For a leader who enjoys a huge majority in the state assembly and faces virtually no credible challenge from her opponents, Mamata Banerjee is surprisingly insecure.
Her uncertainty about her political position could be seen in the violence unleashed by her party men during the panchayat elections last summer when 16,000 of the 50,000 seats went uncontested by the opposition parties apparently because the ruling Trinamool Congress activists scared away all her adversaries.
The Supreme Court had expressed shock over the absence – forced or otherwise – of the Trinamool Congress’s opponents in the polls. Now, the Calcutta High Court is considering her trepidations about the proposed Rath Yatras of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). While an earlier judgment rejected the state government’s plea for banning the Yatras by saying that a threat of violence as argued by the government has to be “real, not imaginary or a likely possibility”, a subseauent verdict has favoured a closer look at what the intelligence agencies are saying.
There is little doubt, however, that Mamata Banerjee nowadays regards the BJP as a greater political threat than either the Congress, which has 42 seats in the assembly against the Trinamool Congress’s 213 in the 295-member House, or the Left which has 32. The BJP, in contrast, has three.
What is clearly worrying the Chief Minister is the jump in the BJP’s vote share from three per cent in 2013 to 23 per cent in a by-election this year where it secured the second place, relegating the Congress-Left combine to the third place. Moreover, a survey has predicted the BJP’s emergence as the principal opposition party in the state.
Behind the BJP’s rise is the perception that Mamata Banerjee is rather too lenient towards the Muslims as they comprise 28 per cent of the population. In addition, there is the longstanding problem of illegal immigrants from Bangladesh, who are called “termites” by BJP president Amit Shah.
The Chief Minister’s fear probably is that the proposed Rath Yatras will raise the issue of the “termites” and call for a headcount of the “ghuspetiyas” (infiltrators) under the National Register of Citizens (NRC) in West Bengal, similar to the enumeration that has already been carried out In Assam.
Reports suggest that Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) foot soldiers are currently active in West Bengal with their propaganda in favour of an NRC on the grounds that if urgent steps are not taken, “then the Bengali Hindus will be aceannihilated”, as an RSS functionary has said.
The state government’s fears about the Rath Yatras are probably based on the fact that the processions taken out by the BJP on the occasion of Navratri with “weapons” in March had led to sporadic communal clashes, although they were not as serious as in neighbouring Bihar.
Although most people in West Bengal will consider Amit Shah’s boast of the BJP winning 22 of the 42 parliamentary seats in the state in 2019 as an instance of hyperbole, Mamata Banerjee cannot afford to take the “threat” lightly, for a rise in the BJP’s number of Lok Sabha seats from the present two with three runners-up will be a blow not only to her political prestige, but also to the state’s self-cultivated Leftist-“progressive” image.
An improved performance by the BJP will also undercut the Trinamool Congress leader’s national ambition as one of the architects of the anti-BJP mahagathbandhan (grand alliance) at the national level and of herself as a possible prime ministerial candidate.
As it is, the violence during the panchayat elections had shown her in poor light. Now, if the BJP Rath Yatras attract sizeable crowds, she will be even more on the defensive.
For a doughty fighter, who had routed the well-trenched Marxists, pushing them into a corner from where they are finding it difficult to emerge, the ascendancy is unthinkable of a north Indian party of vegetarian, cow-worshipping “Hindi-wallahs”, who revere a north Indian god like Ram, as a new member of the Trinamool Congress, who was earlier in the BJP, has said.
Arguably, Mamata Banerjee’s combative instincts are fired up when she has a battle on her hands. But the problem is that her party men are not among the most disciplined. Since many of them have switched to the Trinamool Congress from the Marxist communist party, they have a “history” of being violent.
But it is the BJP which will gain if the party is seen to be specifically targeted. As of now, the judiciary is with her, but she will be on a weak wicket if she tries too deseperately to stop what is undoubtedly the democratic right of an opposition party to take out Yatras. Her desperation can also be construed as a sign of being scared.