The election season in the country is heading towards its climax even as the Covid pandemic appears to be gathering steam. In an exclusive, freewheeling conversation with News18, union home minister Amit Shah spoke his mind on the questions being raised about the campaigning in Bengal under the shadow of the deadly coronavirus wave, the strategy to combat the crisis, the key issues in the polls, and the road ahead.
In 2017, you started in Naxalbari. From there the journey began, and where have you reached now?
In 2017, the membership campaign from Naxalbari was started by me. We had set the target that more than 90 per cent of the booths will have Bharatiya Janata Party booth committees. At the time there was the responsibility of the organisation and I was the party president. And today I’m very pleased that my party has emerged as a strong party here. Under the leadership of Modiji, the whole of Bengal is pushing for change and will make the change. And in the journey from 2017 to 2021, in which 2019 was one stage and now 2021 is another, I think our workers have pushed themselves to the limit. Modiji’s popularity in Bengal…I have never seen any other leader enjoy this level of popularity. And the way injustice was done to the people of Bengal, they were suppressed…that a large section of Bengal will have a feeling that they have been treated as second-grade citizens. They see solutions to all these things in the Bharatiya Janata Party, which is running under the leadership of Modiji. So I am confident that with 200 seats, the Bharatiya Janata Party is going to form the next government here.
You started in 2017. Today you are confident that your government will be formed here. At what time did you realise that Mamata Banerjee could be defeated?
See even in 2016 the people of Bengal were not happy with Mamata Banerjee. But in 2016, we didn’t have the infrastructure. The party can only put forward its views, ideologies and claim when it has basic infrastructure, pan-Bengal infrastructure. We succeeded in 2019. We had set a target of 21 seats, won 18. We lost 2-3 seats by a margin of less than ten thousand votes. The reason for this was that we had set up the infrastructure and there was Modiji’s popularity. Our workers managed to encash Modiji’s popularity. But even at the time the people of Bengal had doubts about whether the BJP would win. When we got 18 seats, this doubt dissipated and gradually the people of Bengal started joining the BJP. And today I believe that we will win here with a big margin. Not only will we get 200 seats, but the margins of victory on those seats will be huge as well.
You have said that the Bengal win will be a bigger win than the one in Uttar Pradesh in 2017. In UP 2017, you created a caste coalition, a social coalition. Here today, you can see a subaltern shift in Bengal, in which the Matuas, Rajbongshis, Santhals, Kurmis, Gorkhas, everyone is talking about aspiration. Then is this election about aspiration?
Of course, everyone feels that only the BJP can rid them of the injustice that has been happening. Everyone has that feeling. The farmers here feel that they should get the Rs 6,000 every year. Narendra Modiji is giving it to farmers across the country, why aren’t we getting it? Who is stopping it? So they would think that Mamta didi is stopping it. Every poor person feels that if someone in my family has to go to the hospital, then Modiji is covering the expenses up to five lakh rupees. Why are the poor of Bengal not receiving it? I think the answer is Didi is stopping it. So the hopes of all these people are tethered to Narendra Modiji and the Bharatiya Janata Party. And I believe that it is the responsibility of the Bharatiya Janata Party to fulfil the hopes of the people of Bengal. We will have to perform well here, and we will do it, I am confident. But there is also a very large section here which is angry with appeasement. If I want to conduct Durga idol immersion, why do I have to go to the High Court? Why should there not be Saraswati Puja in my school? Why cannot I study in Bengali medium? They all have these questions in their mind, and they think that they are being ignored because of vote-bank politics. And all those people are tormented by vote-bank politics. The people are troubled by electoral and political violence. All the people are distraught due to infiltration. And there’s a very large section about to get citizenship through CAA, and they also wonder who is obstructing our citizenship? The answer to that is also clearly that because of appeasement politics, the government of Bengal and the chief minister of Bengal are blocking our citizenship. So all these things together have generated hope. So what you say is right…who can give them protection against injustice, who can get them justice? They are seeing hope in Narendra Modiji and the Bharatiya Janata Party.
After the victory in UP, you held the first national executive in Bhubaneswar. You said that now it would be ‘Look East’. BJP will look towards the east now and you started looking towards Bengal and Odisha. At that time, Mission Bengal was already prepared.
We had started our work soon after losing the election in 2016 and a decision was taken at the Bhubaneswar national executive. I had said in my speech that we will concentrate on Odisha and Bengal. In Odisha, we had won 9 out of 21 seats. In Bengal we won 18 out of 42 seats. I believe that our people performed well.
