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Lok Sabha elections 2019: Bengal campaign ends, war of words continues between PM Modi and Mamata

PM Modi and Trinamool Congress (TMC) chief Mamata Banerjee sustained their rancorous war of words until the last moment, and the entire Opposition ranged behind the latter.

india Updated: May 17, 2019 00:11 IST
HT Correspondent
HT Correspondent
TMC supremo and West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee.
TMC supremo and West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee.(ANI photo)

Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Trinamool Congress (TMC) chief Mamata Banerjee sustained their rancorous war of words until the last moment, and the entire Opposition ranged behind the latter and against the Election Commission of India (EC), before the campaign drums fell silent prematurely in West Bengal on Thursday, three days before the seventh and final phase of voting in the 17th general election.

The campaign for the nine remaining Lok Sabha seats in West Bengal ended at 10pm in line with EC’s unprecedented Wednesday order, cutting short the campaign in the state by a day following Tuesday’s pitched battles in Kolkata between supporters of the TMC and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) at a roadshow by BJP chief Amit Shah.

On Thursday, the acrimony between Modi and Banerjee centred on the vandalising of a bust of Bengali Renaissance icon and social reformer Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar by a crowd that stormed Vidyasagar College on Kolkata’s College Street at the roadshow.

Modi let go of a salvo even before he reached West Bengal to address his last two rallies, accusing TMC supporters of being responsible for the vandalism, repeating an allegation made by Shah the previous day.

“Going to West Bengal for a rally in Dum Dum. Let us see if Didi [Banerjee] allows it. If she has her way she will not allow the helicopter to land,” Modi said in Uttar Pradesh’s Mau, promising to replace the vandalised bust.

“We saw hooliganism by TMC workers again during Bhai Amit Shah’s roadshow in Kolkata, they vandalised Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar’s statue. We are committed to Vidyasagar’s vision and will install his grand statue at the same spot,” Modi said.

After reaching Mathurapur in Bengal, Modi alleged that the local police, in connivance with the state government, was trying to wipe out evidence such as CCTV footage of the involvement of TMC workers in the vandalism.

“Vidyasagar ji was a son of not only Bengal but of entire India. By vandalising his statue, the perpetrators have committed an act of sin. I demand strict action against those responsible,” he said.

“The TMC and their goons have made Bengal hell,” Modi said. He added: “Didi has lost her cool in the face of imminent defeat. She has become so frustrated that she is threatening me that she will put me behind bars.”

In Dum Dum, Modi said the Lok Sabha election will remain etched in memory for the attacks made on democracy and opposition workers in Bengal.

Banerjee responded trenchantly at an election rally in Bengal’s Mathurapur. “He [Modi] has said in Uttar Pradesh that they [BJP] will build a statue of Vidyasagar. We will not accept it. Bengal has the money to build the statue of Vidyasagar. Bengal does not want alms from you,” she said.

The TMC chief dared Modi to prove his claim that TMC supporters damaged the statue. “We have video proofs that you [BJP] desecrated it. And you are saying that Trinamool Congress has done it! Aren’t you ashamed? This prime minister should perform sit-ups, not once but innumerable times, holding his ears for telling lies,” she said.

She said the BJP won’t be “spared” and will be “dragged behind the bars”. “If you vandalise the statue of BR Ambedkar, building it once again does not suffice. If you desecrate the statue of Gandhiji, or Maulana Abul Kalam Azad or Tagore or Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose, it does not suffice,” Banerjee said.

At a rally in Mandirbazar in support of Trinamool Lok Sabha candidate CM Jatua, Banerjee said Modi was a liar the “like of which we have never seen in the country”. Later, at another rally in Diamond Harbour, where her nephew Abhishek Banerjee is in the fray, Banerjee said BJP feared losing the elections.

“As the last phase of elections is approaching, you (Modi) have become mad and are talking nonsense,” she said.

Banerjee hit out at EC, whose decision to curtail the campaign in Bengal by a day was criticised by the Opposition in unison. Campaigning for 50 other Lok Sabha seats spread over six other states and the Union Territory of Chandigarh will end on Friday evening. Banerjee has already said she would approach the Supreme Court against the EC’s decision after the completion of the polls.

The BJP is trying to make inroads into Bengal to offset possible reverses in its strongholds in northern and western India that helped it in 2014 to become the first party in 30 years to win a majority on its own in the Lok Sabha. West Bengal elects 42 members of the Lok Sabha, behind only Uttar Pradesh (80) and Maharashtra (48).

Banerjee accused the EC of being partial to the ruling party at the Centre and said it was behaving like “BJP’s brother”.

She found support from other opposition parties across the political spectrum. Bahujan Samaj Party (BJP) leader Mayawati accused the election watchdog of acting under pressure and the Congress said EC had lost its independence.

“Election commission has banned campaigning in West Bengal, but from 10pm today, just because PM has two rallies in the day. If they had to ban (campaigning on the last day), then why not from today morning? This is unfair and EC is acting under pressure,” Mayawati said.

The Congress said the EC was once known for its objectivity, non-partisan stand but it seems it now “takes orders from BJP headquarters”. “The election commission has abdicated its integrity,” Congress spokesperson Randeep Surjewala said, alleging that the Model Code of Conduct had been replaced by a “Modi Code of Conduct”.

He added: “Time has come to review the process of appointment of election commission. Should it only remain an appendage to the ruling dispensation or is it a constitutional body which is so intrinsically important to our democracy that its appointment requires to be mandated and tapered through a fair, transparent process like in many other cases?”

In Tamil Nadu, the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam criticised EC for curtailing the Bengal campaign. “EC has one set of rules for the Opposition and another for the ruling party. Highly condemnable,” DMK president MK Stalin wrote in a Twitter post.

Former Jammu and Kashmir chief minister Omar Abdullah also backed Banerjee, as did Delhi chief minister and Aam Aadmi Party national convener Arvind Kejriwal. “We condemn the openly biased role played by the election commission. The EC has allowed Prime Minister Modi’s election campaigns while stopped others from doing so,” he added.

(With inputs from agencies)

First Published: May 17, 2019 00:02 IST

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