Centre-State relations in India have been fractious ever since the country’s polity became multipolar with the formation of non-Congress governments in several key states in the mid-1960s. Because West Bengal has been mostly governed by parties not in power at the Centre, the state’s ruling dispensations have often been at odds with the rulers in New Delhi.
Old-timers will recall how, during its early years, the Jyoti Basu-led Left Front government was apprehensive of being destabilised or even toppled by Indira Gandhi, despite good personal rapport between the Marxist leader and the then prime minister. Political observers from that era quote Basu as saying: “Our government is not on probation… We are here not because of anybody’s mercy.”
The relation became more volatile during Rajiv Gandhi’s tenure as prime minister, particularly after he called Calcutta a “dying city” and dubbed Basu’s government “old and tired”. The famous across-the-table face-off between the two at Raj Bhavan in 1986 over whether the Centre was neglecting the state or the Basu government was failing to implement central projects, has since been part of the state’s political lore.
The relations continued to be tumultuous even after the dislodging of the Left Front government by Mamata Banerjee’s Trinamool Congress in 2011. Despite being an ally of the Congress-led UPA at the Centre, Banerjee never missed an opportunity to confront the Union government to “protect the state’s interest”. In one such showdown, she declined an invitation from then prime minister Manmohan Singh to be part of his entourage to Dhaka in 2011 in protest against the UPA government’s plan to sign a Teesta water-sharing deal with neighbouring Bangladesh during the visit. The treaty, which she felt would undermine the interest of Bengal, is still in limbo.
The Centre-State relations in the context of West Bengal are replete with instances of such tussles. But they never hit the nadir or were allowed to fester beyond a point until the two bitter political adversaries Narendra Modi and Mamata Banerjee decided to cross all lines of decorum and decency. The two hurled jibes and accusations – which at times were even derogatory – at each other during the just-concluded assembly elections in which Mamata trounced Modi hands down.
The loss was a personal defeat for Modi as he had turned the electoral contest into a prestige fight, addressing at least one rally every other day for about a month in the run-up to the polls. BJP leaders turned the contest into a Mamata versus Modi fight in the absence of a local party leader who could match the CM’s stature. Modi, on his part, was too willing to comply, launching personal attacks on her and her nephew Abhishek. In every rally he addressed her in a typical mocking tone, which many found offensive and misogynous.
Banerjee took the challenge head on. Never in the recent past had any opposition politician consistently taken potshots at Modi, perhaps with an exception of Rahul Gandhi to a certain extent. Even he has never been as aggressive or dismissive of Modi as Mamata.
As a result the Bengal elections became as much a referendum on the Modi government as on the Mamata government. The Centre’s mishandling of the COVID situation in particular overshadowed all other issues in the last three of the eight-phase polls.
The result was an overwhelming rejection of the Modi cult that the BJP tried to build in Bengal. Naturally, the impact of it was felt much beyond the epicentre.
The poll outcome had a jolting impact on BJP functionaries and supporters across the country as has been evident from their venting of frustration on social media, abusing Mamata as well as electorates who gave her the landslide mandate.
For the anti-BJP forces, Mamata emerged as someone who could take on Modi singlehandedly. As her stature grew, BJP think-tanks promptly switched into a demolition drive to discredit Mamata, as it had been doing to another Modi challenger, Rahul Gandhi.
The strategy one can discern from the BJP modus operandi is simple: Project Mamata as a pro-minority and a confronting regionalist, who is against the idea of Hindutva and, by extension, India.
It got a launch pad to activate the strategy in the political violence that broke out in the state immediately after the results were announced on May 2. The BJP was quick to give a communal colour to the violence.
“India does not have to fight a Hafeez Sayeed, it has its own homegrown Mamata Banerjee. Mark my words, the day isn’t far when Mamata will wage an open civil war to declare W.Bengal and Bengalistan a Muslim state with Hindu minority (sic),” tweeted filmmaker Ashoke Pandit, a known supporter of the BJP, on May 5. He even tagged Amit Shah to his tweet.
There have been a series of such horrendous and insidious posts and claims flooding the social media from BJP leaders and people known to be part of the BJP ecosystem.
The party’s national general secretary, Kailash Vijayvargiya, shared a video amidst the post-poll violence with the caption: “TMC Muslim goons are attacking women BJP workers.” Though nothing in the video was suggestive of religious identity, Vijayvargiya could surprisingly pinpoint the “attackers” as Muslim goons.
