Makeover move

Print edition : August 30, 2019

A NEW hoarding that appeared overnight all over Kolkata has become a major talking point in political circles in West Bengal. While hoardings and cut-outs of Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee are a common sight in the city, the new hoarding with the words “Didi ke Bolo” (Tell Didi), inscribed alongside a picture of the Chief Minister, is particularly significant in the changing political situation in the State. The poster reads: “If you have an opinion or any problem, then call me—9137091370”. The message reads as if it is coming directly from the Chief Minister. At a time when the Trinamool Congress is getting increasingly cornered by widespread allegations of corruption and public outrage over the practice of having to pay Trinamool leaders “cut money” for benefits from government schemes and projects, Mamata Banerjee’s message is being seen as a desperate measure to win back the support her party has lost, as was evident in the April/May Lok Sabha election. Disconnect with the masses, grievances against the high-handedness and corruption of the local leaders, and the apparent apathy of party high-ups towards the plight of the people are seen as some of the reasons for the alarming decline in the Trinamool’s popularity.

Announcing the campaign on July 29, Mamata Banerjee said: “The Trinamool Congress has taken up an initiative to intensify our public contact programme. To directly hear from the people, we are providing a phone number… people can call this number and talk of whatever problem they are facing, and I will try and address them to the best of my ability. They can log on to the website too and voice their grievance,” she said.

The party claimed in its social media handles that the campaign got over one lakh responses within 24 hours of being set up. It is apparently a part of Mamata Banerjee’s turnaround strategy, conceived by the poll strategist Prashant Kishor and the Indian Political Action Committee.

Mamata Banerjee also announced a programme of reaching out to the masses through the party’s elected representatives and leaders. “In the next 100 days more than 1,000 Trinamool workers and elected representatives will be visiting more than 10,000 areas of villages and towns and taking stock of the situation there, and talking to the local people, hold meetings with party members, and before leaving the area raise the party flag there. This will make them connect with workers at the booth level. The objective is to reach out to the people in a modern manner and hear what they have to say,” she said. Trinamool leaders have even been instructed to spend a night in the places they will be visiting.

The Chief Minister said that this campaign had nothing to do with the elections. “Elections are still 21 months away and we are not immediately going into election mode, as we are going to continue with the development work we have been doing. But the citizens need a platform,” she said. She preferred to describe the new developments as “modernisation” of the Trinamool.

To some extent, these announcements and steps have managed to change the recent narrative in Bengal’s political sphere, with the public focus shifting from the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) to Mamata Banerjee. After the Lok Sabha election, it was the BJP’s performance and the daily defection of Trinamool members to the BJP camp that was the talk of the town. Certain changes in the Trinamool’s style of functioning and in Mamata Banerjee’s politics have become apparent and are being attributed to Prashant Kishor’s influence. For one, the normally mercurial Mamata Banerjee is now measured and mellow in her public speeches. “She is making a point not to be seen in perpetual election mode and has even asked her Ministers and top party leaders to refrain from flamboyant displays of power. She has also curbed her excessive use of the police and the state machinery to resolve political issues,” a political source told Frontline.

Opposition parties, however, see all this as a gimmick. “Mamata Banerjee has lost the support of the people of Bengal. Her party is involved in practically all the major corruption cases in the State. Now, in the face of defeat, she is desperately trying to regain some lost ground; but that is not happening. So long she has ruled with threat and terror, but after the Lok Sabha election results people are no longer scared of her. It is a lost case for her now,” BJP leader Abhijit Roy Choudhury said.

The Communist Party of India (Marxist) believes that it may be too late for Mamata Banerjee to rectify a situation that her party is responsible for. “The isolation from the masses that Mamata Banerjee is facing is increasing every day. Many people, including Trinamool supporters, are pointing accusing fingers at her,” CPI(M) central committee member Shyamal Chakraborty told Frontline.

By Suhrid Sankar Chattopadhyay