Calcutta, Feb. 5: Narendra Modi today saw something that no BJP leader had ever seen from a party platform in Bengal: over 1.5 lakh people. Then he proceeded to address a single individual who was present not at the Brigade but across the river.
The aspirant for Prime Minister told Mamata Banerjee, who was at her 14th-floor chamber at Nabanna, through a long-distance message everything that any chief minister would want to hear after the general election but not before polling is over.
Modi tried to convince Mamata that she could realise her dream of Bengal’s progress only if there was a friendly government at the Centre.
The BJP leader’s maiden public rally in Calcutta was largely shorn of the fireworks usually associated with his performances. The absence of pyrotechnics reaffirmed the unspoken moral of the story: you need a reviled rival to make the rhetoric, and Modi was not looking for an opponent but a potential ally.
Modi broached the topic with the finesse of a salesman who knows the art of playing with a customer’s aspiration.
After complimenting the audience for ending 34 years of Left “misrule”, Modi asked: “Parivartan aaya hai? Parivartan mahsoos ho raha hai? Parivartan dikhai de raha hai? (Has the change come? Can you feel the change? Can you see any change?)”
“Nahi (no),” the audience thundered in chorus.
The questions were initially construed as a veiled criticism of Mamata but the real —and a very different — picture emerged soon after.
“For a real change in Bengal, the state government is not enough. You also need help from Delhi,” said Modi, pitching himself as the next Prime Minister who would walk the extra mile to help Mamata.
Between Modi and BJP president Rajnath Singh, suggestions were dropped that a future NDA government at the Centre would accept almost all the demands of Bengal that the UPA had expressed inability to concede.
Such an assurance after the general election may have armed Mamata with a development-oriented and secular excuse to forge an understanding with a BJP-led Centre, though many in Trinamul feel any such arrangement will be “suicidal” in the next Assembly polls.
But the immediate focus is on Modi’s public offer, which has been seized upon by the Left to reopen the debate about which way Mamata will tilt after the Lok Sabha polls. Such a question assumes significance because of the influential minority vote that accounts for as high as 28 per cent in Bengal.
Although there was no formal reaction from Trinamul, insiders conceded that if the Left succeeded in creating an impression that Mamata was open to doing business with Modi after the elections, it could exact a price in the Lok Sabha polls itself.
Modi, too, appeared to be aware of the local implications. He did not talk about any alliance with Trinamul as he set a target of winning all the 42 seats in the state. He pitched his case as an attempt to improve the Centre-state relationship, explaining that he would extend all possible help to Bengal if he got support in accomplishing the BJP’s 272-plus-seat mission.
The Centre-state card is significant as Mamata and her cabinet colleagues have been blaming the Congress-led UPA government for not releasing funds to the state.
“The Bengal Assembly polls are not due. A government is here and you can wait for three years. I request you to give us all the 42 seats,” Modi said. “If West Bengal accepts the BJP, I promise that I will fill up all the potholes created in the last 60 years.”
He had been equally careful during his last visit to Calcutta in April 2013 — when he addressed members of the chambers of commerce — as he had steered clear of comparisons between Gujarat and Bengal and criticised the Left.
Mamata, however, has always been critical of the BJP in public. During the January 30 rally at Brigade, the chief minister did not name Modi but made it clear that she did not want to see dangar mukh (the face of riots) in Delhi after the Lok Sabha polls.
But Modi is persisting with his efforts. “Give me a chance to serve West Bengal. This will have double, triple benefits… Mamataji will work for development, I will work for development, and above me, there will be Pranab-dada, who is one of you,” said Modi.
Rajnath, the BJP chief, went a step further and supported Mamata’s demand for a three-year moratorium on payment of interest on loans incurred during the Left regime and repayment of a part of the principal, besides echoing her demand for a bailout package for Bengal.
In a significant departure from the withering tone adopted by state-level BJP leaders towards the Mamata government, Modi and Singh steered clear of any adverse reference to the chief minister.
Instead, the two leaders, especially Modi, launched an offensive on the proposed third front, some of whose constituents met in Delhi today as part of their efforts to stitch together a non-Congress, non-BJP alliance.
“The idea behind the third front is to make India a third-rate country…. The eastern Indian states have remained backward, as the third front parties have ruled them sometime or the other. The time has come to bid farewell to this idea of a third front from Indian politics forever,” Modi said.
This statement should be music to Mamata’s ears as the Left parties are active third front spearheads and have cast a cloud on her plans for a federal alliance.
Modi singled out the Left, holding the group responsible for Bengal’s decline and echoing a pet theme of Mamata. The Gujarat chief minister spoke of non-availability of round-the-clock power supply in Bengal and lack of toilet facilities in girls’ schools (only 60 per cent, according to Modi).
His claims, however, could not be corroborated. Latest reports on the power sector suggest that Bengal is a surplus state and power is available 24x7 to consumers, unlike in Gujarat where farmers can access power only for 12 hours a day.
The education department was also quick to issue a release that said 82.8 per cent schools in the state had separate toilets for girl students. A tweet from Trinamul, too, rebutted the claims, saying the “Gujarat chief minister was let down by his research team”.
The mood at the end of the day captured the irony: the Left was happy that it was the target of Modi’s attack and Trinamul appeared to be miffed that he was kind to Mamata.