The political significance of Narendra Modi’s West Bengal visit today

Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s public meeting in West Bengal’s West Midnapore district — in the south-western part of the state, a tribal belt — is significant on several counts. Interestingly, this is the first time Modi visited Bengal in a Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-organised meeting after the Assembly elections in the state in 2016. All his visits to Bengal since 2016 have been as the Prime Minister, in government programmes.

On Monday, Modi lambasted Mamata Banerjee and the ruling Trinamool Congress at the public meeting on Midnapore College grounds. “There is no difference between the (ruling) party and the administration here. The situation in Bengal is no longer a secret. Small or big businessmen must satisfy the ‘syndicate’ first. And the party and the administration’s job is to help them (the syndicate).”

What is syndicate?

“Syndicate” is the name given to groups of local youth – most of them unemployed – who run a network forcing builders, contractors, owners of factories and houses to purchase construction materials from their set of suppliers. This is done through force and threats and has the backing of the ruling party. Initially applicable in the area surrounding Kolkata – especially Salt Lake and Rajarhat – which has seen rapid urbanisation, the term is now loosely being used by newspapers and political leaders to imply that the network has spread beyond Kolkata and does not apply simply to the construction business. Modi’s use of the term “syndicate” today was certainly much broader.

“Nothing works here without the consent of the syndicate. Whether it is a new company, new hospital, school or roads, nothing can be built. The syndicate will tell you from whose shops you should buy cement, sand, stone chips,” he said. “If you have to sell your produce, syndicate will decide where to sell it and at what price. Now, even college admission can’t take place without offerings before the syndicate. It applies everywhere – from chit funds to potato bonds (an instrument to safeguard potato farmers’ losses).” He was addressing a rural crowd who are primarily farmers – and therefore using the term “syndicate” implies he meant the tentacles and such modus operandi had spread to rural areas too.

Modi asked the gathering if this was the reason they wanted to rid themselves of the 34 years of uninterrupted Left Front rule in West Bengal.

Appeal to go the Tripura way

Modi asked the gathering at Midnapore College grounds to follow Tripura’s footsteps – where the Left Front rule had given way to a BJP-led alliance after the state elections earlier this year.

“Those who oppress people have to leave. No one gets away,” he said. “Those who don’t bother about democracy, the courts, the panchayat system must remember that this is Bengal and they can’t get away.” Modi said that they must decipher the writing on the wall. “Bengal is waiting for an opportunity,” he said, asking people to unite and to be brave so they could defeat the syndicate oppression.

He heaped praise on the people of Midnapore for being brave enough to fight against Trinamool oppression. Modi’s choice of West Midnapore as a place for public meeting is significant here. Purulia, Bankura and West Midnapore are among the few places in the state where BJP has performed well in the panchayat (rural) polls.

BJP national president Amit Shah had addressed a public meeting in Purulia recently – on June 28 – and called for parivartan in Bengal. In this part of south-west Bengal, unnatural death of two tribal youth – who were BJP supporters – has recently been reported (in Purulia). Purulia and West Midnapore are adjoining districts.

Mamata in his line of fire

In his speech, Modi took on Mamata Banerjee directly several times. “Didi! Look at the bravery of these people,” he said, indicating the strength and fortitude of those who had braved the rains to remain at the meeting to listen to him. A part of the bamboo structure – supporting a canopy – had collapsed at the meeting site and injured many people (22 persons it was learnt later), and Modi said many had remained at the meeting despite the accident. (Interestingly, chief minister Mamata Banerjee announced later that the injured would be treated free at state government hospitals.)

Speaking of bamboo, Modi used the word “trinamool” while mentioning the Central government decision to change “bamboo” from the category “tree” to “grass” to enable tribals and poor farmers to cultivate the plant and gain from government schemes. Trinamool Congress’ symbol is twin blades of grass with two flowers.

Posters welcoming Modi in Midnapore had been countered by the local Trinamool Congress by pasting the party’s July 21 Martyr’s Day posters, an annual event in Kolkata’s central business district area, that is often a display of the party’s strength. Not an inch of space was bereft of Trinamool Congress posters in the area around the grounds where Modi spoke today. The Mamata Banerjee posters all over Midnapore town has created quite a buzz, leading BJP leaders to accuse the ruling party of unethically trying to spoil their show. Modi, referring to the posters he had seen on the way to the meeting site, thanked Mamata Banerjee for “welcoming” him with folded hands.

Long laboured lines in the Bengali language

Modi was clearly trying to touch the Bengali sentiment. It is part of the culture of politicians’ public meeting speeches that they quickly learn a few local words and deliver the lines. Narendra Modi had certainly spent a lot more time learning his Bengali sentences, which also indicates how important Bengal is in the BJP’s political agenda.

Kalke World Cup football match dekhechhen ki? Match kemon laglo? Apnader football prem er chorcha dur dur porjonto achhe.” (Did you watch the World Cup football match last night? How was the match? Your love of football is well known). This apart, five to six lines in the introductory part of his speech were also entirely spoken in the Bengali language. The remaining part, delivered in Hindi, contained plenty of Bengali words and lines.

Needless to say, the people of Bengal will get to hear more of Bengali from Narendra Modi in the coming days as it is quite clear that the run-up to the Lok Sabha polls of 2019 has certainly begun.

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