Election campaigning ended nearly a day earlier than scheduled for the last phase of polling in West Bengal on Thursday evening, with Tuesday’s destruction of the bust of 19th century Indian renaissance icon Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar dominating the political discourse.
The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which over the past several months had kept its political plank focused on stoking a stronger sense of Hindu identity among the electorate of the state to counter the Trinamool Congress’ plank of Bengali identity, felt compelled to neutralise the Mamata Banerjee-led party’s allegations that it was BJP’s supporters behind the destruction of the statue.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi addressed two public rallies in Bengal on Thursday. He said his government was committed towards Vidyasagar's vision and promised to install his grand statue at the same spot in Kolkata where it was vandalised by "TMC goondas". At a public meeting in Uttar Pradesh’s Mau, Modi said his government would install a "panch dhatu" (five metals) statue of Vidyasagar.
At her public meetings, Banerjee, who is also the chief minister of West Bengal, rejected the PM’s offer. She said BJP "hooligans" destroyed a heritage of the state by breaking the bust in the violence during BJP chief Amit Shah's roadshow in Kolkata on Tuesday.
Banerjee termed it a matter of shame for Bengalis that the bust of Vidyasagar was vandalised. "Bengal does not seek alms from the BJP. We have the money for a new bust of Vidyasagar, who was part of Bengal Renaissance. Don't you (BJP) feel ashamed saying that Bengal has been reduced to a state of being a pauper,” she said. It was a reference to a comment by Shah at a poll rally at Canning earlier this week in which he had said that under Banerjee government “sonar (golden) Bangla has become kangal (pauper) Bangla”.
Both Modi and Banerjee, called each other names in their respective public meetings. The Bengal chief minister persisted with turning the incident into an issue of Bengal’s pride.
“Bengalis' pride is hurt that they will not spare BJP. They will not give it (BJP) a single vote .... It will be very surprising if Modi gets a single vote from Bengalis," Banerjee said.
The campaigning ended nearly a day earlier on the Election Commission’s orders of Wednesday. Banerjee had said the EC was taking instructions from the BJP. She found support from opposition parties, including Bahujan Samaj Party chief Mayawati, the Congress and others. "I thought the EC is impartial but it seems it is sold to the BJP. I am ready if I have to go to jail for saying this," she said at a rally on Thursday.
In UP, Modi hit back at Mayawati for her criticism of the “BJP indulging in violence in West Bengal”. "The manner in which the West Bengal government has been targeting UPiites, Biharis and those from Purvanchal, I thought behenji will give a befitting reply but she is more concerned about power," Modi said.
In Bengal, nine seats are slated to go to polls on Sunday, along with 59-seats in UP, Jharkhand, Madhya Pradesh, Punjab, Bihar and Himachal Pradesh.
Trinamool Congress leader Mamata Banerjee arrives at a rally in Kolkata on Thursday; Prime Minister Narendra Modi, too, held a rally in the city. Photo: PTI