There could not have been a better setting to commemorate Subhas Chandra Bose’s 125th birth anniversary celebrations than Victoria Memorial in Kolkata. However, the otherwise perfect programme was marred by Mamata Banerjee’s anger towards a handful of people who chanted ‘Jai Shri Ram.’ She refused to speak at the programme and ended her “remarks” in less than two minutes.
This was vintage Mamata — making many points in her own way. But, not so long ago, in October 2013, then chief minister Narendra Modi found himself in a similar situation in Ahmedabad. How Modi dealt with the situation then and what Mamata did on Saturday are studies in contrasts.
On October 29, then prime minister Dr Manmohan Singh was to be in Ahmedabad to inaugurate the Sardar Patel Museum in the city. This programme was being organised by Gujarat Congress stalwart and former Minister Dinsha Patel. It was a programme to mark the birth anniversary of Sardar Patel. The timing of the programme was also impeccable - India was less than a year away from elections and the NDA’s prime ministerial candidate was Modi. That the Congress and its eco-system had no love lost for Modi was well known.
Yet, when Singh landed in Ahmedabad, he was received by Modi at the airport. In contrast, Banerjee preferred to send one of her ministers to receive PM Modi. Special occasions do merit special gestures, which indicate that while leaders may have different political parties, they are one on vital national issues.
The programme at the museum was largely packed with Congress leaders on the dias and Congress supporters in the audience. From Bharat Solanki to Shankersinh Vaghela, all top Gujarat leaders were present. The crowd was not very hospitable to CM Modi (a handful of ‘Jai Shri Ram’ slogans pale in contrast). But, when CM Modi took the mike, there was not a sign of anger or discomfort. In his remarks, he went on to laud Sardar Patel for his work on women reservation, urban planning and cleanliness during his tenure in the Ahmedabad Municipality. He also highlighted the various awards Gujarat had received from the UPA Government. CM Modi also gave a message that Maoism and terrorism would not succeed in India. He did make a political point- lamenting why Sardar Patel was not India’s first Prime Minister but it was done without bringing anybody else down.
Dr Manmohan Singh, on his part also played to the Congress script, highlighting Sardar Patel’s secular credentials, among other things. The target of his remarks was clear and could be debated but one could not fault him for saying it improperly.
Mamata Banerjee’s conduct at Victoria Memorial was a study in contrast. Unlike Dr Manmohan Singh in Ahmedabad, PM Modi stayed totally clear from politics in his long speech. The focus of his speech was Netaji Bose, his vision in action today and the greatness of West Bengal.
Crossfire between political leaders and cadres is common, as well as healthy, in democracy, provided it is done with decency and respect. The incidents in Ahmedabad in 2013 and Kolkata in 2021 had many similarities- birth anniversary programmes of leading figures of the Indian freedom struggle, the PM and CM of the day belonging to different parties. But to CM Modi’s credit then and PM Modi’s credit now, there was no politics. It did not matter whether the crowd was moderately hostile in Ahmedabad or whether a handful of TMC activists tried to show him black flags while he was enroute to Netaji Bhawan in Kolkata (a handful of people chanting ‘Jai Shri Ram’ does not even compare to this). Certain occasions require dignified conduct.
This is where Mamata Banerjee erred. As the democratically elected chief minister with a big majority, she could have enhanced the prestige of the programme by highlighting her vision but she preferred to take the easier route of saying nothing yet saying everything. Narendra Modi preferred to do it differently and this is surely a more emulate-worthy approach.
The author is a senior journalist and political commentator based in Gujarat.