While the Mahagathbandhan in Uttar Pradesh spearheads the electoral push of the Opposition, it is Mamata Banerjee who has emerged as the voice of the fightback to the ruling party in West Bengal. She has repeatedly engaged with Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s rhetoric, and whatever the outcome of the election, she has made the electoral battle more lively, more riveting. She has also caught the ear of those who are uneasy about a single party becoming the axis of power. But those who watch her stake out the oppositional space are unlikely to be comfortable about Banerjee herself exhibiting intolerant and authoritarian behaviour in her own state.
Priyanka Sharma of the Bharatiya Janata Yuva Morcha (BJYM) in West Bengal was arrested on Friday for posting a morphed image of actor Priyanka Chopra at the red carpet of the recent Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Costume Institute Gala in New York. Banerjee’s face had replaced Chopra’s, who was dressed for the occasion in a bizarre outfit and hair-do. There is nothing obscene about the image, and guests at the gala traditionally choose their outfits from the shelf over the top. Both the original and the morphed image have travelled widely on social media, and have been received in good (though perplexed) humour. Certainly, the picture shared by Sharma does not appear to constitute sufficient grounds for inviting stringent provisions of criminal law, which have been slapped on her.
Even earlier, though, Banerjee has shown a disinclination to be amused when the joke is on her. In 2012, she had reacted sharply to a completely harmless cartoon based on a scene in a children’s film by Satyajit Ray, which she interpreted as a death threat and an attempt to outrage the modesty of a woman. Jadavpur University chemistry teacher Ambikesh Mohapatra had not originated the cartoon, he merely shared it. But he was beaten up by political goons and arrested under serious provisions of the law, including the infamous Section 66A(b) of the Information Technology Act, which was later struck down by the Supreme Court. As a consequence, a Bengali cartoon that had hardly been seen outside the state was shared by millions of people, and an online movement courting arrest with humour began in West Bengal. It is surprising, and dispiriting, that Banerjee has forgotten that lesson, especially now, when she is courting a national image as an opponent of authoritarian and intolerant politics.