At a public meeting on Monday, West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee asked corporate houses and businessmen why they were keeping quiet about demonetisation and urged them to come forward and speak out against it. It has been two months since Prime Minister Narendra Modi launched his demonetisation drive in the country, and Banerjee has taken to the streets against the move.
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The West Bengal Chief Minister’s agitation against demonetisation is her latest move against the Prime Minister and is based on reasons closer home. For months before demonetisation, Banerjee had been slowly but surely stitching together a probable alliance of all non-BJP, non-Congress political parties for a possible third front. She had visited Delhi regularly and even squeezed in a trip to neighbouring Bihar.
Demonetisation simply helped Banerjee to ramp up her anti-Modi strategy. And this time, she managed to get the Congress onto her side as well and not with just its tacit support. AICC vice president Rahul Gandhi’s appearance alongside Banerjee, sealed the deal.
Ironically, earlier this year, Rahul Gandhi addressed a rally in Park Circus alongside former CPI(M) Chief Minister of West Bengal Buddhadeb Bhattacharya. But once the “jote’’ or “people’s alliance’’ between the Left parties and Congress as an electoral strategy to displace the TMC government, proved ineffective, the Congress’s central leadership has put its weight behind Banerjee, much to the chagrin of its state unit.
In the last two months, Banerjee has been the most aggressive and vociferous of all Modi’s critics in her attack on demonetization. However, while she has opposed demonetisation as the “people’s Chief Minister’’, Banerjee’s opposition is driven by more than the suffering of the people alone. It has to do with state politics.
Since the assembly elections last May, in which Banerjee crushed her opponents, winning 211 assembly seats out of a total of 294, and winning an undisputed mandate, she has nursed a larger national ambition. However, an unanticipated problem has arisen for the Trinamool Congress in Bengal. While the Left seems, so far, unable to recover from its defeat and regain a foothold with the electorate, the BJP, which so far has had no presence in West Bengal, has emerged as a potent threat to the TMC. With the Left being perceived as an unlikely option, the BJP has become Bengal’s default opposition.
In terms of assembly seats, the BJP has only three – all in Darjeeling district. Darjeeling’s Gorkha Janmukti Morcha, which has been waging a longstanding battle for a separate state for its people, is a BJP ally. North Bengal has always been Banerjee’s Achilles’ heel.
Unfortunately for Mamata, the BJP is no longer restricted to the hills of Darjeeling and the foothills of the Dooars. Their presence in the state has slowly but surely grown. In the November bypolls, the first election since demonetization was announced, the BJP’s vote share jumped — even in areas like Nandigram where Banerjee enjoys the undisputed support and loyalty of the electorate that has a large Muslim population. In the red bastion of Bardhaman the BJP did well: throughout the morning of result day, the BJP candidate led in the vote count against the CPI(M) candidate, eventually losing by a close margin.
What has added fuel to fire is that the BJP has consistently accused Banerjee of “minority appeasement’’ to capture the 34 per cent of the Muslim vote in the states. The BJP’s strategy has been clearly to woo the Hindu vote bank, thus polarizing Bengal along religious and communal lines for the first time.
A number of communal riots have plagued Bengal since September 2016. As the BJP has grown stronger so have its cadres. The West Bengal police have indicated that a number of these riots, sporadic incidents which have spread across the state, may even be politically motivated. While communal tensions have existed in Bengal earlier, the differences between the two communities have erupted into unbridled animosity in the past few months. Both Muslim and Hindu families have been affected – in Naihati, in Dhulagarh and numerous other places where violence has broken out.
While normalcy has been restored, peace in these areas is tenuous and superficial. Banerjee, at a public event in Hooghly, warned the electorate to be “careful to not be incited and swayed’’ and “keep your eyes and ears open for miscreants’’.
The TMC-BJP battle has taken another turn publicly when two TMC MPs Tapas Pal and Sudeep Bandopadhyay were arrested recently by the CBI in relation to the Rose valley chit fund case. An already tense TMC cadre lost its cool. They attacked BJP offices across the state and even its leaders. BJP state vice president Krishna Bhattacharya was allegedly beaten up at gunpoint by the TMC’s Bike Vahini who barged into her residence on the evening of the arrests. She is still in the hospital ICU.
There have been counter attacks by the BJP and FIRs and counter FIRs from both political parties. Accusations of corruption and links to the Sharada scam have been made by the TMC and the BJP.
So the Bengal CM’s fight against demonetization, at the national level, is her battle to fight a developing political situation in her home state, one that appears to be rapidly spiraling out of control.