The Victoria Memorial incident, where BJP supporters shouted “Jai Shri Ram” just as Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee rose to speak on Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose’s birth anniversary at an event with Prime Minister Narendra Modi in Kolkata, continued to churn politics in election-bound Bengal on Sunday.
A day after the heckling, which prompted Ms Banerjee to abandon her speech saying she was “insulted”, it emerged that BJP leaders had cornered a big share of invitation cards to the Ministry of Cultural Affairs event and given them to party activists who were present in the crowd in disproportionate numbers, say sources.
Several top MPs were in and out of Victoria Memorial for a couple of days before the event, drawing up guest lists and commandeering the cards, sources said. “They virtually set up an office in a room, computers and all,” said sources.
There was no response from BJP leaders to requests for a comment on this.
Sources said each BJP MP was given a certain number of cards and a bunch of cards – the number between 300 to 400 – went to the party’s office.
The problem, say BJP sources, was many “lower tier” workers got the cards, like Mandal committee members, who may have been unfamiliar with decorum needed at such events.
They should have gone to more people from the intellectual cell, more suited to the occasion, some within the BJP concede.
At the venue, Rim Jhim Mitra, an office-bearer of the BJP youth wing, said she was one of several “volunteers” deployed to “help manage the guests”.
Sources said there were 30 BJP volunteers at the venue, raising the question of why BJP workers were roped in to manage a government event.
The incident exposed a difference of opinion in the BJP that has since been papered over.
Samik Bhattacharya, ex-MLA and spokesman, said immediately incident after the incident, “The ‘Jai Shri Ram’ slogan, some are shouting with love, with respect or in protest. But we are not subscribing to such things, that when the Chief Minister is going to speak, you raise such slogans. We don’t support it. It just happened.”
But Kailash Vijayvargiya and Dilip Ghosh today continued to attack Mamata Banerjee for her reaction to a “popular greeting”. This was the official party policy on the incident, arrived at after a meeting this morning.
But after a dozen party workers from Burdwan were “show-caused” on Sunday for violence outside the BJP office there recently, the buzz in the BJP is about similar action against the slogan shouters. A high-level organisational meeting is scheduled for Monday.
Politically, a section of BJP feels the Victoria fiasco may have some negative impact among urban voters but none among rural one.
The Trinamool is trying to turn the slogan fiasco into a poll war cry and urging people to teach the BJP a lesson in the ballot.
“When the chief minister rose to speak, she was insulted,” said Abhishek Banerjee, Trinamool MP and Mamata Banerjee nephew, at a public rally at Kultali in South 24 Parganas district today.
“Those who demolished the Vidyasagar statue in 2019 in Kolkata were taught a lesson,” he said in the Kolkata North constituency where the demolition took place, a veteran BJP leader Rahul Sinha, lost the election to Trinamool’s Sudip Bandopadhyay.
“Those who insulted Netaji should now be taught such a lesson so that they can’t enter a poll booth ever again,” Mr Banerjee added.
Trinamool leaders are also pointing out that the prime minister who was an eyewitness to the whole shocking drama did not say a word about it when he rose to speak after Mamata Banerjee.
Firhad Hakim, Bengal’s urban affairs minister, said, “The prime minister should have publicly condemned the slogan shouting. His silence condones the behaviour of the BJP supporters.”
The incident brought Mamata Banerjee’s traditional rivals out in her support.
Md Salim of CPM said, “She did the right thing by refusing to give her speech. Why couldn’t she speak? Because BJP held a party programme on government money. This is wrong. A wrong is a wrong. Bengal has been wronged.”
Adhir Ranjan Chowdhury, Congress MP and state party chief, said, “The PM has damaged his own position by allowing this. No one has the right to insult Mamata Banerjee… our chief minister… like this. It was an attack by Hindu communalists on Bengal’s culture. A communal and political assault on Bengal.”
Netaji is the latest icon of Bengal to get caught up in the BJP-Trinamool fight for 294 seats in the Bengal Assembly.
The squabble began with the demolition of the Vidyasagar bust, then Amit Shah’s floral tributes to a statue that was not Birsa Munda’s, a tweet that put down Nobel laureate Rabindranath Tagore’s place of birth as Shantiniketan when it is actually Kolkata.
Over Netaji, the flashpoint was what to call his birthday. Desh Nayak Diwas or Parakram Diwas? Mamata Banerjee questioned the meaning of Parakram – which means courage – and said Bengal would mark it as Desh Nayak Diwas. Tagore had addressed Netaji as Desh Nayak.
She even backed the demand of the Forward Bloc – the party Netaji founded – for his birthday to be named Desh Prem Diwas.
PM Modi, however, said Parakram Diwas.