India's fiercest female politician targeted by PM Modi in election

Ms Mamata Banerjee has been pushing back against Mr Narendra Modi's Hindu nationalist agenda. PHOTO: REUTERS

KOLKATA, INDIA (BLOOMBERG) - For Prime Minister Narendra Modi, the election starting Saturday (March 27) in West Bengal is not just another test of strength in one of India's biggest states: Victory would also knock out one of his biggest national political opponents.

Ms Mamata Banerjee, a firebrand who has run India's fourth-most populous state for a decade, has been one of the most vocal regional leaders pushing back against Mr Modi's Hindu nationalist agenda, which included a citizenship law that discriminated against Muslims.

She has also supported farmer protests outside of Delhi against new agriculture laws that have drawn international attention after Mr Modi's government used Internet blackouts to try and stop them.

Now Mr Modi has a chance to defeat Ms Banerjee and regain national momentum when votes are counted on May 2, along with four other states.

Victory would also help Mr Modi's Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) expand its footprint beyond strongholds in predominately Hindi-speaking regions of north and central India, further cementing its hold on power over disparate opposition parties that tend to focus more on regional issues.

"A BJP win would remove one of the country's main opposition leaders," said Dr Milan Vaishnav, director and senior fellow at the South Asia Programme at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. "It would signify the party's new, expanded reach."

After coming to power in 2011, Ms Banerjee's Trinamool Congress positioned itself as a progressive alternative to the BJP by launching a series of gender equity and social justice programmes. She has also done well to create jobs in small and medium-scale industries.

But after 10 years on the job, she is facing anti-incumbency as her government struggles to draw big-ticket investments to kick-start the economy.

The state attracted less than 1 per cent of the country's total foreign investment between October 2019 to December 2020, compared with 32 per cent in Mr Modi's home state of Gujarat.

Mr Modi has hit her record hard on the campaign trail, saying the BJP will provide employment, development, education, hospitals, schools, houses and drinking water to the people. "Her game will be over, development will start," Mr Modi said at a rally last week.

Ms Banerjee has returned fire, telling voters the election will have implications far beyond the state.

"The BJP is afraid that if we win in West Bengal, then we will bring an alternative in Delhi," she said at a recent campaign rally. "That's why they are targeting the state with all their force."

Some of the BJP's biggest leaders, including Mr Modi and his close associate, federal Home Minister Amit Shah, have crisscrossed the state to rally voters.

But the party lacks a strong local presence and has so far relied on Mr Modi's popularity to counter Ms Banerjee, said Ms Shikha Mukerjee, a Kolkata-based political analyst.

"On the other hand, Mamata has charismatic appeal as a mass leader. There is a local advantage to her," she said.

The battle between the leaders is clear in the rural area of Singur, which played a key role when Ms Banerjee rose to power in the state in 2011 after more than three decades of communist rule.

She gained popularity by leading a group of farmers in 2008 to force out Tata Motors's near-complete automobile factory, which eventually shifted to Gujarat at a time when Mr Modi ran the state.

More than a decade later, Singur is emblematic of West Bengal's troubles. The area has no industry or farmland, and dilapidated structures now sit on a large part of what was once the site of the Tata factory.

"Nothing can be cultivated with this land anymore, except politics," said Mr Guiram Pal, 82, one of those who were unwilling to give up his land. "If BJP government comes to power, they may set up factories and bring new opportunities for us."

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