Mamata Banerjee is facing her dilemma of the decade. With a resurgent Bharatiya Janata Party breathing down her neck in West Bengal, which goes to polls next year, the chief minister has to choose between alienating the majority Hindu voters or risking a Covid surge. Either decision will suit the party of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Home Minister Amit Shah. For Mamata, it’s a lose-lose situation.
Mamata cannot afford to antagonise the Hindu Bengali voter in the puja season, and hence, has little option but to allow full festivities and pandals in all their glory. Modi-Shah are all but waiting to go shrill on what they call is the Trinamool Congress chief’s ‘minority appeasement’. This will give them an opportunity to further polarise an already divisive campaign and reach out to their Hindu vote base.
But letting the festival season run its normal course also has its risk — of seeing a spike in coronavirus cases. This, too, will reflect poorly on the state government and give the BJP enough reason to target Mamata and raise question on her administrative abilities.
In short, Mamata is stuck between a rock and a hard place. The two-time chief minister, who in 2011 accomplished the herculean task of dislodging the Left Front rule of 34 years, will face perhaps one of the most challenging election seasons in her political career next year. It requires some deft and delicate tightrope walking.
Mamata Banerjee, who had earlier said there would be a ban on cultural programmes during puja amid Covid, changed her mind last week and said the events can take place if all protocols are followed.
But, the Calcutta High Court’s latest order restricting the entry of visitors at puja pandals has created a fresh headache for the CM.
The majority-minority question
Mamata Banerjee has been often accused of practising ‘minority appeasement’ by her opponents, even as she has relied on the significant Muslim vote base — around 30 per cent. From the contentious stipend to imams, setting up the Haj House to ordering construction of dining rooms in Muslim-majority schools — Banerjee’s Trinamool Congress has consistently tried to stay on the right side of the Muslim voter.
For the BJP, which thrives on the politics of polarisation and rides on a majoritarian agenda, West Bengal is a textbook case that lends itself to this modus operandi and Didi, a fine target. BJP’s entire game plan, like in other previously unchartered territories such as Assam, is to consolidate the Hindu vote and project its rivals as ‘anti-Hindu’ in the eyes of the voters to give itself a strong shot at power.
Painting Mamata as anti-Hindu is a card the BJP has consistently played, and will continue to do so until the 2021 assembly election. Just look at BJP president J.P. Nadda’s remarks last month, when he claimed Mamata had an ‘anti-Hindu mindset’.
Besides the remarks, BJP’s policy decisions also create avenues to keep the majority-minority debate alive. The sharpest divide came over the issue of the National Register of Citizens (NRC), which Amit Shah had said he would bring to West Bengal and then elsewhere, promising to ‘weed out illegal infiltrators’. The BJP has hyphenated NRC and the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA), the combination of which protects all Hindu ‘refugees’ while leaving Muslims out. Mamata has steadfastly opposed the NRC-CAA combination and has conveyed it to the Centre in unequivocal terms.
This makes it easier for Modi-Shah to target Mamata as someone who wants to protect Muslims at the cost of Hindus, and the BJP as the saviour of the majority community.
Now, as people of Bengal get ready to celebrate their biggest festival, Mamata has little option but to be seen as doing enough for Hindu voters. The chief minister announced a grant of Rs 50,000 each to puja committees, along with a 50 per cent discount on power bills. There is enough room in Mamata’s actions for the BJP to utilise against her.
The virus threat
The threat of the coronavirus is real, and not just India, leaders around the world know it by now. Just like everyone, Mamata Banerjee too has had her share of bad press on this, criticised for her slow response when the virus hit.
There was the constant bickering with the Centre, attempts to suppress data, and juvenile statements alleging a political conspiracy by the Modi government.
Narendra Modi, who enjoys the halo of ‘good governance’ that he has created around himself, is waiting for Mamata to falter on the Covid front. The BJP has already started making noises about the poor law and order situation in West Bengal, and dropping the hint of a ‘President’s Rule’ in the state, enough to convey to voters that Mamata may not have a complete grip over the affairs in Bengal.
If Covid figures see a sharp surge post-festivities, Mamata will find it difficult to explain why she failed in containing the virus in the state — which saw the highest single day spike of 3,865 cases this Saturday. It doesn’t even matter if this strikes the voter, for the BJP is watching like a hawk and any hint of dropping the ball on this front by Mamata means handing over a very useful ammunition to a very wily rival.
After ten years of being in power, the anti-incumbency sentiment against Mamata Banerjee is going to be prominent, and add to it a tadka of ‘poor Covid management’ and divisive Hindutva politics, the BJP could well be staring at a winning combination.
The 2011 assembly election was a big challenge for Mamata — to unseat the Left Front from its well-guarded fortress. But Mamata had the advantage of being the breath of fresh air amid the staleness of a 34-year Left rule, which, by the end of it, was marred by grassroots lawlessness, corruption, lack of development and incidents such as Singur and Nandigram protests that became difficult to control as time wore on, with Mamata promising ‘poriborton‘ (change).
The 2021 election, however, is a far more difficult election for her — having to defeat the idea of ‘poribortan‘ because it is now the BJP’s war cry while dealing with a party that enjoys the same advantages that she did a decade ago. But first, she must successfully tackle the toss-up between catering to the Bengali Hindu voter and keeping Covid in check — one that Narendra Modi and Amit Shah are perhaps enjoying from the sidelines.
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