In Bengal, the Bhadralok, the intelligentsia, they set the narrative. And they say about the BJP that it believes in the politics of polarisation and division.
See this is propaganda. In a democracy, everyone has the right to express their views. Every party can put forward their views. I believe that this time this propaganda will be unmasked. Bharatiya Janata Party has governments in 17 states. There have been no riots anywhere. No polarisation, nothing happened. With development for all, we have moved forward. Narendra Modiji gave electricity to almost the entire country, in everyone’s house. There was no Hindu-Muslim then. Narendra Modiji gave the poor the Pradhan Mantri Ayushman Bharat card; there was no Hindu-Muslim. He gave the farmers Rs 6,000 each. So farmers have also been helped. No matter how much propaganda is done, no matter how loud it is, this is not the ground reality. So this will not work.
You talked about the politics of performance when I interviewed you a few years ago. Mamata Banerjee shows her report card and says that she has brought many schemes like Kanyashree, Swasthyasathi, etc. The Trinamool Congress says that the women vote bank has been benefited from this and they are now silent voters in their favour.
I think if there is a big reason for the Bharatiya Janata Party winning, then it would be the women of Bengal. Whenever there is violence, the section that has to tolerate it the most is women. When poverty increases, the women of the society have to bear the brunt. And when there is chaos, the women of the society have to tolerate that as well. 33 per cent Bengal is drinking fluoride-laced water. Even when the water of Ganga-Yamuna comes here. The water level is 60 feet below. There was no system of providing tap water in villages for so many years. What are they talking about women? Modiji provided toilets, Modiji put roofs over the heads of the people here, and now pure drinking water is also being provided by Modiji. Talking about women does nothing. Gas cylinders are also being provided to women by Modiji. Women understand very well that my hut is smokeless today because of Narendra Modiji. Today there is electricity in my house because of Narendra Modiji. Today there is a toilet in my house, I do not have to go out for open defecation while bearing shame…it is Narendra Modiji who has rid my life of that embarrassment. She also knows that if the BJP forms the government here, her family’s health will also cease to be a worry.
And woman chief minister?
Had the woman chief minister cared for the women, the situation would not have been this terrible.
The same woman chief minister is saying that she is surrounded by outsiders.
I think some NGO has handed this to her. Tell me one thing, if we accept this point of Didi, then was Subhas Babu an outsider for Gujarat? Was Rabindranath Tagore an outsider for Madhya Pradesh and Bihar? Was Sri Aurobindo an outsider for Pondicherry? And was Pranab Mukherjee an outsider for Delhi? The thinking of Bengalis has never been this narrow, this small. A Bengali is a thinking citizen of the world, and the whole of Bengal knows that neither I, nor Narendra Modiji, or any of our leaders, who have come here to campaign, to talk to the people of Bengal, are trying to become the chief minister. Only a person from Bengal can contest elections here and become the chief minister. Now someone has handed this to Didi. Even related to UP there was a similar thing. These tactics do not work for long. I’ll point out to you a pattern. You must have seen my roadshows today, both of them. In both of them, three ambulances arrived. In all of my thirty-two roadshows, three ambulances have come. On the next day of every voting day, a bogus letter is publicised. Some RSS activist writes a letter to Modiji, me, or Naddaji, saying that the situation is very bad, we are losing here, and so on. They are fake letters. But this kind of politics doesn’t work. This is classroom-level politics from FY, SY, TY that someone has handed to Mamata Didi.
You have repeatedly said in your speeches that Mamata Banerjee is losing in Nandigram. What will be the single most important factor: anti-incumbency, cut money, or politics of polarisation?
Politics of polarisation. The people of Bengal are fed up with appeasement. Infiltration has enraged them. And as CAA is not being implemented here due to appeasement, the beneficiary class of this is angry too. These three things together create the feeling that we are second-grade citizens in Bengal. And I think this is all over Bengal. Is this not our priority? Does our Constitution not say this? And go anywhere, there are no roads, no electricity, drinking water has not reached the houses, the system of education is crumbling, healthcare is in a shambles. Nothing has happened from the point of view of development. And the mandate that Mamatadi got was against the three-decade-long failed administration of the communists, and she was supposed to rectify it.
Bengal is a very big state. Very diverse. The issues that are in North Bengal are different from the ones in Jhargram. Like the issues of the tribals of Jangalmahal are different. The aspirations of the Gorkhas are different. How will you merge and address so many conflicting aspirations?
But they all have this problem of being reduced to second-grade citizens. That is a common issue. Appeasement politics has turned them into second-grade citizens. And another issue that is common is development has not reached anywhere.
