Smriti Irani, Union Minister for Women and Child Development and Textiles, is a star campaigner for the party in West Bengal. In a detailed interview with News18’s Aman Sharma in Kolkata during her campaign, Irani answers a host of questions on the West Bengal elections - the women voter factor, the TMCs charge against the Prime Minister’s ‘Didi O Didi’ remark and Rahul Gandhi's late entry into the poll campaign
Q. The BJP says it is crossing 200 seats in Bengal while the Trinamool Congress (TMC) says you won’t even cross 100. There is a huge gap in the claims.
Smriti Irani: I think it is more than evident from the number of people who are thronging to listen to Prime Minister Narendra Modi, with the number of people coming to bless Amit Shah and with the number of people now visible at every booth during every voting phase, that people are voting for the BJP. They are stating emphatically that the Trinamool Congress is losing. If you want a certification which is even more enhanced than that, then maybe I can direct your attention towards a chat which took place between journalists in Lutyens Delhi and someone who is leading the campaign for Mamata Banerjee. The campaign head very ardently said yes, Modi is one of the most popular political figures in Bengal. He also changed his stated position saying that BJP workers are available in every booth and that the tide is turning against Mamata. I think the writing is on the wall and it is more than evident to not just the BJP, but also to Mamata Banerjee.
Q. There is a perception that BJP does not have the same organisational strength on the ground as they do in UP or Madhya Pradesh and is a relatively new party in West Bengal
Smriti Irani: I think it would be incorrect to state that we are a new party here (in West Bengal). The correct position, in terms of my perspective, is that you see new vigour with which the BJP has applied itself in West Bengal and you see it post 2014, because there was an overwhelming mandate for Narendra Modi, which was more than enhanced in 2019. The win for BJP in Lok Sabha constituencies in West Bengal was again an indicator of the same spirit and that is why not just hopes, but efforts are bolstered and quadrupled. So, to say that 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. What is more significant for us than the fact that the person who guides us, inspires us, who led us and who has set the very foundation of our ideological path, emanated from Bengal?
Q. So BJP is not a bahari party for Bengal, as the CM says…
Smriti Irani: I think for Mamata Banerjee to take that position is a bit childish because this is 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 because consistently, the BJP leadership has asked her `can you tell us what you have done for 10 years?’. And if you look at her public disposition and her speeches, none of it focuses on the work she has done because in 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 BJP and rejecting the leadership of Mamata Banerjee.
Q. But Mamata is saying that the women voter base is behind her because of her welfare schemes. In other words, she is saying she has done work, at least for women.
Smriti Irani: The constituencies to which I have travelled to and I’m sure in your reportage you will also find, that even bank transfers which took place across the country in times of the pandemic for poor women, did not happen here. In Bengal, Trinamool Congress goons were standing outside banks and seeking their `cut’. The Cyclone Amphan situation in Bengal was not only an ecological challenge, not only an administrative and humanitarian challenge, but in times of crisis, you had TMC workers and leadership 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! That is the extent to which there is peoples’ angst against the Trinamool among in the state.
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Q. Even among women?
Smriti Irani: Absolutely. There have been many incidents of crime against women when Mamata Banerjee’s disposition has not been kind or gender sensitive. When women have been raped, she has said this is commonplace, and not much can be done. In other instances, she 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 in stressing that she is saying no because it is her political nature to say no and because help is coming from the Modi government. After this disservice to the needs of the people of Bengal, do you think that Bengalis will vote again for that atyachar (torture)?
Q. But this image of a woman Chief Minister sitting alone in a wheelchair on a dharna – don’t you think it will evoke some sympathy among women voters?
Smriti Irani: 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 woman leader?
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Q. Polarisation seems a very big issue in these elections with the Hindu-Muslim divide, unfortunately, showing on the ground. We saw a statement from the Chief Minister that Muslims should unite behind her…
Smriti Irani: She oscillates, from doing a Chandi Path in Nandigram to another phase of the elections where she needs a particular community 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 that infrastructure is built or that clean drinking water will be provided, do I assign a caste or religious identity to those who will get that water, homes, or electricity? No, we don’t.
Q. The recent poll violence in Sitalkuchi seems to be a turning point in these elections. Mamata has visited the deceased’s families. She has accused the BJP government, saying that central forces are working under your command…
Smriti Irani: How can they when they are under the authorization of the Election Commission of India? To accuse paramilitary forces of our country of political bias, isn’t that 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 sleight against the BJP, but why drag in constitutional positions and forces who are above and beyond politics into this dirty fight?
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Q. 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 cat call?Smriti Irani
: Where has the Prime Minister said one word against her? When did calling someone Didi become a cat call? Many journalists call me Didi because that is the way we talk to people. The Prime Minister has not used any foul language. But Mamata Banerjee’s language is shocking. The language used by her against the Prime minister is despicable. For what? He is only talking about development.
Q. People equate Nandigram to your fight in Amethi and wonder if an upset is in the offing? The CM’s strategist believes Mamata will have a comfortable win.
Smriti Irani: She is losing Nandigram. We are sure. Their strategist, in a TV interview, has said he can only sell a package that is available! So, the strategist is already blaming the product. Is the product in line to fight the election or is the party fighting the election? It is an acceptance that the party is unpopular. When have the people voted for someone who is unpopular? So, there you have a gracious acceptance of defeat.
Q. Your bete-noire Rahul Gandhi was here in Bengal today for campaigning…
Smriti Irani: Please, I’m a self-made woman and my bete-noire has to have those attributes as well.
Q. Rahul said Mamata Banerjee can be controlled by Modi from Delhi so vote for the Congress-Left alliance…
Smriti Irani: I think Rahul Gandhi is so impressed by his mother’s remote-control culture, that he presumes that is what Indian politics is all about. What is interesting is Rahul’s political positioning. In the Kerala elections, he took a diametrically opposite stand against the Left, but in Bengal he forged very strong friendships with them. I think he still believes that we are in a country where we operate in a silo, where people in Kerala don’t know what is happening in Bengal and people in Bengal don’t know what is happening in Kerala. In a country which is so well-informed and in a polity that 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 – one that he already knows he is losing, which of course everybody does and second, that nobody was calling him in his own party which is worse.
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Q. But BJP should not be as displeased with Rahul’s campaign since it hurts the TMC?Smriti Irani
: The BJP is very focused. We are fighting this election on development and we are consistently highlighting the bad governance of the Trinamool Congress. For us it is a direct fight with the TMC and in that fight, the BJP is winning, and BJP is about to establish a sarkar in Bengal, thereby creating political history in the state.