Why Narendra Modi praised Pranab Mukherjee in Kolkata

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Narendra Modi
BJP's prime ministerial candidate Narendra Modi changed his strategy while addressing a rally in Kolkata on Wednesday. While on one hand, he took a cautious approach towards West Bengal Chief Minister and Trinamool Congress chief Mamata Banerjee, on the other hand, he did not launch his routine attack on the Congress-led government at the Centre as he has been found doing at other venues. He instead took on the Congress party itself and spoke on how the dynasty 'deprived' one of the top leaders of the party Pranab Mukherjee from becoming the prime minister of India.

Why Modi backed Pranab Mukherjee?

But why did Modi choose the Pranab issue and not the regular ones like corruption and scams, Rahul Gandhi's remarks, Pakistani and Chinese intrusion across the borders, etc. etc.?

Anti-UPA speech wouldn't have Modi anything special for Mamata is already there

To start with, Modi knew that speaking on these routine issues against the UPA will not make him anything special in West Bengal for its chief minister Mamata Banerjee has already occupied that space. Banerjee is one of those few leaders who have been against the Congress throughout and even Modi acknowledged this fact while addressing a rally in Uttar Pradesh a few months ago. There is thus limited opportunity to reach out to an average Bengali by speaking against the UPA. Modi hence had to change his gameplan.

Sentiment of feeling betrayed

Pranab Mukherjee was the best person to have helped Modi at such a juncture. The Bengalis have a tradition of feeling deprived by the Centre and particularly by the Congress party. The failure of Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose at the national level has always been a pain for the Bengalis. The state even lost out in 1996 when veteran communist leader Jyoti Basu closely missed an opportunity closely. Modi found a great opportunity to cash in on an this Bengali sentiment by recalling Mukherjee's lost chances of becoming the PM in 1984 and 2004. The plan intended to ignite the Bengali sub-nationalist feeling and also fuel anti-Congress mood further.

Mukherjee's across-the-board acceptability

Modi, however, hasn't made such a reference about Mukherjee for the first time on Wednesday. Last year in March, Modi had remarked that Mukherjee would have made a better prime minister than Manmohan Singh. The president played it safe when asked for a reaction on this, saying "You have your own assessment."

An advantage with Mukherjee is that he is equally like by the opposition leaders, an asset that politicians from the old school had. So just like Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel, another towering leader from the Congress, Modi chose to project Mukherjee as another hero who was deprived by his own party. It is nothing but the continuation of the same project of causing further cracks in a centralised functioning of the Congress. It's only that Modi wisely connects personalities with the sentiments of their respective region of origin.

To ensure good relation with President in future

Through eulogising Mukherjee, Modi also ensured that the future course of relation between him (if he becomes the prime minister) and President Pranab Mukherjee remains a smooth one. Mukherjee has already proved himself as an assertive president, someone which any elected government would have to deal with caution and wisdom.

But will Mukherjee card serve the purpose?

There is, however, a concern. Will the Bengalis feel convinced about what Modi said on Mukherjee? First, Mukherjee has already exited from active politics and there is little possibility of course correction now. Whether Pranab should have become the prime minister or not is a topic best suited for open-ended debates today. Secondly, Mukherjee was never a mass leader during his days as a party politician. He could win general polls from his own state just twice (2004 and 2009) and largely remained a Delhi-based leader and a member of the Rajya Sabha.

Bengalis don't believe in the identity politics like Marathis or Gujaratis

Leaders like Mamata Banerjee and even junior railway minister Adhir Ranjan Choudhury are known to be more broad-based in West Bengal. So will Modi's appeal by raking up Mukherjee sentiment will work on the ground? And thirdly, the Bengalis are not known for loyalty towards personality-oriented identity politics, unlike the Marathis and Gujaratis. A cult like that of Shivaji or Vallabhbhai Patel won't work in West Bengal because of historical reasons. If the Bengalis can learn how to overcome the legacy of Jyoti Basu today, they won't be bothered much about Mukherjee not getting the premiership either.

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