On June 5, World Environment Day, West Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee visited a well-known park in Kolkata to plant a neem sapling and announce a big afforestation drive—of 50 million mangrove saplings—in the Sundarbans, ravaged by Cyclone Amphan late last month. Bringing up the cyclone served another purpose. In its single-minded quest for power in Bengal, the BJP, she raged, was politicising even natural calamities like Amphan and great adversities like the COVID-19 pandemic. “While we (her party, the Trinamool Congress) are labouring to save people, one political party is busy canvassing to overthrow our government,” she said, adding, for good measure, “Am I saying Narendra Modi should be thrown out of [power in] Delhi? This is not the time for politics.”
But that, political observers in Bengal will confirm, is a defensive political counter to the BJP, now her main adversary in the state. The BJP, which took 18 of 42 Lok Sabha seats in the 2019 general election, is a clear threat to Mamata’s prospects of extending her tenure in power. The party has been quick to seize on Mamata’s discomfiture, as her administration struggles with the twin big blows dealt by the coronavirus pandemic and Cyclone Amphan. Hemmed in by criticism from the BJP over her government’s alleged mishandling of the crises, the chief minister is looking highly vulnerable. “Mamata faces an enormous challenge from the BJP in the coming election, less than a year away. Her nervousness is understandable,” says Prasanto Ray, political analyst and professor emeritus at Kolkata’s Presidency University.
But no one expects Mamata, the feisty street-fighter politician, of taking any of this lying down. The TMC chief has launched an all-out perception war against the BJP. “We are reaching out to the people, first through social media and then in small teams, to convey how the BJP is playing politics over human tragedies while the TMC is on the ground helping people,” said Rajib Banerjee, Bengal minister for forests.
Mamata is conjuring up an image of the BJP as a ‘power-hungry invader’ that will destroy Bengal’s culture and its secular outlook if it grabs power. She warned Union home minister Amit Shah it would be a mistake to eye the state as one of the BJP’s many political conquests. “You (Amit Shah) have conquered a lot, the government of India, so many states… but don’t think so narrowly about Bengal. It’s a magnanimous place. If you love Bengal, the people of Bengal will love you back,” she said.
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June 22, 2020