Smriti Irani, the Union minister for textiles, and women and child development, is a star campaigner for the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in West Bengal. In an interview with News18 in Kolkata during her campaign, Irani answered a host of questions on the state elections, including Congress leader Rahul Gandhi’s late entry in the campaign and the women factor in the ongoing polls. She also responded to the Trinamool Congress (TMC)’s criticism of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s “Didi O Didi” remark aimed at chief minister Mamata Banerjee, asking how addressing someone as “Didi (elder sister)” can be termed “catcall”. Edited excerpts:
The BJP says it is crossing 200 seats in Bengal, while the TMC says its opponent won’t cross even a 100. There is a huge gap in the claims.
I think it is more than evident from the number of people who are gathering to listen to Prime Minister Narendra Modi, from the number of people who are thronging to bless (Union home minister) Amit Shah and from the number of people who are visible at every booth during every voting phase; they are voting for the BJP and emphatically stating that the Trinamool is losing. If you want a certification…, then maybe I can direct your attention towards a chat that happened between journalists in Lutyens’ Delhi and somebody (election strategist Prashant Kishor) who is leading the campaign for Mamata Banerjee…(He) very ardently said that ‘Yes, Modi is one of the most popular political figures in Bengal’…such an individual also changed his stated position and said that ‘Yes, BJP workers are available in every booth and that the tide is turning against Mamata’…in that conversation there was an affirmation what happens to Indian politics after the BJP victory in the assembly elections. I think the writing is on the wall and it is more than evident to not only the BJP but also to Mamata Banerjee.
There is a perception on the ground that the BJP does not have the same organisational strength on the ground in Bengal like it has in Uttar Pradesh or Madhya Pradesh, and that it is a relatively new party here.
I think it would be incorrect to say that we are a new party here. The correct position in terms of my perspective is that you see a new vigour…and you see it after 2014 because there was an overwhelming mandate for Narendra Modi (in the Lok Sabha elections that year)…it was more than enhanced in 2019 (national polls). The win for the BJP in Lok Sabha constituencies in West Bengal was again an indicator of the same, and that is why not only hopes but efforts were also bolstered and quadrupled. So to say that the BJP is new to Bengal politics is incorrect. In fact, when the PM and Amit Shah speak of the evolution of politics — not only in the country, not only in the BJP, but also in Bengal — there is a reference to Shyama Prasad Mukherjee (the founder of the BJP’s political predecessor, the Bharatiya Jana Sangh). Now what could signify the Bengali element of the BJP more?…somebody who guides us, inspires us, and who led us and who has set the very foundation of our ideological path came from Bengal.
So the BJP is not a bahari party for Bengal, as the CM says…
I think for Mamata Banerjee to take that position itself is a bit childish…this is now a politician who is clutching at straws. This is not a politician who is focused, this is not a politician who has a pragmatic approach…consistently, the BJP leadership has asked her, ‘Can you tell us what have you done for 10 years?’ And if you look at her public disposition and her speeches, none of them focus on the work she has done. Because on every aspect of governance, it is the people of Bengal who have questioned her motive, it is the people of Bengal who have questioned her administrative capacities, it is the people of Bengal who are yet again aligning with the development agenda of the BJP and rejecting the leadership of Mamata Banerjee.
But she is saying that she has the women voter base behind her because of her welfare schemes for them. She is saying she has done work for women.
The constituencies to which I have travelled to, and I’m sure in your reportage you will find that, for even bank transfers that were seen across the country for poor women in the time of the pandemic, Trinamool goons were actually standing outside banks and seeking cut money (commission) in Bengal. The Amphan situation in Bengal was not only an ecological challenge but also an administrative and humanitarian challenge…but in the time of crisis, you had the TMC workers and leadership actually stealing rice, stealing tarpaulin. I went to one constituency in Medinipur where people came up to me and said, ‘Didi, they have even stolen the battery of the tower which is here’. That is the extent of anger against the Trinamool among the people of Bengal.
Even among the women you are saying?
