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WRONG SIGNAL

Half-measures do not win wars ó or elections. As the Bharatiya Janata Partyís prime ministerial candidate and the chief campaigner for the partyís battle for the coming general elections, Narendra Modi, should know this better than any other leader. But his speech at the partyís rally at the Brigade Parade Ground yesterday cannot be a happy augury for the BJPís campaign in West Bengal. There was a disconnect between the large, expectant crowd and the rather confusing strain of Mr Modiís speech. It seemed as though the generally strident and clear-sighted leader lost his touch and clarity. His attacks on the Congress and the Left, especially the Communist Party of India (Marxist), were predictable. But Bengalís political space today is dominated overwhelmingly by the Trinamul Congress. If the BJP has to carve out a space for itself in the state, it cannot shy away from a battle with the dominant player. Worse, the party cannot afford to leave its sympathizers with the impression that it is rather unsure of whether the TMC is a friend or a foe. Unfortunately, that precisely is the confusion that Mr Modiís speech seems to have generated in Bengal. This is hardly the best way for the BJP to win friends and influence people in a state where the fall of the long-reigning Left Front and a pro-BJP national mood have created new opportunities for changes in political equations.

For a prime ministerial candidate, national, rather than regional, politics should be the unchanging focus of an election campaign. It cannot keep changing in order to suit local variations in the states. If he had to further his partyís prospects in Bengal, Mr Modi would have done better to give a full-throated call to the people to support the BJP. Instead, he seemed to have diluted the call in order to make room for necessary post-poll adjustments with the TMC. Mamata Banerjee may have her compulsions to ignore such overtures from the BJP. But Mr Modiís speech suggested that his party was both unwilling to wound and afraid to strike Ms Banerjeeís party. The irony is that the Congress, and not the TMC, may be the principal beneficiary of the confusion that marked the speech. The Congress may now feel rather assured that the BJPís bid for Bengal is at best half-hearted. It is one more example how the so-called national parties misread the political scene in the state.