The year is 2016 AD. Bharat is almost entirely occupied by the Lotus Party and with every election, more so. Well, not entirely … one small corner of indomitable Bongs still holds out against the Lotus Eaters. And life is not easy for the Delhi legionnaires who garrison the fortified camps of Vidyasagar Setu toll plaza, Palsit toll plaza, and Murshidabad toll plaza ...
A few of the Bongs, well, just one really.
Mamata Banerjee, the hero of these adventures. A shrewd cunning little warrior; all perilous missions are immediately entrusted to her. She gets her superhuman strength from puffed rice …
Mamata Banerjee vs the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) acquired even more of an “Asterix vs the Romans” feel last night, when the Trinamool Congress (TMC) said the army had been stationed at toll plazas in Bengal without the state government knowing.
To add to the drama, the chief minister stayed overnight at Nabanna, the government headquarters, tweeting: “Until and unless the army stationed in front of Nabanno, the Bengal state government secretariat, is withdrawn, I will be staying at my Secretariat to guard our democracy.”
Soon TMC was wondering if the centre had imposed a “general emergency” along with a “financial emergency.” “It is worse than an emergency,” declared the ever-dramatic chief minister.
Ordinary people can make little sense of it all. And the frontpages of newspapers in Kolkata reflect that confusion. Still leading with demonetisation, the curious case of the army showing up in Kolkata was on the front pages, but mostly as a second lead.
“Mamata locks horns with army,” says The Telegraph. “CM sees red over army ‘surveillance’,” says The Times of India.
“Why is the army at toll plazas? Mamata hunkers down till late at night at Nabanna,” says the Ananda Bazar Patrika. But it’s not the stop-the-press above-the-fold story. The media reckon that its readers, bouncing from empty ATM to empty ATM and freaking out over rumours about gold jewellery raids, have other issues on their mind these days than threats to federalism.
Part of the problem is that no one is sure what’s going on. The army says it’s “routine exercise in all NE states” and only about checking innocuous parameters like “load-bearing capacity.” Banerjee has tweeted at @easterncomd saying: “We have great respect for you, but please please don’t mislead the people.”
Then she added that more army deployment is happening in Jalpaiguri, Alipurduar, Howrah, Hooghly etc. Observers say what’s routine in Nagaland and Mizoram is not routine in Bengal, despite that tweet from the Eastern Command.
The problem for Banerjee is, only a few days before this, her party was implying possible sinister motivations in the technical delay that had her IndiGo flight from Patna circling in the air.
That issue caused an outcry in parliament recently with several opposition leaders, including some from sworn enemy Communist Party of India (Marxist) backing her up.
Early in her tenure as chief minister, she told The Washington Post that the CPM and Naxalites were planning to kill her with the help of the ISI, and that plot was being financed by North Korea, Venezuela, and Hungary. That was in response to a question about overreacting to a cartoon about her
Congress leader Mallikarjun Kharge said the issue was serious as the Bengal chief minister was fighting demonetisation. The civil aviation minister said the Directorate General of Civil Aviation had ordered an inquiry. A TMC source told The Telegraph: “Whether there was sabotage or not, the conspiracy theory is not absurd at all. In any case, it will be put to good use to mount pressure on the centre in parliament.”
Banerjee is at her feistiest when she sees threats, real and imagined, around every corner. For example, during the 2014 assembly election campaign in Bengal, Mamata Banerjee checked into a hotel in Malda and had to escape her room after thick smoke engulfed it. Though some said it was her air conditioner that had short circuited, her aide Mukul Roy cried conspiracy and held the Election Commission responsible since law and order in the state was under their control.
Banerjee too talked about a “murder plot” at her next few rallies in Malda and Birbhum. “Those who do not want the state’s welfare have joined hands and made an attempt on my life. They intended to kill me and pass it off as a short-circuit accident. It’s easy to call it a short circuit,” she told a rally in Naihati.
Early in her tenure as chief minister, she told The Washington Post that the CPM and Naxalites were planning to kill her with the help of the ISI, and that plot was being financed by North Korea, Venezuela, and Hungary. That was in response to a question about overreacting to a cartoon about her. The latest “emergency” story is thus quintessentially Mamata Banerjee.
Didi is a street fighter through and through, and at her strongest when she is jousting against a Big Brother. She is vociferous in claiming victimhood and discrimination in terms of funds.
She has done that against the United Progressive Alliance and the National Democratic Alliance, and is now claiming the centre is discriminating against her state when it comes to cash disbursement.
The BJP wants to present Banerjee’s anger as the desperation of a political party sitting on ill-gotten gains in cash. But Banerjee wants to turn the story on its head into one of a big bully picking on the little guy. Now the army has unfortunately been dragged into this tug-o-war.
But with Banerjee leading the opposition charge against demonetisation, she hopes this story will only add to her importance. What happens to Bengal today can happen to Odisha or Bihar tomorrow.
The problem for Banerjee is that against the backdrop of her previous claims, even a serious issue of state-centre power relations and federalism looks like a petty battle of one-upmanship and the settling of political scores.
But here’s the flip side. Just because you are paranoid does not mean they are not out to get you.
Sandip Roy is an Indian journalist. He can be contacted on Twitter @sandipr. This article previously appeared in newslaundry.com.