Critic and Key Challenger Softens Stance Against Indian PM Modi

Opposition party leader and West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee, a trenchant critic of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, raised eyebrows recently when she went soft on Modi . While lambasting the Bharatiya Janata Party’s misuse of central investigative agencies, the Enforcement Directorate (ED) and the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) against its political opponents, Banerjee blamed the Home Ministry and its minister, Amit Shah, for the “excesses” and let Modi off the hook. Shah is a close confidant of Modi.

“I don’t believe the prime minister is doing all this (misusing the investigative agencies),” Banerjee said, pointing out that the “CBI and ED are not under him.” “All are under Home Ministry…all is being done by BJP leaders,” she said. Her remarks came in the context of the Bengal state assembly recently passing a resolution, possibly for the first time in the country, condemning the misuse of federal agencies against political opponents.

Banerjee’s remarks absolving Modi of blame comes against the backdrop of several senior leaders from her own party, the Trinamool Congress (TMC), including her nephew being probed on corruption charges. Incidentally, a series of detailed investigative reports by The Indian Express has revealed that of all the politicians charged by the CBI and the ED during the last eight years of the Modi government, a whopping 95 percent were opposition leaders.

Of the 118 cases booked by the CBI, 30 were against TMC leaders, 26 belong to the Congress while the rest are members of important opposition parties like the Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) and the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP). When the opposition leaders being investigated join the BJP, the corruption charges against them are forgotten, the Indian Express investigation points out.

Diplomat Brief Weekly Newsletter N Get briefed on the story of the week, and developing stories to watch across the Asia-Pacific. Get the Newsletter

Again, of the 115 cases booked by the ED against opposition leaders, 24 were from Congress, 19 from the TMC while the rest are from parties including the Nationalist Congress Party and the Shiv Sena in Maharashtra, and the Dravida Munetra Kazhagam (DMK) in Tamil Nadu.

Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.

It is significant that wherever the BJP has overthrown governments in opposition-ruled states like Maharashtra and Goa, it was alleged to have been achieved through intimidation of legislators with the threat of prosecution by the ED and CBI.

Soon after Banerjee defeated the BJP in state assembly elections last year to win a third term as Bengal chief minister, she lost no opportunity in asserting herself as Modi’s main challenger. Accusing the central investigative agencies of selectively targeting her party and creating an “atmosphere of fear,” Banerjee has said that the BJP is using the ED and CBI to settle political scores. She appealed to Modi to “look into the excesses of Central agencies.”

Her newly toned-down stance has not gone unnoticed. In the acrimonious elections last year, while Modi was accused of “catcalling” a woman chief minister, Banerjee on several occasions labeled him the “biggest liar” and accused him of unleashing goons in Bengal.

Over the past few months, several TMC leaders have faced the heat from the CBI/ED. Prominent among them are former Education Minister Partha Chatterjee and party leader Anubrata Mondal, who were arrested in connection with a school teacher recruitment scam and a cross-border cattle-smuggling racket, respectively.

Expectedly, opposition parties in Bengal are criticizing the chief minister for being “opportunistic.” BJP leader Suvendu Adhikari, a former aide of Banerjee who defected to the BJP just before the 2021 polls, accused Banerjee of “trying to please the Prime Minister” to save her nephew and political heir, Abhishek Banerjee, from action by the ED.

The ED is probing Abhishek in connection with a coal smuggling scam. Incidentally, Adhikari is among the leaders against whom corruption charges went cold after he joined the BJP.

Incidentally, Banerjee’s softened stance toward Modi has come just weeks after she moderated her position on the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS), the BJP’s ideological mentor.

“RSS is not that bad. I don’t believe it is so bad.” Banerjee had said, adding that “Even now there are good people in RSS, who don’t support BJP. One day they will break their silence.”

Those remarks set off a political storm in Bengal, prompting many to recall Banerjee’s old relationship with the BJP. Banerjee joined the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance government under the then Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee in 1999, although her tenure as the railway minister was a turbulent one.

A lot has changed since then. Banerjee successfully ended the three-decade-long rule of the Communist party in West Bengal and came to power in 2011. She enjoys the strong support of Muslims in Bengal, who comprise 30 percent of the population, and has been a vociferous critic of the BJP’s controversial Citizenship Amendment Act and the National Register of Citizens, which target the Muslim community.

Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.

Banerjee’s softened stance toward Modi is a blow to secular opposition ranks. In a previous article I had argued that with the TMC’s thumping victory in the Bengal assembly elections, Banerjee was being increasingly perceived as the most suitable secular leader in the opposition to take on the BJP and Modi.

Responding to Banerjee’s moderated tone on Modi, the Congress party’s West Bengal chief Adhir Ranjan Chowdhury accused the TMC of being in a “tacit understanding” with the BJP and labeled it as “the weakest link in the opposition camp.” The TMC had made no bones about the fact that it was bidding to wrest leadership of the opposition from the much depleted Congress.

Incidentally, a few months ago Banerjee took the opposition by surprise when the TMC abstained from the vice-presidential elections and did not extend support to the joint opposition candidate Margaret Alva, although the BJP candidate was the former Bengal governor Jagdeep Dhankar, Banerjee’s bête noire. Dhankar went on to win the election.

Banerjee’s credentials as a secular leader fighting the fascist BJP and its Hindutva ideology has certainly taken a beating in recent weeks. Whether she manages to weather the BJP onslaught and intimidation or succumbs to its pressure will determine whether the TMC will retain its hold over Bengal with a re-energized BJP snapping at its heels.