A conciliatory Mamata calls for collective leadership to fight BJP in 2019

West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee. (Photo: SUBRATA MAJUMDER)
In contrast to her recent visits to New Delhi where she had spoken of a federal front, minus the Congress, to take on the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in 2019, West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee was much more conciliatory towards her parent party on Wednesday.

As she walked out of 10, Janpath after meeting UPA chairperson Sonia Gandhi and Congress president Rahul Gandhi in the evening, Banerjee said the need of the hour was “collective leadership” of the Opposition to unitedly defeat the BJP. Recently, the Congress president had said leaders like Banerjee or Bahujan Samaj Party chief Mayawati could helm the country in 2019.

Banerjee said she briefed the Gandhis about the National Register of Citizenship, or NRC. The Congress Working Committee is slated to meet on Saturday to decide the party’s strategy on the issue. On whether she was a prime ministerial aspirant, Banerjee said the priority was to defeat the BJP, and such issues as deciding the prime ministerial could be discussed collectively post -2019 Lok Sabha elections.

In a blogpost, union minister Arun Jaitley said Banerjee and the Congress leadership were being “fickle minded” on the issue. He alluded Banerjee’s statement in the Lok Sabha on August 4, 2005, where she apparently said that “the infiltration in Bengal has become a disaster now”. According to Jaitley, Banerjee said: “You can see the Bangladeshi as well as the Indian names in the list. I have both the Bangladeshi and the Indian voters list. This is a very serious matter. I would like to know when would it be discussed in the House?” The union minister also pointed out that Rahul Gandhi has done an about turn on the issue in contrast to the position taken by Indira Gandhi and Rajiv Gandhi.

On NRC, Banerjee said BJP was “politically nervous”. “They know they won't come back to power in 2019, so they are not speaking responsibly,” she said. Banerjee said her party will not respond to abuse with abuse. “In 2019, it will be collective leadership. The first priority is to remove BJP. We will fight together,” Banerjee said. Banerjee quoted from a Rabindranath Tagore song, “amra sobai raja” to buttress her point about collective leadership. “This is the spirit of democracy. Everybody is king. Everybody is equal,” she said.

The West Bengal CM said the question wasn’t whether she would seek an alliance with the Congress in West Bengal. “Whichever party is strong, will fight in respective states. We are strong in our state. We can fight on our own,” she said. Banerjee visited Parliament in the afternoon. There she called on senior BJP leader L K Advani. A host of opposition leaders came to meet her, including Congress party’s Ghulam Nabi Azad and Ahmed Patel, which laid the ground for her meeting with the Gandhis later in the day.

Of the others who met her, Shiv Sena’s Sanjay Raut was notable. She called on Janata Dal (Secular) leader H D Deve Gowda, and met Delhi CM Arvind Kejriwal. She said she also spoke with Nationalist Congress Party chief Sharad Pawar. Banerjee invited all opposition leaders, including the Sena’s Uddhav Thackeray to attend the opposition unity public meeting in Kolkata on January 19. She also asked opposition parties to send a joint delegation to the Election Commission against electronic voting machines, or EVMs, tampering, and that elections be held through ballots.

In a related development, BJP chief Amit Shah will hold a rally in Kolkata on August 11. Banerjee said her government has followed democratic principles and given permission for the meeting. The BJP chief is expected to raise the issue of “Bangladeshi infiltrators”. His party leaders in Bengal have been calling for an NRC similar to Assam in Bengal as well. Shah has set a target of BJP winning 22 of Bengal’s 42 Lok Sabha seats.

On BJP’s demands that NRC be conducted in Bengal, Banerjee said she doesn’t known the date of birth of her parents, who were from a village and records weren’t kept then. “Unfortunately or fortunately I am not from Bangladesh, else they (the BJP) would have called me a ‘Bangladeshi ghuspathiya’ as well,” she said.

The Trinamool chief said she had evidence that 833 people from Murshidabad, a district in her state, were imprisoned in Assam, including 29 women and children, for lack of identification papers. “There are Hindus as well as Muslims among them. They are not terrorists,” she said, pointing out that some have served in the Army, others who have worked with banks or state governments.

Banerjee said the NRC controversy was spoiling India’s relations with Bangladesh. “You are insulting a sovereign legitimate country. Bangladesh is not a terrorist country,” she said. The Trinamool chief said six of her party’s MPs would be visiting Assam on Thursday. Banerjee asked other opposition parties and activist groups to send teams to Assam.

She repeatedly stressed the NRC issue wasn’t of religion, but BJP was trying to make it one as it fitted in its strategy of “divide and rule”, but “we won’t bow down to their strategy, we are not their servants.” Banerjee had met Home Minister Rajanth Singh on Tuesday. She said the Home Minister promised that none would be harassed, but BJP leadership in indulging in abusive politics that exposes their double face.

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