It is also being claimed by the Trinamool Congress that you are not strong in the seats that are coming up. The maximum you can reach is about 100. You will not be able to go beyond that.
I cannot make them understand this. Tomorrow, there will be a WhatsApp forward, perhaps putting us below 100. But I’m telling you, all their estimates will be wrong. We are going to form the government here with more than 200 seats.
You have repeatedly said that 130 of your workers have been killed. There is a politics and culture of violence in Bengal. Why has this culture of violence survived for so many decades in Bengal?
Why are you asking me this? You should ask Mamta didi and the communists. We were not in power here. Those who were ruling were responsible. The culture of violence was prevalent in Bihar as well. It disappeared after the NDA government came. It was prevalent in UP too. It went away after the BJP formed the government. After 2014, the fourth election is happening in UP in the form of panchayat polls. There’s no violence. You should ask this question to Mamta didi, the Congress and the communists. Why did they develop a culture of violence? What were they trying to hide under the cover of this violence?
Mamata Banerjee says that for home minister Amit Shah, Bengal is a personal battle. So maybe all the paramilitary forces are working under your influence.
They don’t know such basic things that during polls paramilitary forces work under the Election Commission and not the home ministry. I feel pity sometimes that they don’t know such elementary things. A paramilitary force jawan does not take orders from the ministry of home affairs. They work under the command and control of the police observers there, the chief election officer and the Election Commission. We can’t design their deployment, or decide the way they work. The circular that came to the aid of Mamatadi in 2011 against the communists…it’s the exact same circular that she is opposing now. And in 2011, she would demand that paramilitary forces be deployed.
TMC says that this has become an election between TMC and its B-team. Because a lot of erstwhile TMC leaders have joined your party and many of them are fighting elections.
People from other parties have joined us all over the country. But that doesn’t change the culture, structure or working style of the Bharatiya Janata Party. The Bharatiya Janata Party operates in its own way. This is the case in UP, Assam, Manipur, Uttarakhand, even in Himachal, as well as in Gujarat. This doesn’t change the Bharatiya Janata Party. The Bharatiya Janata Party’s work culture remains the same. Our ideology is the same, and our functioning is the same.
Right now, corona cases are rising in Delhi and across the country. When it had happened the last time in Delhi, you had handheld the Delhi government, and you had come to the front and managed everything. Today, when there are two lakh cases every day, could there be a nationwide lockdown?
This will have to be decided after discussions with all the chief ministers. Right now our modality is, as the home ministry has said in circulars since February… designating containment zones, semi-containment zones, and ordering curfews, we have left those decisions to the state governments, because the situation in every state is not the same. The state governments can take whatever action they deem appropriate.
This is also being debated, and your political opponents are mostly raising these questions that are political rallies necessary? Are public meetings necessary?
I do not understand, why are these questions not being raised in the elections of Assam, Kerala and Tamil Nadu. Why only in Bengal. The Bharatiya Janata Party cannot decide whether to hold or not hold elections. The government cannot decide. This the Election Commission has to decide. Two days ago the Election Commission convened an all-party meeting, took suggestions. They curtailed one day of campaigning, the duration of campaigning. Now we are working under that.
So overall the campaign will continue as usual…and will you curtail your public meetings?
We have reduced the number of public meetings.
The slogan Jai Shri Ram has been heard repeatedly in your campaigning. So is this now becoming a slogan of resistance?
I believe Jai Shri Ram in Bengal is a slogan to strengthen the voices against injustice. Be it the injustice done to poor farmers, to the victims of Cyclone Amphan, to the victims of Cyclone Bulbul, to poor fishermen, to those denied citizenship because of CAA not getting implemented, or to someone who has lost out on employment because of infiltrators. Jai Shri Ram is a symbolic slogan of all these issues. Do not see it as a religious slogan. Someone has been hurt by Durga Puja not being held, someone has been hurt by Saraswati Puja being stopped at school. Such people together have created this slogan Jai Shri Ram, and it’s a slogan of the people and not the Bharatiya Janata Party
So on May 2, will it be a personal achievement for Amit Shah… considering that you started this as party president and then going on to achieve it?
There is nothing personal. I am a worker of the Bharatiya Janata Party. It is the duty of the Bharatiya Janata Party to take its ideology to every inch of the country. And it is also my duty to take the ideology, views and agenda of the Bharatiya Janata Party under Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s leadership to every inch of the country. There is nothing personal in this. This will be Bharatiya Janata Party’s victory. This will be the victory of millions of workers. The victory of the sacrifice of 130 workers. And most importantly it will be the victory of the politics of performance that Modiji has started in this country.