident from Bengal's political, social and electoral trends that BJP is slowly gaining in strength in erstwhile Left bastions such as Naxalbari, the birthplace of the radical Left movement in the late 1960s, but one lunch with a tribal couple is unlikely to change the political demographic overnight.

All that TMC has succeeded in doing is to tacitly admit that it is worried about BJP's ascend. It has also given the party, fighting to get a toehold in Bengal, some oxygen to launch a greater local and even national level agitation around this incident.

Calling it a "textbook case of revenge politics", Union Minister of Law and Justice Ravi Shankar Prasad on Wednesday told reporters at a news conference that the couple were made to join TMC under duress in police presence and accused the TMC of unleashing politics of fear and violence of the kind practiced by the Left Front during its 34-year-rule.

Prasad also accused TMC of carrying out such tactics of intimidation against residents of Bhawanipore, Banerjee's Assembly constituency where Shah had paid a recent visit during his outreach tour. He sought to interpret it as TMC's desperation arising out of insecurities regarding the Saradha and Narada scam probes.

The TMC will find it difficult to stave off charges of intimidation. Coercive politics has been one of the defining features of Banerjee's six-year rule as West Bengal CM. In this, she seems to have appropriated both the model and operatives of Left Front. The nexus between politics and criminality remains close. For all the stereotypical representation of Bengal as the "abode of Tagore" and India's "cultural capital", goondaism as a cultural and political motif is now firmly established in Bengali milieu.

So, when BJP national secretary Rahul Sinha alleges that "people who had hosted Amit Shah in Banerjee’s constituency, Bhawanipore, and at Gourangapur in Rajarhat (a Kolkata suburb) are living in fear," it is difficult to dismiss the allegations as mere rhetoric.

A 27 April, a report in Times of India, for instance, points out the palpable fear of residents in Kolkata who had hosted the BJP president during his recent visit. In fact, no sooner did Shah leave after meeting Kalpana Mondal in Chetla slum of Bhawanipore, the chief minister's backyard, that she cried out "kalke amader ki hobe (what will happen to us tomorrow)" to the media.

The report also quoted her as saying: "I am worried about the safety of my family, especially my kids, who played an active role in Shah's visit. I told the leaders to ensure my children were not harmed if there was any backlash from the ruling party supporters. They just smiled and held their hands high in the air, asking me to relax. But I can't." According to the report, her husband Gopal, a daily labourer, hoped that BJP would support them in times of trouble.

For all the hype around Shah's visit, the BJP knows that challenging Banerjee's clout in the state won't be a cakewalk. The 2016 Assembly polls or the recent bypoll results clearly indicate that TMC faces no imminent threat from BJP, which seems to be gaining in strength entirely at the Left's expense.

Ashok Malik is right when he assesses in his column for NDTV that "as things stand, TMC should win in a canter in the 2019 Lok Sabha election as well as the 2021 Assembly election. The BJP's realistic target is to raise its Lok Sabha strength in the state from two (in 2014) to four or five in 2019. In both 2019 and 2021, it would want to be the second biggest party as measured by vote share, permanently crossing the CPI(M)."

The key question is why is TMC feeling so annoyed by BJP's legitimate attempts to increase its influence?

Banerjee has always taken a confrontational approach in politics. As a student Congress leader and then later on as the founder of TMC, she profited from this approach in carving her political space in a state over which the Left had a suffocating grip. It is futile to expect her to be anything else when she senses the dawning of a challenge to her hegemony. The West Bengal chief minister might appear mercurial but behind that projected image of volatility lies a shrewd mass leader who knows instinctively the direction of the wind. She would know that Shah and Narendra Modi are men of patience and prudence, prone to taking the long-term view.

Which is why, even though BJP is still a nascent force in the state, Banerjee senses the rumblings of an uprising which is invisible to most. BJP's attempt at a larger consolidation of Hindu votes by tapping a growing resentment against TMC's appeasement politics holds a different kind of challenge for her, unlike the one she had faced while uprooting the Left.

This may explain the friction and swift manoeuvres to deny BJP the political space in Bengal. The question is, will such procedures work, or will it be counterproductive?

Updated Date: May 04, 2017 19:12 PM

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