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What’s behind Mamata Banerjee’s change of heart for PM Modi | OPINION

Mamata Banerjee has given a ‘clean chit’ of sorts to PM Modi and gone softer on the RSS, too, leaving even her own party perplexed. What’s behind this change of heart?

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What’s behind Mamata Banerjee’s change of heart for PM Modi
Prime Minister Narendra Modi with West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee.

By Darpan Singh: Multiple anti-BJP leaders have harboured dreams of becoming Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s challenger. But only two of them have so far had tales to tell, having done something electorally spectacular to be in the running.

If AAP’s Arvind Kejriwal surpassed his own party’s expectations and retook Delhi in 2020 against the combined might of the BJP’s big two, Mamata Banerjee of the TMC did the same the next year in West Bengal, humbling many psephologists who had projected a lotus bloom powered by PM Modi and Union minister Amit Shah’s no-holds-barred election campaign.

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While the Delhi chief minister projected himself to be the only true alternative of the prime minister in 2024 when India votes, his West Bengal counterpart spearheaded efforts to build opposition unity, though her aspirations for the country’s top job were subtler. But both had been equally vocal in accusing the ruling BJP at the Centre of letting loose central investigative agencies on opposition leaders to settle political scores.

While the AAP leader had his fingers burnt, especially in his stronghold Delhi, in two back-to-back Lok Sabha elections and has avoided personal attacks on PM Modi in his mellowed-but-still-critical avatar, the TMC chief had remained combative. If PM Modi taunted Mamata Banerjee with his ‘Didi Oh Didi’ calls during the Bengal campaign, she often called him an insecure leader who must be removed from office. Her ‘Khela Hobe’ call was seen as a galvanising force for the opposition, with the inherent promise of a nationwide khela.

From refusing to speak in PM Modi’s presence at a public event due to Jai Shri Ram chants to making him wait during an official meeting, again in West Bengal, to not receiving him at the airport in Kolkata citing pressing engagements, Mamata Banerjee made multiple headlines.

A perception of acrimony further gained currency when the TMC boss said she was not allowed to speak at a conference of chief ministers. She skipped a Niti Aayog meeting chaired by PM Modi. She also led dharnas and street protests in her own state over the issue of federalism, her broken Hindi often seeming to add fire to her already fiery speeches.

ALSO READ | Bengal Assembly passes resolution against 'excesses of central agencies'

But on Monday, Mamata Banerjee did something that seemed to have bamboozled many in the opposition camp, and even her party. The TMC chief said she doesn’t believe that the Prime Minister is doing all this [misusing the central investigative agencies]. “CBI and ED are not under him They are all under the Union Home Ministry All this is being done by some BJP leaders,” she said.

“Businessmen are leaving the country because of the fear and misuse of ED and CBI. I believe Modi hasn’t done this Many of you don't know that the CBI doesn't report to the PMO (Prime Minister's Office) anymore. It reports to the Home Ministry. Some BJP leaders are conspiring and they often go to Nizam Palace [housing government offices in Kolkata],” Mamata said.

Speaking on a resolution in the Bengal Assembly against the “excesses” of the central probe agencies, she said the Union government is behaving in a dictatorial way but added that the resolution is not against anyone in particular.

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While opposition leaders mourned the diminishing of an anti-Modi force, her party leader Saugata Roy said only she can explain why she said what she said or its political significance. Her own party people facing CBI-ED searches and raids have accused PM Modi of trying to avenge the Bengal loss to derail her race to Delhi.

Her remarks have come when Congress leader Rahul Gandhi is leading his Bharat Jodo Yatra, Arvind Kejriwal is going full throttle in PM Modi’s turf Gujarat where Assembly elections will take place by the year-end, and JDU’s Nitish Kumar and K Chandrashekar Rao of the TRS are scrambling to unite anti-BJP forces. The remarks also follow bloody clashes between BJP workers and the Kolkata Police.

ALSO READ | How Trinamool, BJP are interpreting Mamata’s praise of RSS

So, what’s behind the ‘clean chit’ of sorts for PM Modi from Mamata Banerjee, who was projecting herself as the fulcrum of opposition unity? Or her softer stance on the RSS? We are not likely to have an official word on it anytime soon, though there are several conspiracy theories. One of them is the fear that what recently happened in Maharashtra can be seen in West Bengal, too.

In the West, Eknath Shinde broke the Shiv Sena and formed a government with the then-opposition BJP, leaving the Thackerays in near-political oblivion. There is distinct political chatter in the East about mounting pressure on Mamata’s nephew and heir apparent, Abhishek Banerjee, facing ED heat in a coal smuggling case that could lead to incarceration.

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The pressure is said to be to carve out his version of the TMC and form a new government with support from the BJP. According to this theory, Mamata’s prodigy-turned-foe Suvendu Adhikari, or somebody else could be the Deputy CM.