Absolutely. There have been many incidents of crime against women where Mamata Banerjee has not had a disposition that has been kind or that has been gender-sensitive. When women have been raped, she has said ‘this is an ordinary circumstance and not much can be done’. She, in some instances, has said ‘tell me how much money I have to give’. She has steadfastly refused to create one-stop crisis centres in Bengal, she has steadfastly refused to take money to set up help desks for women across all police stations, she has said no to even nutrition programmes like Poshan Abhiyan — and she has been emphatic that she is saying no because it is her political nature to say no and because it (a central scheme) is from the Modi government. She has done a disservice to the needs of the people of Bengal. Do you think that Bengalis will again vote for that atyachar (tyranny)?
But this image of a woman CM sitting on a dharna alone in a wheelchair – don’t you think it will evoke some sympathy among women voters?
Do you think women will be sympathetic to a woman who has used rape as an instrument to silence political opponents? There have been cases after cases where TMC workers have raped women only because they are ideologically not aligned to their party. Do you think there will be sympathy for such a female leader?
Polarisation seems a very big issue in these elections with Hindu-Muslim divide unfortunately showing on the ground. We saw a statement from the CM that Muslims should unite behind her…
She oscillates, from doing a Chandi Path in Nandigram to another phase of election where she needs a particular community’s vote. So her secularism is not intact and her communal nature shows up in different colours. But when the BJP says that ‘we will ensure infrastructure will be built, clean drinking water (will be available)’ – do I assign a caste or a religious identity to those who will get that water, homes or electricity? No, we don’t.
The recent poll violence in Sitalkuchi seems a turning point in these elections. The CM has visited the deceased’s families. She accuses that the central forces are working under your command…
How can they when they are under the authorisation of the Election Commission of India? To accuse paramilitary forces of our country of being politically biased, is that not an abomination? When have our paramilitary forces not lived up to their duty and honour? So it is well within Mamata Banerjee’s democratic rights to bring up any slight against the BJP, but why drag into this dirty fight constitutional positions and forces who are above and beyond politics?
These elections also seem to have become very personal with exchanges from both sides. Like the TMC has said PM’s ‘Didi O Didi’ remark is a catcall.
Where has the PM said one word against her? When did calling someone Didi become a catcall? Many journalists call me Didi because that is the way we talk to people. Prime Minister has not in any way used any foul position. But it is absolutely shocking…the language — which is despicable in nature — that Mamata Banerjee has used against the PM. For what? That man is only talking about development.
People equate Nandigram to your fight in Amethi and wonder if an upset is in the offing? The CM’s strategist says a comfortable win will happen for Banerjee.
She is losing Nandigram. We are sure. Their strategist in a TV interview has said he only sells a package that is available. So the strategist is already blaming the product…When have the people voted for someone who is unpopular? So there you have a gracious acceptance of defeat.
Your bete-noire Rahul Gandhi was here in Bengal for campaigning…
Please, I’m a self-made woman and my bete-noire has to have those attributes as well.
Rahul said Mamata Banerjee can be controlled by Mr Modi from Delhi, so vote for the Congress-Left alliance…
I think Mr Gandhi has been so impressed by the remote-control culture of his mother that he presumes that is what Indian politics is all about. What is interesting is Mr Gandhi’s position politically…in the Kerala elections, he took a diametrically opposite stand against the Left, but in Bengal he forged very a strong friendship with them. I think he still believes that we are in a country where we operate in a silo, where people in Kerala won’t know what is happening in Bengal and people in Bengal won’t know what is happening in Kerala. In a country which is so well-informed and in a polity which is so vibrant, do you think people have not seen through Rahul Gandhi’s capacities, dare I say his leadership capacities? There are two possible reasons why he came late in these elections (for campaigning): first, he already knows he is losing — which of course everybody does — and second, nobody was calling him (for campaigning) in his own party — which is worse.
But the BJP should not be displeased with Rahul’s campaign since it hurts the TMC…
The BJP is very focused that we are fighting this election on development agenda and we are consistently highlighting the bad governance patterns of the Trinamool Congress. For us, it is a direct fight with the TMC and in that fight, the BJP is winning, and the BJP is about to establish a sarkar in Bengal, thereby creating political history in the state.