BJP national president JP Nadda went to the extent of comparing the post-poll violence in the state, in which 17 people from different political parties were killed, with the great Calcutta killings of August 16, 1946, in which around 4,000 were massacred.
Not too long ago, UP Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath called his West Bengal counterpart “Baghdidi”, accusing her of implementing policies inspired by ISIS chief Abu Bakr Al Baghdadi.
The BJP-led central government got into a confrontation mood even before Mamata was sworn in as chief minister for the third consecutive term on May 5, becoming the first woman in the country to do so.
Governor Jagdeep Dhankhar launched a scathing attack on the newly elected government, immediately after administering the oath of office and secrecy to chief minister, for the post-poll political violence in the state.
The governor’s concerns might have been valid, but he was ungracious, to say the least, in his choice of venue and timing to vent his ire. It was historic in the sense that for the first time a chief minister had been admonished by the governor at the swearing-in ceremony itself.
That the outburst was definitely not spontaneous was apparent by the series of events that followed, accentuating the Centre-State tussle.
The latest in the conflict is over the chief minister skipping a cyclone review meeting with the prime minister at the Kalaikunda Air Base in West Midnapore district on Friday (May 28).
Hours after the development, the Centre angered Mamata by making her chief secretary Alapan Bandyopadhyay a soft target.
Mamata excused herself from the meeting as it was allegedly turned into more of a “political exercise” with the inclusion of Nandigram BJP MLA Suvendu Adhikari in the list of participants.
The BJP argued that Adhikari was invited as he is the leader of the opposition in the Bengal assembly. The counter argument was why the Centre was selective in accommodating the opposition only in Bengal. Mamata was quick to point out that the opposition leader in Odisha was not invited to the meeting the PM had with Naveen Patnaik earlier in the day.
The leader of the opposition was not present either in the review meeting the PM had with Gujarat CM Vijay Rupani in the aftermath of Cyclone Tauktae earlier this month.
The deviation in case of Bengal was too glaring and Mamata is not the sort to miss such an opportunity to make an issue out of it.
Bengal politics after all is driven by strong Bengali sub-nationalist pride. Her TMC and before it the Left Front always successfully used the Bengali victim card against the ruling parties at the Centre.
The BJP leadership knows well that Mamata’s locking horns with the Centre might be doing good to her image in the state as a “protector of Bengal’s interest”. But it has the pitfall of being seen as detrimental to the larger national interest, particularly in Hindi-heartland states where regionalism is by and large considered antithesis to nationalism.
Already the BJP ecosystem is trying to build this narrative through social media campaigns, as cited above. They have been trying to depict Mamata as anti-national just as they branded protesting farmers as Khalistanis.
As in the past, the BJP’s campaign for the 2024 general election too is expected to be centred on hyper-nationalism whipped up around an “enemy of the nation”. (In the past, the BJP did not hesitate to cast anti-national aspersions even on Manmohan Singh to suit its electoral purpose.)
So in case an opposition coalition decides to project Mamata as its prime ministerial face, the BJP will have a convenient narrative against her.
Further, the emergence of Mamata as a rallying point for the opposition will also be politically beneficial for the BJP in a national election. In about 200 Lok Sabha seats, the BJP has a direct contest with the Congress. In these seats, if a non-Congress prime ministerial candidate of the opposition is projected, it could have a demoralising impact on Congress supporters, giving an edge to the BJP.
Further, Mamata’s poor command over Hindi would likely make her even less acceptable than, say, Rahul Gandhi, particularly in the Hindi heartland.
More importantly, the emergence of Mamata as a national leader will make opposition unity more difficult.
The CPI (M)-led Left Front is unlikely to be part of any coalition where she would be a major player. Even the Congress will have strong reservations in accepting her as the leader of any anti-BJP coalition.
On the other hand, Mamata’s newfound national stature has bolstered her expectations and there is all possibility of her rocking the opposition ship if that expectation is not met.
The Centre’s bickering with the TMC government in West Bengal therefore is not a mere knee-jerk vindictive reaction. It has a definite long-term plan. After all, the current BJP leadership of Modi-Shah duo is not known for being impulsive. Rather, they are considered politically very calculative.