Prime Minister Narendra Modi and chief minister Mamata Banerjee moved from the extreme hostility seen just a few months ago to extreme camaraderie, marked by sharing a stage, warm body language and a one-on-one meeting.
This show of political bonhomie was witnessed when Modi made his maiden visit as Prime Minister to West Bengal.
That the Trinamool Congress chief had abandoned her aggression towards the Prime Minister was evident over the past few weeks, but that things would take such a dramatic turn was hardly anticipated by anyone.
Banerjee and Modi shared the stage at the Nazrul Manch on Saturday, had a one-on-one meeting at the Raj Bhawan and are even expected to share the dais in Burnpur. The bonhomie was on display both in action and words.
“The Centre and the state should work shoulder to shoulder for development,” said the chief minister who never lost an opportunity to lash out at Modi till a few weeks ago.
Modi was at his witty best as he responded to Banerjee’s complaint about the Centre’s stand by saying, “She has placed it in front of me as she has the confidence that if anybody can do it, it’s me.”
The leaders pushed towards a sort of convergence of political messages too. While Modi took a jibe at the 60 years of governance after independence – the Congress being the obvious target – and held it responsible for the poor banking network across the country, Banerjee held the 34 years of Left rule responsible for the ills of West Bengal.
Banerjee extended the change in mood beyond Modi by turning on the charm for Union minister of state for urban development Babul Supriyo, whom she gave a lift in her car from Nazrul Mancha to the governor's house while treating him to ‘jhalmuri’, a traditional Bengali snack.
The body language between Modi and Banerjee at the Nazrul Manch was warm enough to catch everybody’s attention. They were seated side by side and continuously turned to each other and kept chatting.
For political observers, it seemed that the days when Banerjee wanted to put a rope on Narendra ‘Haridas Pal’ Modi’s waist in May last year are buried, at least for the time being.
“We have shown that politics and governance are different things. We welcome Modiji for choosing West Bengal to launch central insurance schemes which would benefit crores of people. Modiji is keen on the development of West Bengal, which people can see clearly,” said Sidharth Nath Singh, a BJP national secretary and observer for the state.
“We have updated Modiji on what is happening in West Bengal. But you must understand governance comes first now. I will not say anything about or against the meeting between the Prime Minister and the chief minister,” BJP state president Rahul Sinha told the media after a meeting with Modi at the Raj Bhawan on Saturday night.
The show of proximity was dramatically different from relations between the two leaders over the past year. Banerjee never lost an opportunity to personally target Modi, whom she even threatened to tie with a rope and drag to jail in the run-up to last year’s Lok Sabha polls.
Modi too wondered in a public meeting before the polls about who bought Banerjee’s paintings for Rs 1.8 crore. She lashed out at Modi on several issues, especially when the CBI began investigating the Saradha scam.
Banerjee was one of the very few leaders who did not congratulate Modi after he became the Prime Minister.
The shift from acrimony was first evident when Banerjee went to Delhi and met Modi without aides on March 10. In February, she skipped the first meeting of the Niti Ayog which Modi chaired and was attended by most chief ministers.
Saturday’s dramatic developments triggered a flurry of criticism from the opposition Congress and CPI-M.
“They share an old relation, they are natural allies. In between they had a few tiffs. What’s happening now can be described as ‘miley sur mera tumhara’. The green room is the appropriate spot to start a new drama,” remarked Mohammed Selim, a politburo member of the CPI-M and a Lok Sabha member.
"After Mamata Banerjee's meeting with the Prime Minister in Delhi in March, the CBI probe in Saradha has slowed down significantly. Trinamool too has given its support to a few important bills. The political give-and-take is clear as daylight," said Abdul Mannan, a senior Congress leader.
Former state Congress chief Manas Bhuniya said it was unfortunate that Modi and Banerjee had ridiculed Congress rule in the country. “They have forgotten the contribution of UPA-I and UPA-II. The schemes that were announced today were old schemes of LIC. The Atal pension scheme is just an existing scheme that has been renamed, a fact known to both of them," he said.
Trinamool Congress leaders pointed out this is the best time for Banerjee to reach out to Modi as the BJP stands decimated in West Bengal and is in no position to challenge her.
Over the past few days, the Trinamool Congress has supported the government on a few key bills in Parliament, including the GST and land boundary agreement with Bangladesh, apart from mellowing down on others. Sources said this was an opportunity for Banerjee to get some central funds, if not financial support for her cash-strapped state.
Opposition leaders, however, contended that a reprieve for people close to Banerjee who have been linked to the Saradha scam is a more compelling reason for the chief minister to get close to Modi.