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Rabi Banerjee
Rabi Banerjee


Backscratching in Bengal

The growing bonhomie between Mamata and Modi may be behind the BJP's rout in the municipal polls

In January, BJP president Amit Shah stood in front of the iconic Victoria House, raised his fists and roared: “Didi, my name is Amit Shah. I am here to snatch Bengal from you.” After increasing its vote share in West Bengal in the Lok Sabha election, the BJP had enrolled many intellectuals and others with secular credentials. The party seemed primed to make an impact in the state, especially at a time when Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee was tangled in the Saradha chit fund scam. However, four months after his speech, Shah's saffron dreams have been buried under a sea of Trinamool green. Mamata's party swept the civic elections, winning 71 of 92 municipalities. The BJP won none. Shah, who had promised to campaign in the state, was missing in action. And, given the drubbing, the BJP would find it difficult to beat the CPI(M) or even the Congress in the assembly election next year. What happened? BJP supporters would ask.

Mamata Banerjee Decisive victory: Mamata Banerjee campaigning in Kolkata | Salil Bera

Apparently, the recent bonhomie between Mamata and Prime Minister Narendra Modi had a lot to do with it. The chief minister, who last year wanted Modi behind bars, is now on speaking terms with him. Their meeting in North Block in April lasted more than 40 minutes, and the conversation has continued over the phone, and several issues, including the Nepal earthquake and the Goods and Services Tax, have been discussed. The BJP does not have a majority in the Rajya Sabha and would benefit with Mamata on its side. The Trinamool helped the Modi government pass the coal and mines bill in the Rajya Sabha last month, and, apparently, it will also support the GST bill.

But what made Mamata change her mind about Modi? The answer, apparently, is the Union government's financial help to reduce West Bengal's ballooning debt. The Union government recently approved a 10 per cent increase in the states' share in central taxes, taking it to 42 per cent. The Centre will also provide more funds to 11 debt-ridden states, including West Bengal. This, sources say, came as a pleasant surprise to Mamata. She had received no such assistance during Manmohan Singh's rule. In return, she has agreed to implement the prime minister's pet projects, including the Swachh Bharat Abhiyan. Moreover, there have been frequent interactions between state Finance Minister Amit Mitra and Union Finance Minister Arun Jaitley.

Apparently, Modi and Shah were reluctant to attend party rallies during the municipal elections, which left the BJP state unit clueless. Said a BJP secretary: “We needed a strong leadership to launch a massive campaign. Except a film personality who joined us recently, not a single leader looked promising.” Many feel the lack of local leaders has hurt the BJP. Said Trinamool Congress leader Partha Chatterjee: “BJP leaders are coming up through television debates. They cannot last long or create a good impression in the minds of the people.” The BJP did not even try to woo the middle class, which could have supported it ahead of the assembly election. BJP state president Rahul Sinha, however, said the election was rigged. “Even the state election commission says the poll was not fair. What could we do then?” asked Sinha.

Some BJP leaders said the party was caught between the issue of development and political reality. Internal squabbles and the failure to launch an effective movement have made the central leadership angry. Apparently, party secretary Sidharth Nath Singh, who is in charge of Bengal, said he wanted to quit because of internal rifts. Shah, however, placated him by asking Commerce Minister Nirmala Sitharaman to share the burden.

Said a senior state BJP leader: “The party needs new leaders who can launch a fresh salvo against the Mamata government. As the Left has virtually vanished from the political theatre, we have a better chance. But we are failing, thanks to the state leadership. Because of that, the leadership finds its easy to deal with Mamata instead of us. More than building a party in Bengal, the central leadership wants Mamata to join the prime minister’s development yatra.”

Mamata, meanwhile, is sitting pretty. The thumping win could lead to another assembly election victory and the Saradha storm seems to have abated. The CBI is now investigating several other small chit fund cases. Sensing an opportunity, BJP leaders are trying to persuade Mamata to help pass the land acquisition bill in the Rajya Sabha. With the Congress rejecting the bill and many National Democratic Alliance members having second thoughts, Mamata's support could be crucial. The chief minister, however, is noncommittal. She reportedly told Union ministers that some of the provisions in the bill would have to be relaxed. The government, sources say, has agreed to make some minor changes. In the coming days, there will be more discussion on the land bill between Modi’s emissaries and Mamata. On May 10, Modi will attend a function at Asansol and will meet Mamata again.

Said Congress leader Abdul Mannan: “It is clearly quid pro quo. The Modi government is reaching out to Mamata for help and she is helping them in return. We are not seeing much movement in the Saradha investigation these days.”

* The Trinamool Congress won 71 of 92 municipalities, up from 38 in 2010
* It won 114 of 144 wards in Kolkata, up from 95 in 2010
* The CPI(M) won five municipalities, down from 15 in 2010
* It won 15 wards in Kolkata, down from 32 in 2010
* Ashok Bhattacharya of the CPI(M) became the mayor-designate of Siliguri, the second largest municipality
* The Congress won five municipalities, down from eight in 2010
* The BJP did not win any municipality, but won 4 per cent of the 2,090 wards, including seven wards in Kolkata
* Some of the winning margins (15,000 to 30,000 votes) have prompted opposition parties to accuse the Trinamool of rigging the elections

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