Modi versus Mamata: politics of vengeance?

Many perceive the ongoing tiff as an ego battle between Prime Minister Modi and West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee: the latter being at the receiving end. The ‘transfer row’ has added fuel to the fire

The battle-lines were drawn much earlier but the war has just begun. The contenders: West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee and the Centre, actually Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Many perceive this as an ego battle between Prime Minister Modi and Banerjee: the latter being at the receiving end.

In one sense this is true because the current face-off is of the Centre’s making rather it being the other way around. It relates to the state’s then Chief Secretary’s absence at the meeting with Prime Minister Modi. Dubbed as the “transfer row”, this could have, ordinarily, passed off as another case of a state versus Centre conflict. But because it is the state of West Bengal and Mamata Banerjee, it has wider ramifications.

Many have put it to vengeance politics: the BJP hell bent on teaching a lesson to the feisty Chief Minister, following its humiliating defeat at the hands of Banerjee’s Trinamool Congress or the TMC, as it is popularly known.That the Modi led dispensation will not let Banerjee rule in peace is a given. As things pan out, it is quite clear that they will continue to create problems and instead of dousing fires, they will ignite them.

Hell bent on converting the state into a trouble factory, the BJP is going around like a wounded tigress: waiting to strike back. And if an opportunity does not come up then it will go ahead and create one. This is what seems to have happened in the latest Mamata versus Modi episode in what is an ongoing saga between a lone-fighter, Mamata Banerjee versus the big boys in the BJP. The inference, ofcourse, is clear even though the pawn in this grand game of chess happens to be the then state Chief Secretary Alapan Bandyopadhyay. He was needlessly targeted but Banerjee stood like a rock against the Centre’s nefarious designs. It is no rocket science to understand that the Centre is getting even with Banerjee and doing what it takes to create roadblocks in governance. But a fighter that she is, Banerjee is not the one to buckle under pressure.

The current crisis has its genesis in Cyclone Yaas which ravaged the eastern coast of India and played havoc in the states of West Bengal and Odisha inflicting large scale damage. It also kicked up a political storm.Prime Minister Modi undertook an aerial survey of the two states to take stock of the damage caused by the cyclone. Mamata Banerjee was scheduled to attend a review meeting with the Prime Minister but decided to give it a miss.

Ostensibly, she was busy with an “important administrative meeting” in the cyclone affected region but the real reason was her reservation about the presence of her protégé turned rival Suvendu Adhikari with Prime Minister Modi. Adhikari, it may be recalled, had won against Banerjee in the recent elections from Nandigram assembly constituency, though with a slender margin.However, Banerjee met the Prime Minister separately and handed over the report of the damage and the funds required for reconstruction and left before the meeting began.

Expectedly, swords were out: the BJP defended Adhikari’s presence on grounds that he was leader of Opposition in the state assembly: a norm not followed when Modi met Odisha Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik. Neither was the leader of Opposition present when Prime Minister Modi visited Gujarat to review the damage caused by cyclone Tauktae. That Adhikari’s presence was less a norm and more scoring a political point against Mamata Banerjee is, therefore, obvious.

True to its grain, the BJP cried foul and came down heavily on Mamata’s absence. Union Minister Amit Shah called her conduct “an unfortunate low” and Defence Minister Rajnath Singh said her behavior was “painful”. The common thread: arrogance overrode public welfare and political differences were placed above duty.

The war was not limited to words. The Centre chose to act and it did so rather swiftly. In an unprecedented move, the Centre recalled Bandyopadhyay, who was set to retire on May 31, to the Centre.

A 1987-batch officer Bandyopadhyay, was granted three months extension by the same department, which within days, was summoning him to report back. A close aide of Banerjee, he was reportedly being “punished” for his failure to attend a meeting with the Prime Minister to discuss the damage caused by the cyclone.

It was therefore no surprise when Banerjee said that her government will not release Bandyopadhyay at this “critical hour”. Actually, she did one better: she appointed Bandyopadhyay as Chief Adviser to the Chief Minister, after Bandyopadhyay chose to retire instead of reporting to Delhi.Banerjee later said that even while she acceded to Bandyopadhyay’s request to let him retire she decided to utilize his services as Chief Adviser. Meanwhile, she shot off a letter to the Prime Minister stating that she was “shocked and stunned” by the transfer through a “unilateral order.

Things got murkier by the minute with the Centre issuing a show cause notice to Bandyopadhyay seeking an explanation for his failure to report to Delhi.

And even a bureaucratic storm is brewing, politics is playing full steam. Therefore, when Banerjee called the transfer a “political vendetta” she was not off the mark. Besides terming Modi as a “ruthless Prime Minister” she hit out at the Centre adding “injury” to the Centre-State federalism structure.

However hyper or high strung Banerjee may be, this time around popular opinion is with her. Even her critics seem to understand where she is coming from. Therefore, if she is crying foul, it is not without reason.

The Modi-led government has certainly been shown in poor light: as one getting even with a state government they recently lost an election to; a defeat that was humiliating given that the BJP had pulled all sops to oust Mamata Banerjee. Hence the we will teach her a lesson mode.

But more important is the political message that the confrontation throws up. For starters, the fact that Banerjee is up against the wall automatically makes her a victim who continues to fight an already won battle. Two, it shows up the BJP’s vengeance streak which also signals non BJP ruled governments to fall in line. Whether they will or choose to stand up remains to be seen but as things have panned out, they are backing Banerjee to the hilt.

Therefore Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal’s statement that the Centre should work with state governments as “team India” and there is a “whole life left” to do politics, is not a one-off.

Add to this Banerjee calling upon all Chief Ministers, senior politicians, bureaucrats to raise their voice against the Centre’s “autocratic approach” which, too, is not bereft of politics. Were the non BJP parties and the anti Modi forces, to play their cards deftly they could become a force to reckon with in the near future. Time is also opportune because the Modi government is under pressure for its dismal performance in battling the second surge of Covid-19 where many lost their lives and others ran from pillar to post for medical care. The blame is at Modi’s doorstep because, unlike last year, instead of leading from the front, front ranking leaders including Prime Minister were busy campaigning during the elections and more particularly devoting their energies in winning Bengal. While doing this they threw caution to the winds.

Worse still, they left the people to fend for themselves instead of being by the side and at least appearing to resolve the crisis. Therefore those who have lost their loved ones are unlikely to forget the Government’s failure, more particularly Prime Minister Modi’s who had last year hand held them: “This time around he left us to die” seems to be the common refrain because less people died of the virus than they did, gasping for oxygen.

This is not to suggest that Modi has some magic wand to save lives but his visibility was crucial. Therefore, when people saw him amid crowds seeking votes for the BJP, they felt let down. Credence to this is lent by the fact that the final phases of West Bengal elections and thesubsequent municipal bodies polls in Uttar Pradesh inflicted a body blow to the BJP.

It is against this backdrop that one needs to assess the current face-off. The Opposition ruled states could rally around Mamata Banerjee and work towards a joint front to check the Centre’s march. With the BJP on a weak wicket, what better time to strike with Banerjee firing the first shot?