The virtual rally organised by the Trinamool Congress in West Bengal on Tuesday, was, for all purposes, the launch of the party’s election campaign. This is the last Shahid Dibas, a major mobilisation event for the Trinamool, before the state heads for assembly elections in early 2021. Trinamool chief and West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee’s public address indicated what her political pitch is likely to be for seeking a third successive term in office.
Banerjee identified the BJP as the Trinamool’s main rival in the state, much of her speech was aimed at blunting the edge of the latter’s campaign. She sought to build herself as the face of Bengali subnationalism — “Bengal will be run by Bengalis”. Bengali subnationalism, like most other subnationalisms in the country, has a long history and dates back to the early days of freedom struggle. Even the CPM, despite its proclaimed internationalist ideological stance, had made the subnationalist pitch to broaden its class appeal in West Bengal in the 1980s. The rise of coalitions at the Centre since the 1990s had ended its appeal somewhat. But the BJP’s majoritarian politics has revived this plank and Banerjee seems keen to ride on it now. In her speech, she flagged the recent political developments in Karnataka, Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan to argue that the BJP is “power hungry” and wants to “implement the formula of ‘One Nation, One Political Party’.” This formula is “dangerous” because, she alleged, the BJP doesn’t “believe in freedom of each and every person, be it police, teachers, professors, farmers, migrant workers, students, journalists etc.” Banerjee sought to portray her politics as liberal and inclusive — a bulwark against the BJP’s alleged attempt “to divide people in the name of religion, caste, and creed”.
As a major voice in a shrinking Opposition space, Banerjee will be watched for how she takes the battle to the BJP. Her attempt to frame the political contest in the state as Bengalis versus outsiders is fraught with some danger too — history has shown that such rhetoric has a tendency to spin out of control and polarise. Regional and linguistic chauvinism can be divisive too, like communal agendas. Also, no amount of whataboutery is likely to help her ward off criticism about law and order in the state or failures in relief distribution post Cyclone Amphan. Banerjee’s record in office will be evaluated more on its own merit, less in comparison to achievements and failures in BJP-administered states.