An off-the-cuff remark by one of its ministers regarding President Droupadi Murmu threatens to derail the Trinamool Congress’s well-laid plans to keep the substantial tribal population in West Bengal from drifting towards the BJP.
Murmu is the first tribal leader to occupy the highest office of the country. East Midnapore leader and TMC minister Akhil Giri has apologised since for having made a comment on her looks. However, the BJP is determined not to let the issue die out at that, and on Sunday, organised protests along with tribal outfits across the state demanding his resignation.
West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee condemned Giri. At a press conference on Monday, she said: “We all respect the president. She is very respectable. Akhil should not have made such comments about her. We condemned it and he was warned by the party. I do not support his comments. He has been told not to make such comments again.”
Tribals are believed to account for 7-8% of Bengal’s numbers. In four parliamentary constituencies in the Junglemahal region, comprising Bankura, Purulia, Jhargram and West Midnapore districts, and eight constituencies spread across North Bengal districts, such as Darjeeling, Kalimpong, Alipurduar, Jalpaiguri, Coochbehar, North and South Dinajpir and Maldah, the tribal numbers rise up to nearly 25%.
In the 2019 Lok Sabha elections, when the BJP stunned the TMC by winning 18 seats, to its 22, the BJP had picked up good support in the tribal areas. It had bagged all the seats in Junglemahal and six constituencies in North Bengal.
The TMC had fought and won a big number back in the 2021 Assembly elections, especially in the Junglemahal districts, contributing to its landslide win.
TMC supremo Mamata Banerjee has been conscious of the ace dealt by the Modi government in nominating Murmu as President. After the name of the former Jharkhand governor was announced, she had created a stir by saying that had the BJP consulted the Opposition parties, Murmu could have been a “consensus candidate”.
This was despite the prominent role Mamata had played in building consensus around TMC leader Yashwant Sinha as the Opposition nominee for President.
“Had we known that they (the NDA) were planning to field a tribal woman or a member of a minority community, we could have thought about it (consensus). We have great respect for people from tribal communities and for women,” Mamata said, adding that now that Sinha had already filed his nomination papers, she would go with him.
Apart from nominating Murmu, Prime Minister Narendra Modi had reached out to the Santhal tribe with another gesture via his Mann Ki Baat radio show. While highlighting the diversity of languages and scripts in the country, he had lauded the work of Prof Sripati Tudu from West Bengal, who had translated the Constitution into Santhali language’s Ol Chiki script.
Giri’s ill-timed remarks come just days ahead of Mamata’s planned visit to Jhargram on tribal hero Birsa Munda’s birth anniversary on Tuesday, in another outreach towards tribals. The TMC government had earlier declared the day as a general holiday.
Targeting the TMC over Giri’s statement, BJP state president Sukanta Majumder said the minister had made similar remarks earlier too, and accused the party of being “anti-tribal”.
Amit Malviya, in-charge of the BJP’s National Information & Technology Dept, and co-in-charge of West Bengal, tweeted: “Mamata Banerjee has always been anti-Tribals, didn’t support President Murmu for office, and now this. Shameful level of discourse.”
The TMC had distanced itself from Giri’s remarks soon after the row broke out on Friday. The party said that what Giri said was “irresponsible”, and did not represent the party’s views. “We are extremely proud of the President of India & hold her & her office in the highest regard,” tweeted TMC spokesperson Saket Gokhale.
On Sunday morning, TMC Adivasi leader and minister Jyotsna Mandi said: “I cannot support what Giri said regarding a woman President.”
TMC leader Kunal Ghosh, who also condemned Giri’s remarks, added that they expected the BJP to also apologise for some of its own leaders’ statements. “We are yet to see any sort of condemnation from BJP leaders, including Prime Minister Narendra Modi, for remarks against the only woman Chief Minister of the country, Mamata Banerjee.” During the 2021 campaign, Modi was criticised for targeting Mamata with calls of “Didi, oh Didi!”.
Ghosh added: “Where is the condemnation from BJP leaders when (Leader of Opposition) Suvendu Adhikari keeps referring to the honorable CM as ‘Begum’? Where is the BJP’s ‘Nari Samman’ plank when its leaders use reprehensible remarks against women leaders?”
Ghosh said tribals know better than to fall for the BJP’s claims. “What the BJP is saying is not important for the Trinamool, what the public says is more important. Tribals, the residents of Junglemahal… they know what the Trinamool and Mamata Banerjee have done for them and how much they respect Adivasis. During the Durga Puja, there was a ‘Jungle Kanya’ theme puja, whose brand ambassador was Tribal Minister Birbaha Hansda. CM Banerjee had got down from the stage and danced with the tribals of her land. BJP leaders need not teach us what respect means.”
However, as a senior TMC leader said, this might be false bravado. “Already we are on the backfoot due to the school jobs scam. Now this statement will affect our tribal vote.”
All eyes then are on what Mamata does on Tuesday.