Poll strategist Prashant Kishor, who had been engaged by the Trinamool Congress to counter a surgent Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) after the latter’s impressive show in the Lok Sabha elections last year, has reportedly landed in Kolkata in response to an SOS from Trinamool chief Mamata Banerjee.
A beleaguered Banerjee has been fighting to ward off criticism that has been mounting in recent weeks over her poor handling of the coronavirus pandemic. Since the beginning of this month, allegations of suppressing the actual number of Covid-19 positive patients and even deaths have gained ground.
The Trinamool government has also been accused of trying to shield Tablighi Jamaat activists who entered the state after their congregation at Delhi’s Nizamuddin in late March.
In all other states, these congregationalists are reported to have contributed heavily to the transmission of the dreaded virus. But Bengal’s refusal to make public the results of tests on them, or if any tests were carried out on them at all, and how many of them had been rounded up and quarantined, had attracted stringent criticism.
Apart from this, the Bengal government has been accused of inadequate testing, not providing personal protective equipment (PPE) to frontline healthcare workers, not adhering to protocols prescribed by the World Health Organization (WHO) and Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR) for handling and treating coronavirus symptomatic persons, poor condition of state healthcare facilities, dismal state of quarantine facilities and many other deficiencies in its coronavirus combat strategy.
A number of videos, and testimonials from various quarters, that attested to all these charges also surfaced. What also severely damaged the Trinamool’s, especially Mamata Banerjee’s, reputation was the perceived Muslim appeasement that she practised at this time of grave crisis.
Videos of police not enforcing lockdown restrictions in Muslim-majority areas of Kolkata and other parts of the state, and allowing Muslims to offer namaz in mosques, went viral.
Added to all this were allegations of mismanagement and malpractices in distribution of foodgrains through the public distribution system. Trinamool leaders were accused of lifting rations from fair price shops to distribute them among beneficiaries to undeservedly earn credit, and then shortchanging the beneficiaries.
Videos of poor villagers protesting irregularities in distribution of foodgrains, and of Food Minister Jyotipriyo Mullick rebuking partymen for irregularities, also went viral. The ruling party stood accused of playing politics on relief distribution by getting the state machinery to stop BJP leaders and workers from aiding the poor and needy.
Banerjee is known to handle criticism and setbacks very poorly. A little over a year ago (after the Lok Sabha election results were out), she could not hide her acute disappointment over her dreams of playing a crucial role in New Delhi (she had fallen for the false predictions that the ‘third front’ would win) getting crushed.
That time, she vented her frustrations and anger in public and her image took a severe beating.
This time, too, she was hurtling towards a similar venting of anger and frustration (fuelled by criticism over mishandling of the pandemic) in public. And with the BJP also launching an aggressive offensive, the danger of her image suffering irretrievably became very real.
Her nephew Abhishek Banerjee, who is her closest political adviser and aide, read the signs of the impending disaster. He knew that his paternal aunt (Mamata Banerjee) could go over the edge and trigger strong action from the Union government with any wrong move after the inter-ministerial central teams (IMCTs) landed in Bengal.
Hence, he sent an SOS to Prashant Kishor, who the Trinamool chief has come to increasingly rely on in recent months to salvage the many crises that she creates through her misgovernance and whims.
Since she values Kishor’s advice, Abhishek Banerjee rightly surmised that Kishor would be the only person who can persuade her to step back from the brink.
Kishor was thus brought to Kolkata and the first thing he did was ask Mamata Banerjee to desist from speaking to the media. She took this advice and over the last three days, it has been state Chief Secretary Rajiva Sinha who has addressed the media on the pandemic.
It is on Kishor’s advice that Mamata Banerjee took to touring various parts of Kolkata over the last three days to request people to follow lockdown restrictions. That was part of the new effort to show that she was serious about enforcing these restrictions in her own way: through gentle persuasion and not by force.
Kishor also insisted that the Chief Secretary, and not the Chief Minister, criticise the visit of the two IMCTs to Bengal. It was another matter that in doing so, the Chief Secretary came across as a Trinamool spokesperson.
Kishor has also activated the Trinamool’s IT cell to counter the BJP’s formidable IT cell that has been highlighting the misgovernance and mishandling of the Covid-19 pandemic by the state government.
The political strategist is coming up with some social media campaigns that will seek to divert public attention from the state government’s many failings.
Kishor has also started micro-managing the effort to turn the tide against the state government. It is learnt that the idea to impose a ban on carrying mobile phones inside hospitals by patients, doctors and hospital staff — seen as a move to stop damaging videos of pathetic conditions of government hospitals from getting circulated — came from Kishor.
He has also suggested a few more such curbs and restrictions which the state government will silently enforce now.
A massive effort has also been launched to influence and pressurise media houses (newspapers and TV channels) to desist from publishing or airing news and views that show the state government in a poor light.
This is being done very silently. The media strategy involves pushing forward a fresh narrative that will portray the state government in a positive light from now on.
A major criticism of the Mamata Banerjee government has been the perceived attempt to suppress the number of Covid-19 positive patients. The complete lack of transparency had been widely condemned.
This was being done to show that the pandemic is well under control in Bengal and the state’s attempts to stem the transmission of the virus has worked.
Prashant Kishor convinced Mamata Banerjee about the futility of such a strategy and over the past few days, Bengal has suddenly started reporting a higher number of active Covid-19 positive cases.
On Thursday, the state health department reported 334 active cases, a big jump from 144 a week earlier and 198 on Sunday. The state’s numbers, though, are still below the 514 given out by the Union government.
The irony of this all is that the centrality of Prashant Kishor’s damage-control strategy is to keep Mamata Banerjee from speaking in public.
She must be the only politician in India who is advised to keep mum in public and not react to criticisms in order to stem the erosion of her public image. And the Trinamool must be the only political party that has to engage the services of an outsider to control the grave damage it routinely suffers due to the actions of its chief.
Jaideep Mazumdar is an associate editor at Swarajya.
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