Political Distancing? PM, Mamata's Bengal Photos during Cyclone Visit Sum Up Their Relationship

On Friday, Prime Minister Narendra Modi reached West Bengal to conduct an aerial survey of the damage wreaked by cyclone Amphan that made landfall on last week. He was accompanied by chief minister Mamata Banerjee who also boarded the helicopter with the PM.

Amid high cases of COVID-19, the devastating cyclone has left the state of West Bengal ravaged as many parts show damage worth crores to property. And between all this, there is politics.

PM Modi was accompanied by Bengal Governor Jagdeep Dhankar and the CM herself on an aerial survey of the vast swamp that many districts have turned into after the cyclone dumped copious rain on Wednesday and the accompanying winds flattened homes, uprooted massive trees and plunged the city into darkness.

While images and videos of the aerial view from the PM's window on the aircraft show visuals of a ravaged and flooded Bengal, two photographs-- of the Prime Minister and the Chief Minister sharing space have gone viral on social media.

One of the photos, screenshot from a video of the time when Modi arrived at the Kolkata airport, show the PM deplaning his aircraft to meet the Bengal CM as well as officials, even as Banerjee appears busy with, documents in her hand. The second photo features PM Modi facing the camera inside the aerial review aircraft while looking out of the window while CM Banerjee sat in the window seat opposite and looked out with her back to the lens. The image reminded many of the tense and protracted political rivalry between the two leaders, who have often sparred with war of words to slam each other's governance and policies over the past years.

PM Modi also chaired a meeting with CM Banerjee, the governor and other-level officials in Bashirhat following which he announced an interim relief of Rs 1,000 crore for the state where 80 people have so far lost their lives in the carnage wrought by the cyclone. While the PM's announcements brought cheer to some quarters, it drew brickbats from others.

 "Won't show papers"

The photos and videos from the airport during Modi's arrival in which Banerjee can be seen seemingly attending to a sheaf of papers in her hands even as the PM descends the steps outside his aircraft took social media by a storm. And of course, trolls and memesters could not miss the opportunity to crack some "kagaz nahin dikhaenge" (won't show papers) jokes at the expense of the Bengal CM. As the photos with Mamata holding papers went viral at a time when the state was dependent on the centre's help to rebuild itself, trolls could not help take potshots at the Banerjee's politics.

The memes are a reference to Banerjee's criticism of the Citizenship Amendment Act (2019) that was passed by the Modi government in 2019, leading to country-wide protests from activists, students and minorities from across India. After being a fierce critic of CAA and leading rallies and slogans against it (remember CAA CAA chii chii?), and even wielding her paintbrush against the Act, Banerjee was accused by political observers as well as Opposition parties for attempting to distance herself from anti-CAA protests by not attending meetings and rallies held by Congress and Left leaders against the BJP.

Despite protracted and severe criticism of the Act which was tagged anti-minority by critics, Bengal became the fourth Opposition-ruled states in India to implement the CAA on January 27.

Other images of the scene were also shared with captions that compared Modi's firm steps forward as a mark of his readiness toward helping rebuild states ravaged by natural disasters such as Cyclone Amphan while state heads such as Banerjee remained buried in bureaucracy.

Some, however, defended the attacks on Banerjee as well as her handling of the coronavirus crisis. One supporter even called her the "best thing that happened to Bengal".

Left-wing vs Right-wing

The second photo from the survey aircraft also went viral due to the symbolic composition of both Modi and Banerjee's appearance in the photo. While Banerjee sat with her back to the camera on the window-seat to the left, Modi sat on the window on the right-hand side, facing the camera. Netizens were quick to notice the pointed distance between the two leaders and their preferred sides.

Some even put a COVID-19 spin on it and called the image a testament to "political social distancing". One user commented that you could feel the tension in the airplane cabin from Twitter itself.

Love-hate affair?

It wasn't just the two photos mentioned above that caused a sensation on social media by drawing symbolic parallels to the TMC-BJP dynamic as well as the political equation between Modi and Banerjee. An image of the PM following Banerjee as she led the way inside the campus of Bashirhat University also went viral with many of Didi's supporters claiming that the Modi needed to follow in Banerjee's footsteps in order to become a "true leader". Others, however, contended with pointing out that the pictures of Modi and Banerjee perfectly symbolised the flip-flop between Banerjee's stand on the BJP's policies and the latter's changing opposition of Banerjee.

After his visit, PM Modi addressed the media and put in a rare word of praise in favour of Banerjee. Promising to continue helping the state to get it back on its feet at the earliest, the Prime Minister also praised the work done Banerjee in dealing with the disaster while also handing the coronavirus pandemic. Although the PM and the Bengal CM have been political adversaries, the two have promised cooperation in these testing times.

The Prime Minister said the Centre will stand should-to-shoulder with Bengal and Banerjee also said her government will work with the Centre for relief and rehabilitation. “Dealing with Covid-19 requires social distancing whereas battling the Amphan Cyclone requires people to move to safer areas. Despite these contradictions, West Bengal under leadership of Mamata ji is fighting well. We are with them in these adverse times,” the PM said.

However, Banerjee later slammed the PM's economic package for Bengal, accusing him of not providing complete clarity on the funding. Even as their current interaction was brought forth due to the destruction caused by the cyclone, many on Twitter surmised that what Modi and Banerjee shared was indeed a love-hate relationship.