Battleground Bengal: Lukewarm response to Modi rally at Brigade Ground

 “Landed in Kolkata. On my way to the massive party rally. Looking forward to being among Party Karyakartas and the wonderful people of West Bengal.”


Prime Minister Narendra Modi tweeted this optimistic message at 1.51 pm on March 7, Sunday, even while the BJP’s proposed ‘mega rally’ at the famous Brigade Ground in Kolkata created its share of hype and hyperbole. There were stories floated in the loyalist media that it is going to be a star-studded grand show with top film stars, celebrities and artists joining the BJP in the presence of the prime minister, and a possible exodus of top leaders from the Trinamool Congress.Film actor Akshay Kumar, a favourite of Modi, was supposed to join on stage.

There were the whispered speculations about Saurav Ganguly, which have been doing the rounds in Kolkata, but the former cricket captain, recovering from a heart ailment, has chosen to be totally silent. Filmstar Prosenjit vehemently denied rumours that he is joining the BJP. And except for Sonali Guha, the four time MLA from Satgaicha, who has been denied a ticket by the Trinamool, no leader or MLA from Trinamool joined the BJP. However, the buzz was too loud to be missed. The rally of Modi, the first after the BJP announced its first list of candidates, was tipped to be a big booster, the turning point in favour of BJP in Battleground Bengal.

Nothing of that sort seems to have happened.  Indeed, even the most die-hard fans of the BJP, including those in the media, will agree that the rally was not a success as it has been made out to be through the propaganda mills and tweets, and the BJP could manage to rope in only one celebrity, now in fast-forward decline: 70-year-old actor Mithun Chakraborty, who, apparently, does not even live in Kolkata.

By all accounts, the masked ‘disco dancer’ was not able to electrify the crowd, which, observers estimate, was just between one and two lakhs in strength (the police says the figure is close to four lakhs/hundred thousand). In comparison, the Left-Congress-ISF rally recently at the same venue was huge, spilling all over the ground, with a big chunk comprising supporters of Abbas Siddiqui of the Indian Secular Front (ISF).

Mithun Chakraborty’s shift to the BJP is a syndrome very much similar to at least two other senior Trinamool Congress leaders who have shifted their loyalties from the Trinamool to BJP, due to alleged financial dealings which are under the scanner. Besides, the actor has apparently been switching loyalties quite frequently; he was earlier a Rajya Sabha MP from the Trinamool Congress.

“He has changed parties four times. He was originally a Naxalite, then went to CPM, then he joined TMC and was made a Rajya Sabha MP,” senior Trinamool leader Saugata Roy was quoted by ANI. “The BJP threatened him with cases by ED (Enforcement Directorate) and he left the Rajya Sabha. And now he has joined the BJP. He has no credibility, no respect, and no influence among the people.” 

Political observers also point out that large parts of the Brigade Ground were empty; certain TV camera chose to focus in the middle with a group of BJP supporters shouting slogans, with the rest of the crowd by and large remaining silent and detached. Videos and pictures that are now going viral show up large parts of the big ground to be totally empty, with a few, scattered onlookers listlessly present, sitting here and there.

Besides, language is a big issue in Bengal, and despite Modi choosing to coin catchy Bengali words, the audience response seemed selective and lukewarm, unlike Modi’s other grand shows where his oratorial and rabble-rousing skills are in full display.

“The Left-alliance rally was many times bigger. The CPM rallies were also drawing big crowds in the last assembly elections.  But rallies do not always translate into votes. Hence, the BJP need not be demoralised with this lukewarm response.  Remember, in 2019, the Left rally was huge, and the BJP rally at Brigade Ground was a failure. But look at the Lok Sabha results from Bengal,” said a veteran Kolkata-based journalist.

