In 2012, after being elected the Gujarat chief minister a third time, Narendra Modi said, “Gujarat ka udhar chukaya toh ab desh ka bhi udhar chukana padega (I have paid the debt of Gujarat, and now would have to pay the debt of the country).”
The Martyrs' Day speech of West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee, on Wednesday, had a similar message—that she would want to take up the responsibility of leading the nation.
Martyrs' Day marks the firing on Congress protesters in Kolkata by the then ruling Left Front government on July 21, 1993.
Banerjee’s speech was a mix of aggression and determined effort. She did not say she would like to become the prime minister; nor did she say the third front would back her as a possible challenger to PM Modi. Nonetheless, she was not unambiguous when she said, “There should be a front against the BJP in each state so that they (the BJP) can be defeated in every state.”
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The Congress was virtually represented at the Martyrs' Day event by one of its top leaders, P. Chidambaram, and the NCP supremo Sharad Pawar. Digvijaya Singh, another Congress stalwart, also participated in the event virtually. In Kolkata, Banerjee was flanked by Prashant Kishor, Mukul Roy and Abhishek Banerjee on stage.
Banerjee said she will go to Delhi on July 27 and stay there till July 30. Even as the Bengal CM is expected meet with Sonia Gandhi to persuade her to accept a third front as an alternative to take on Modi, she has also sought an appointment with the prime minister. Banerjee hasn't yet met the prime minister after the recent assembly elections in the state, in which the BJP was trounced. It is ironic that her visit to the national capital would serve the twin purpose of meeting Modi and meeting other leaders to set in motion a plan to oust Modi.
The reason to meet PM Modi is clear. Banerjee said her government’s revenue has increased to Rs 75,000 crore, but her state budget is close to Rs 3 lakh crore. The rest of the amount would come from the Centre and by way of borrowing for which she needs the help of the Centre. It is also a fact that the state needs more vaccines as there is a shortage, and more allocations for central infrastructure projects which could generate jobs for Bengalis. The chief minister, it seems, will mix politics and policy during her visit to the national capital.
Her speech left a lasting impact in the minds of political observers because of one reason—she tried to woo non-Bengalis more than the Bengali speaking community in her state. Her focus was the upcoming Uttar Pradesh assembly elections. The chief minister spoke three languages during her address and was at her best when speaking in Hindi—a notable departure from the times she used to criticise Hindi speaking leaders and would say that the leaders imported by the BJP to the state were outsiders who do not understand the Bengali culture.
During her speech, Banerjee also attempted to reconnect with non-BJP chief ministers. She said she would invite chief ministers like Pinarayi Vijayan, M.K. Stalin, Uddhav Thackeray, Hemant Soren and others to Kolkata and would hold a meeting at Brigade Parade ground during winter this year. A similar meeting was held before the 2019 elections as well, but did not work in her favour as many who attended that meeting chose to swing towards the BJP after the elections.
Banerjee said the work to build such an alliance should not start just a year before the election. “Every moment is crucial and the effort should start now,” she added.