Mamata Banerjee and her Trinamul Congress proudly declare their secular credentials. But the TMC treats the term erratically, with a nose for ‘vote bank politics’. It tried to put imams and muezzins on the State bursary. When the move was struck down by the Calcutta High Court, the party put up pictures of Mamata Banerjee offering namaz in areas with high concentration of Muslims. A commitment to secularism should not be measured by such acts of high drama. It is to be gauged by one’s attitude to such issues as the divisive and dangerous campaign to build a Ram Temple in Ayodhya. It is this campaign that prevented the Bharatiya Janata Party’s L.K. Advani from being seen as anyone other than the charioteer who brought destruction in the wake of his rath yatra.
The TMC has chosen as its Lok Sabha candidate for Varanasi Indira Tiwari, the former head of the Hindu Mahasabha. Tiwari is the main proponent for the construction of the Ram Temple. The TMC’s claim to secularism has been belittled by Tiwari’s candidacy. Little wonder then that the imam of Calcutta’s Tipu Sultan mosque, Maulana Barkati, said that Banerjee “should be more aggressive and critical about Modi.”
To be fair to Banerjee, she has been critical of Modi’s claim of a “Gujarat model.” But her criticisms are carefully calibrated. They show that the TMC seeks flexibility in the case of a fractured mandate. The TMC continues to court Sonia Gandhi in case Congress MPs are needed to seat Rahul Gandhi in the PMO. If neither the Congress nor the BJP is in a good position, Banerjee’s message to J. Jayalalithaa for the creation of a “Federal Front” remains relevant. Finally, if the BJP is in a strong position, the TMC may help it form a government as she did in 1999.
Tiwari’s candidacy helps the TMC firm up its relationship with the BJP. Tiwari kept the Ram Mandir agitation alive in the courts, refusing any compromise. Her militancy will inoculate Modi from having to answer difficult questions about his dedication to an agenda that divides the electorate. Modi will benefit from Tiwari’s radicalism without publicly sullying his hands. Tiwari has also indicated that the TMC is not against a post-poll link with the BJP. Modi is not “untouchable,” she says, and a post-poll link is “a hypothetical question.” A return of the TMC to the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance is not impossible.
Tiwari is the grand-daughter of Uttar Pradesh’s legendary Congressman, Kamlapati Tripathi. Tripathi joined the freedom movement, became one of the most zealous lieutenants of Jawaharlal Nehru, helped build the Congress in the United Provinces and then in governing Uttar Pradesh.
When the Ram Janmabhoomi movement began, Tripathi was horrified. In 1989, he said that he would be near Ayodhya because the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh “is out to break the mosque.” When Ashok Singhal told the chief minister of UP, N.D. Tiwari, that the RSS would not touch the mosque, Tripathi said, “I don’t believe the Sangh. They speak with a forked tongue.” He died two years before Modi’s comrades gleefully tore the mosque down.
When Tripathi was the party secretary at the AICC session in Calcutta in 1983, a 28- year-old party worker — Mamata Banerjee — was assigned to take care of him. Tripathi’s Brahmanical rules had to be followed to the letter. Banerjee broke the rules. Later she wrote, “Tripathiji is no more. If he was alive he would have fired me.”
Now she has done worse. Banerjee has chosen his granddaughter to forge the very alliance that had distressed the veteran Congressman in order to bring Hindutva to the centre of power in Indian institutions.