The Left was reduced to zero with 6 per cent votes in the 2019 general elections, whereas the BJP won 18 seats with 40 per cent votes. This was unprecedented in the history of Bengal where the BJP has had virtually no presence. This is the success story that they want to translate to seats in the 2021 assembly polls. In 2019, however, the Trinamool Congress retained its vote share and percentage intact: 43 per cent. Besides, trends in the Lok Sabha polls are generally not replicated in terms of voting patterns in the assembly elections in India.

Despite the fact that rallies are not an indicator of voting trends, this mega rally was significant for the BJP because it was the culmination of the Poribortan Rath Yatras which started from five points in the state. From Cooch Behar to Nabadwip to Barackpore, the Rath Yatras accompanied by the slogans of Jai Shri Ram,were a flop, not able to draw crowds, and in certain areas seemed jinxed with last minute cancellations. The concept of the Rath and the Hindi heartland Hindutva slogan, both, somehow did not seem to jell with the people of Bengal.

Therefore, the rally at Brigade Ground, with large spaces empty, and a not-so-enthused crowd, does not seem to be a good omen for the BJP which has been pumping its adrenaline, and using a lot of pomp and show, including media hype, to capture Bengal at any cost.

For instance, the end of Modi’s speech, asking the crowd to say Eai Baar, or Ebaar, meaning ‘this time’, had the same motley bunch of die-hard supporters in the middle of the large Brigade ground, responding after him. The camera seemed to be obsessed with only this crowd on certain TV channels. It somehow did not energise the larger audience, even while he concluded with Bharat Mata ki Jai, and Vande Matatram. Modi’s rising crescendo saying Vande repeatedly just did not click;it sounded cliched and tired.

“Besides, Modi’s call for the safety and security of farmers and women, and good governance, jobs and progress, does not really match the bitter reality on the ground,” said a social activist in Kolkata. “Millions are jobless. Thousands of hungry and jobless migrant workers were on the highways soon after the sudden announcement of the lockdown by Modi with no time to prepare and no safety or social security network. Tens of thousands of farmers have been camping at the Delhi borders for more than 100 days in protest against the farm laws. And the whole country knows how much women are safe in states like UP ruled by the BJP.”

In obvious and sharp contrast, Mamata Banerjee led a long procession on the streets of Siliguri which was trending as #IndiaAgainstLPGLoot. A video shot from top accompanied by the song Khela Hobe showed a massive, undulating procession, which were happily shared by Trinamool supporters. Khela Hobe is the boisterous and catchy Trinamool song created for the assembly elections.

Banerjee had earlier said after announcing her party candidates’ list: Khela hobe, dekha hobe, jeta hobekhelenge, ladenge,jeetenge(The game is on, we will see, we will fight, we will win). She said that she will hold 120 rallies.“odi is supposed to hold only 20 rallies. “Ask him to do 120 (rallies) with me,” she took a dig at Modi.

In response, Modi said in the rally: “I wish to tell TMC government that I will keep working for my crores of poor friends. Will friendship work or Tolabaaji? Your energy has made Didi and her friends lose their sleep. That is why they keep saying ‘Is Baar Khela Hobe‘… Truly, these (BJP) people are experienced and know how to play. What khelare they left with? Now listen to the roar emerging from all sides, TMC ka Khela Shesh. Khela Khatom.”

Seasoned journalist and academic, Ramsharan Joshi, who watched the entire rally from the beginning till the end, summed it up: “BJP’s super star campaigner Narendra Modi’s cry for ‘ Asol Porivartan ‘ in West Bengal seemed like drowning into Parsi theatre theatrics at the Brigade Maidan. His speech was full of sound and fury signifying nothing. It lacked rhythmic consistency on issues, concerns, and sincerity. Absurd modulations in a hackneyed style of oratory further marred its impact and betrayed the hollowness of his messages. In his opening remarks he admitted he was wonder-struck by the massive turn-out of the people and that he had never seen such a huge rally in his life. This was a glaring contradiction because large parts of the maidan was empty. Somehow, it lacked the gravity, grandeur, and aura of the apex post he is holding.”



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