Fighting one of the most decisive elections of her career, West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee admits that the failure of the Left and Congress are behind the ascendance of the BJP.
Fighting one of the most decisive elections of her career, West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee admits that the failure of the Left and Congress are behind the ascendance of the BJP. But that does not mean that the BJP can replicate its Tripura win in Bengal, she says in an interview to Jayanta Ghosal who followed her on the campaign trail.
In the past eight years, the Opposition’s main allegation has been that your government has adopted a policy of Muslim appeasement, and that is why the lotus is blooming in West Bengal.
I don’t think so. In Bengal, the lotus (the BJP’s party symbol) can’t bloom. The Congress and CPI(M) are in a bad shape. Breakaway groups from the Congress and CPI(M) have joined the BJP. They are working together against the Trinamool Congress. The BJP has a good equation with the state Congress and the Left as well. It is a state-level understanding. I don’t mind that. It is their political strategy. It is not based on any ideology.
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The BJP always mentions Tripura (Assembly poll victory last year), but it is a small state, a municipality compared to Bengal. In Bengal, the BJP doesn’t have any roots. In Tripura, there was a strong anti-CPM, anti-incumbency mood. The BJP spent huge amounts of money to win the Tripura election. The Congress also broke down in the state and a lot of Congress leaders and workers joined the BJP. If you have won Tripura that doesn’t mean you can win Bengal too.
The BJP has been accusing your government of minority appeasement. Has that pushed the Hindu voter away from your party?
That’s a myth that the BJP believes in. After May 23, when the results are out, the BJP will realise… In Bengal, we have unity among all communities. It is true that Bengal has 30 per cent Muslim population, but we also have Christians, Sikhs, Buddhists and many others. There is no hatred. The BJP is trying to break the unity among communities.
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It was a similar situation in Assam, where the BJP came to power in 2016.
All states are unique and you can’t have the same method for victory everywhere. What succeeded in Assam, that is not possible in West Bengal. In Bengal, we have a mini-world. We have 23.3 per cent SC voters, 5.9 per cent Adivasi voters, 17 per cent OBC voters, and there are the general category voters as well. We all work together. The BJP’s campaign will be counter-productive.
In your rallies you have spoken about going to the Ramakrishna Mission, worshipping Ma Durga and Ma Kali…
We are secular. Here Muslims and all communities live together. I go to Ganga Sagar, that is called the ‘Gateway to Kumbh’… Ganapati Bappa Morya, Chatth Puja, Kali and Durga Puja… Even when Sikh women organise festivals at gurdwaras, I go there and have meals with them. They (BJP) are spending a lot of money to spread hate. What is the BJP’s strategy? In Gujarat they are saying ‘Bihari Hatao’, in Assam they are saying ‘Bengali Hatao’, in Maharashtra they are saying ‘UP hatao’. In which direction is the BJP moving? Is this the philosophy of ‘Akhand Bharat’?
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Also, Hindutva is not the same as Hinduism. I want to explain this very clearly. Hindutva is a political ideology but Hinduism is a way of life. I am also a Hindu by birth. I worship God. Hinduism is inherently a very liberal religion. If you don’t pray every day even then you are a Hindu. They have made ‘Jai Shri Ram’ a political slogan, but Ram does not just belong to the BJP. Thakur Shri Ramakrishna was not just a strong devotee of Kali, but also Ram. Just by displaying the gada (mace), Hanuman’s weapon, on the road, you are a Hindu? This is an insult to Bengal. Bengali Hindus are good Hindus with a good soul. It doesn’t depend on how many rituals you follow.
Would you agree that the BJP has now emerged as the main Opposition party in Bengal?
It is true. Nature abhors vacuum. There is nothing wrong in that. I was once in the Opposition as well. In Bengal, it shows the failure of the Left and the Congress. But does that mean the people of Bengal have accepted the BJP? Ideologically, Bengal still doesn’t like the communal approach of the BJP. Had the CPM and the Congress followed their ideological principles, then, perhaps, this situation could have been avoided. But in the past 34 years of the CPM, there existed a ‘harmad bahini’, a gang of goons. These lumpen elements of the Left have now taken shelter in the BJP for the party’s money. The BJP has brought in a bad paisa culture.
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You have not said it yourself, but many Trinamool workers have been pitching your name for prime minister.
