Kolkata: Plunging headlong into the election campaign, West Bengal on Wednesday witnessed a verbal duel between Prime Minister Narendra Modi and chief minister Mamata Banerjee. Within hours of Modi addressing a meeting in Siliguri, Banerjee hit back at the prime minister at a meeting at Dinhata in Cooch Behar. The Trinamool Congress meeting, coming at the fag end of the day, meant that Banerjee had the last word in the day’s political joust.
Wednesday’s rallies were the BJP’s first meetings in Bengal after the announcement of the poll schedule. The BJP pinned its hopes on Modi and his ability to draw large crowds. Perhaps this was why the saffron party chose the historic Brigade Parade Ground in Kolkata for the prime minister’s rally. BJP leader and candidate from Bashirhat constituency Sayantan Basu told local reporters, “Brigade ground will be full, at least 6-7 lakh people will be present for the rally.”
Speaking to police personnel on duty at the rally, The Wire learnt that the estimated crowd was somewhere between 2 lakh and 2.5 lakh people. However, an officer at the Kolkata police headquarters refused to provide any numbers..
CPI(M) MLA from Jadavpur Sujan Chakraborty said, “At the very best there could be some two lakh people who attended the rally. And for that, they (BJP) has spent Rs 32 crore for building the pandal and the stage.”
BJP state president Dilip Ghosh told The Wire, “It was a challenge and we still organised the event in a span of ten days.” When asked how many people attended the rally, he said “about eight lakh people” were present.
Subhankar Mondal, 29, a resident of Krishnanagar, said he came for the rally because it’s a fun outing. “People from my locality were coming so I joined them. It’s like a day outing for us, also you get free food,” Mondal said.
In a first, the massive Brigade Parade Ground was covered using huge German hangers to protect those attending Modi’s rally from the heat. This move also confined the crowd within a limited space.
Earlier in February, the BJP had planned a rally for the prime minister at the Brigade Parade Ground. But later, the rally was cancelled citing “present circumstances and short notice”. BJP state president Dilip Ghosh had said then, “The central leadership said there is no need to hold a rally at Brigade as of now. They have asked us to hold meetings in districts because a Brigade rally cannot be organised under the present circumstances and at such short notice.”
According to the Telegraph, the massive turnout at the opposition rally may have made the BJP re-think its plans. “Our central leaders are unsure whether a large enough crowd could be ensured to fill the Brigade Parade Grounds at such short notice…. We are postponing our February 8 meeting there,” the newspaper quoted Ghosh as saying.
Modi attacks Mamata and Congress
In an attack on Banerjee, the prime minister said, “There is a speed breaker in West Bengal which you know by the name of ‘Didi’. This Didi is the speed breaker in your development.”
Taking a sharp dig at the chief minister and her nephew Abhishek Banerjee, Modi said, West Bengal is being run and ruined by aunt and nephew. “BJP will overthrow misrule in the state,” he said.
The prime minister went on to attack the Trinamool Congress over its remarks on the Balakot airstrikes. Targeting the opposition, he said, “…Some people in their hate for Modi have started speaking against India. Who raised doubts on the airstrike? Who demoralised the armed forces? Who had asked for a count of bodies of terrorists?”
Describing the Congress party’s manifesto as “dhakolsa patra”, he said that the Congress’s promise to review the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act has affected the morale of security forces. “Congress party wants our jawans helpless before stone pelters and terrorists,” the prime minister told the gathering.
“Both Congress and its manifesto will expire on May 23,” said Modi. The result of the 2019 general elections is due that day.
Other than the rally at the Brigade Parade Ground, Modi earlier addressed another rally in northern West Bengal’s Siliguri. Interestingly, TMC supremo, Mamata Banerjee tweaked her campaigned schedule and addressed a rally at Cooch Behar’s Dinhata, barely 150 km away from Modi’s Siliguri event.
Banerjee pulled no punches: “This country cannot be divided. First, take care of Delhi, then come to Bengal.”
In an attack on Modi and Yogi Adityanath, she said the Modi-led government has mocked the Indian Army by calling them it “Modiji ki sena”. The TMC chief was referring to the Adityanath’s recent remark, which has led to the Election Commission issuing him a showcause notice.
The West Bengal chief minister said the country did not need a certificate from Modi and his party leaders in order to prove their patriotism. “I am born in the land of Swami Vivekananda and Rabindranath Tagore, we will not take a nationalism certificate from you (Modi).”