As it is, her West Bengal government is battling a crisis after the ED arrested then-minister Partha Chatterjee in an alleged money laundering case linked to a school jobs scam in Bengal. She has sacked him and also her education minister Paresh Adhikary. Many other TMC leaders are under the scanner of central probe agencies.

The Bengal BJP has responded to Mamata’s ‘clean chit’ to PM Modi, with the likes of Suvendu Adhikari saying the saffron party and the prime minister do not need validation from her and that her remarks are meant are only a ploy to protect her and her party.

Be that as it may, what her remarks followed shows a pattern. Only days ago, Mamata Banerjee, a staunch secularist, had said that all in the RSS, the BJP’s ideological force behind several pro-right conversations, are not bad. “RSS was not that bad. There are still people in the RSS who do not support the politics the BJP does,” she had said.

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This prompted anti-BJP parties to express frustration, anguish and surprise, triggered primarily by a sense of loss. The loss of the hope of a united and robust opposition ahead of 2024. Conspiracy theories also hint at efforts to project Rahul Gandhi as the sole BJP rival, which the saffron camp believes will help itself.

ALSO READ | 'Nikon camera with Canon cover': BJP fact checks Trinamool tweet on PM Modi

But till June, everything was going as per the script. In Delhi, Mamata led efforts to field a joint opposition candidate for the poll to elect India’s president. It might be a coincidence but things started changing in July after her meeting with Himanta Biswa Sarma, the chief minister of Assam, the state where rebel Maharashtra MLAs had camped during Shinde’s stunning coup. On his part, Sarma said the meeting was not political and they discussed issues mutually beneficial to both states.

This was the time when Mamata’s government joined hands with Gautam Adani and Mukesh Ambani's conglomerates, the two business houses frequently targeted for alleged quid pro quo with the Modi government by the opposition, more specifically Rahul Gandhi. She sought to justify her decision by saying that politics and industry should not be mixed and that the state's growth was her priority.

The next month, in August, there was a marked departure from the political past. Mamata Banerjee met PM Modi as part of a one-on-one and also attended a Niti Aayog meeting chaired by him. This happened when the Congress was on the streets to protest against the Narendra Modi government.

It is to be noted that actor and BJP leader Mithun Chakraborty had claimed in July that 38 TMC leaders were in touch with his party. While CM Banerjee denied any dissent in the party, she was forced to go for a cabinet rejig but insiders said her troubles were not over, giving rise to talk of “understanding”.

What lent some context to the current speculation is Adhikari’s remark that after Maharashtra (where the Shiv Sena split and the BJP left the opposition seats to join the state government), it’s now West Bengal’s turn.

Twitter was abuzz with talks of ‘an arrangement’. BJP ideologue and former Governor Tathagata Roy tagged PM Modi and his office and tweeted, “Kolkata is agog with the apprehension of a ‘setting’, which means a secret understanding between Modiji and Mamata, whereby the thieves of Trinamool and/or the murderers of BJP workers would go scot-free. Please convince us that there would be no such ‘setting’.”

Tathagata Roy was referring to post-poll violence in West Bengal in 2021. West Bengal BJP leader Dilip Ghosh also alleged that CM Banerjee uses her meetings with PM Modi to send out a message that “a setting has been made”. "The Centre should realise this and not fall for it," he said.

After Mamata Banerjee’s meetings with PM Modi and Himanta Sarma, former West Bengal governor Jagdeep Dhankhar was elected India’s Vice-President. Mamata had an unpleasant working equation with him but the TMC decided not to vote against the BJP nominee. Her party’s lawmakers abstained from voting, which helped the BJP. The Congress had supported her efforts to field a joint opposition candidate for the presidential poll. But she did not back the Congress’s nominee for the vice-presidential poll, Margaret Alva.

Mamata continues to maintain that she and chief ministers such as Bihar’s Nitish Kumar and Hemant Soren of Jharkhand will be together in fighting PM Modi in 2024. But there is another theory that she has understood that opposition unity remains an unreal proposition, especially given how Arvind Kejriwal and Rahul Gandhi two of the main anti-BJP forces are doing their politics.

According to this theory, she may not want to risk too much by remaining the firebrand leader that she was and by fighting the no-holds-barred battles she fought. The Lok Sabha elections are still two years away. And her West Bengal government is only 16 months old and needs cordial relations with the Centre for its smooth functioning, with several issues like GST dues requiring to be resolved. The stakes are simply too high. Also, many would argue that it is also in the BJP's interest that the TMC remains embattled but not as fatally as the Congress is.

Even after her change of heart, Mamata still has a story, arguably the most inspiring, to tell as we slowly move closer to 2024 but probably with shades of tragedy clouding it.

ALSO READ | Softening stand to save herself, nephew: BJP after Mamata's positive remark on Modi

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