This is the moment when Mamata Banerjee needs to take a great leap forward, over the state lines and into the vast territory of national politics, where her principal adversary is Narendra Modi, the Prime Minister, and the ruling BJP, which has made the colloquial the idiom of choice for a new type of politics that is resolutely working to change the content of Indian democracy and the ideals of the nation as defined by the Constitution.
And she has done so by delivering two slogans stunning in their simplicity — “on the 19th we will capture 2019”; and “we will score 42 out of 42”. Like all slogans, these hold a world of meanings. On January 19, 2019, the Trinamul Congress plans to organise a massive rally at Kolkata’s sprawling Brigade Parade Ground, the purpose of which will be a gathering of all anti-BJP parties across India to oust the Narendra Modi government and capture power in New Delhi. And, to prepare for that victory, West Bengal must deliver 42 out of 42 Lok Sabha seats to the Trinamul Congress.
The slogans are a call to Bengali nationalism. Mamata Banerjee invoked Swami Vivekananda and his guru Ramakrishna Paramahansa to remind voters that Bengal’s culture and its history of liberal inclusive secular Hinduism was tolerant rather than the “Taliban Hinduism” that was created by the BJP and its Sangh Parivar. By invoking Bengali pride and turning the 25th anniversary of the July 21 Martyrs’ Day rally into a mass pledge-taking event, Ms Banerjee has used the power of the positive to counter the Narendra Modi offensive, after he delivered a fairly typical speech which was a combination of mockery and incitement against the inequities of the Trinamul Congress by attacking the “syndicate raj” that has enriched itself by exploiting people’s angsts.
In using Bengali nationalism, Mamata Banerjee is hoping to widen her appeal in West Bengal among voters who are apprehensive about the BJP’s overtly muscular Hindu nationalism. Her capacity to convert the sinister into vivid colloquial images — “Talwar Hindu, Petao Hindu, Jaliye Dao (Burn Down) Hindu” — is a tactic of mobilising all ranks of Bengalis, from the intellectuals to the marginalised. She is also pitching Bengali pride as a rallying point for a mix of voters who have not been her traditional supporters.
The appeal is to persuade her critics to see her as the lesser evil to the BJP at the state level, and to convert the 2019 Lok Sabha polls into a mandate for the liberal, secular, democratic values that matter to these segments of voters.
The choice offered by Mamata Banerjee is to participate in rescuing the nation from the divisive and destructive politics of the BJP-Sangh Parivar, which is associated with lynch mobs, cow vigilantism, encroachments on the autonomy of publicly-funded education and research institutions, regressive social attitudes and practices or to remain hapless bystanders. In West Bengal, the choice offered is a clever invocation of sentiment.
The Midnapore speech last week by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, on the other hand, was a projection of the voters of West Bengal as hapless and helpless people who had been exploited by successive regimes; first by the CPI(M) and now by the Trinamul Congress. The passivity of people in this representation is in striking contrast to Ms Banerjee’s image of people who can be active and significant as voters in 2019.
The confrontation between Mr Modi and Ms Banerjee is one of hope versus positive and purposeful action. The BJP’s pitch is on presenting itself as a redeemer by offering to release the people of West Bengal from the bondage in which the Trinamul Congress holds them. If Ms Banerjee can leverage this negative representation of the proud Bengali to cut at the roots of the BJP’s appeal, she will have won a popular mandate that will make her a powerful contender for leadership in national politics.
The fact that Mamata Banerjee is already battle-prepared is evident from the very deliberate measures she has taken in recent months to mop up the pockets of votes that had eluded her till now, like the Kamtapuri-Rajbanshi separatists in Cooch Behar and Alipurduar districts of North Bengal. This she has done by declaring their languages as official state languages and by setting up development boards that appear to decentralise power and delegate responsibility to local communities. The combination of micro nationalism and Bengali pride is likely to work to her advantage in 2019.
The adroit explanation of the recent panchayat election fracas in which the Trinamul Congress has been accused of murdering democracy by Narendra Modi on the one hand and the CPI(M) on the other at the July 21 rally as sour grapes is Mamata Banerjee at her brazen best. She has dismissed critics, including the Supreme Court, as biased, even though she did not say so directly by pointing out that in Uttarakhand and Sikkim far worse transgressions of the ruling parties in panchayat elections were ignored by the BJP. In other words, the Trinamul Congress, by winning over 35 per cent of seats in the recent panchayat elections without a contest, is insignificant compared to what happens in certain other states.
For voters in West Bengal, the choice has been reduced to voting for the Trinamul Congress in all 42 seats or being seen as tacit BJP supporters. The “me versus them” binary created by Ms Banerjee is as dangerous a narrowing of democratic choices as that of the BJP, which she incidentally described as worse than the totalitarian regimes of Hitler and Mussolini. Anybody who votes against the Trinamul Congress will become by default an enemy on the one hand and a supporter of the BJP on the other. The linking of the local with the national has reduced choice to the minimum, almost making it a coercive choice; and Ms Banerjee is both conscious of what she is doing and not apologetic about it at all.