No, no. The issue of who becomes prime minister is not a priority right now. The main issue is to oust Modi. I wanted Opposition unity. Someone needs to bell the cat. So I tried to organise an Opposition rally in Kolkata. All Opposition leaders joined the conclave… We have several senior leaders, Sharad Pawar, Sharad Yadav, Deve Gowda… We have 10 prime ministerial candidates. After elections we all can sit together and finalise a name.
But, only one person can be the prime minister…
Yes. But that will not be a problem, there will be no instability, like what the BJP is claiming in its campaign. The fact is that the people are frustrated and if Modi continues, the country will be destroyed. He is destroying all institutions. Demonetisation has created problems. There are no jobs. A day after demonetisation, there was an advertisement for PayTM… the very next morning. How did PayTM know that this would happen? Narendra Modi believes he will come back to power again. But actually he can’t. The next government must probe these allegations.
Why does Bengal see so many incidents of political violence? It happened under the Left regime, but it’s the same under your government as well.
There are a few small incidents. It happens everywhere during elections. A section of national media that is controlled by the BJP highlights it. They want to show Bengal in a bad light. Also, there are a lot of fake pictures doing the rounds on social media. They are old photos, some are even photos from other countries. Once they put up a picture from Bangladesh. It’s very sad.
But television channels reported violence on polling days…
Some small, scattered incidents are being blown up by a section of the national media that is controlled by the BJP.
You have had a long political career, and in 2019, you have emerged as a strong Opposition force. Are you getting ready to play an important role in Delhi? Can you be the game changer in these elections?
It is true that after May 23 the Trinamool Congress will come out with flying colours in Bengal. Narendra Modi and Amit Shah will realise their mistake and their mistaken perception of Bengal. They don’t understand Bengal. Their senior leaders don’t know whether Rabindranath Tagore was born in Jorasanko or Birbhum but they want to get seats in Bengal. It is very strange indeed. Many people think that Modi will come back, Modi thinks the same too. But I know that this time Modi will be overthrown and a new government will be formed.
But who will be the PM?
I told you we have a lot of PM candidates and somebody will be the PM. We will take the decision after sitting together. It will not take much time to select a candidate.
PM Modi has called the Opposition mahamilawat, with no unity or consensus on ideology among parties.
This is an incorrect assessment. Modi’s policy isn’t pro-poor. There are no jobs. There has been no economic growth. Several economists, including Amartya Sen, have criticised Modi’s economic model. Gujarat is a small state and the credit for what he has done in Gujarat goes to the people. They are inclined towards business. The state isn’t as complicated as Bengal. Bengal has suffered for decades because of the Centre’s atrocities.
Modi always refers to you as Didi. In these elections, the entire political narrative has become ‘Modi versus Didi’.
No, no. It is not like that. Firstly, I have also tried to develop good Centre-State relations. He talks about federalism, but actually he doesn’t care about the state’s autonomy. The progress of the state isn’t at all his priority. Delhi is taking the revenue from states but not helping the states back.
There is a counter-allegation that you are not cooperating with the Centre. You stopped the Prime Minister’s video conference with state officials, you don’t send your officials to Delhi, you don’t participate in CMs’ conference etc.
It’s a big lie. I was called for the Inter-State Council meeting twice and I went both times. But nothing happens in those meetings. Only the Prime Minister talks and we listen. As for the NDC (National Development Council), I am not happy that they have destroyed the old Nehruvian concept of the Planning Commission. Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose, Prasanta Chandra Mahalanobis, played a very significant role in creating the Planning Commission. It is still relevant. There is no niti in NITI Aayog.
Regarding the video conference with the chief secretary, I think that when there is an elected Chief Minister in a state, then avoiding the CM and talking to the chief secretary directly is not right. It is disrespectful to constitutional federalism. Once Rajiv Gandhi started a conference, PM to DM. He wanted to talk to all district magistrates directly and there was severe criticism. He had to stop it.
Politics aside, you are known to walk everyday for good health.
Yes, I walk 20 kilometers every day. When I am home, I use the treadmill. When I am out of Kolkata, I walk whenever I get the opportunity. Twenty kilometers is a minimum.
And you eat very little too. You only had cucumber while flying.
(Laughs) Actually, in this heat, cucumber is good to combat dehydration. Otherwise, I drink tea several times a day.
Ghosal, a senior journalist, is a columnist with ieBangla.com
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