The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)’s 62-page manifesto, which has Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s face on its cover, appears to have pulled out all the stops in order to pose a serious challenge to West Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee on six specific counts.
It lays out a strategy to counter Banerjee’s appeal amongst women voters; tries to outdo her popular schemes for the girl child with far bigger doles; negates her charge that the BJP is a party with no Bengali identity; promises a job for each family; puts a deadline on the implementation of the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA); and woos two vote banks that could swing the elections in its favour – the Hindu OBCs (Other Backward Classes) and the Matuas.
Four days ago, Banerjee’s manifesto tried to strike a chord with her loyal women voter base with the surprise promise of a monthly financial aid of Rs 500 (for general categories) and Rs 1,000 (for reserved categories) to the female head of all 1.6 crore families in the state. She also promised doorstep ration to 1.5 crore families.
But the BJP manifesto, released on Sunday, makes women’s welfare its number one agenda in order to get the support of women voters, who are perceived loyal to Didi (as Banerjee is popularly known as). The BJP promises women 33% reservation in government jobs, free health care, free public transport, and a Rs 3,000-monthly pension for widows, senior citizens as well as unorganised workers.
What could be a game changer is the big dole of nearly Rs 3.72 lakh promised for a girl child (from her birth till marriage) of the economically weaker sections and reserved communities. This comprises a bond of Rs 50,000 on birth, Rs 22,000 in four instalments till Class 12, Rs 2 lakh if the girl completes Class 12 and is unmarried, and another Rs 1 lakh in a fixed deposit at the time of her marriage. This Rs 3.72 lakh per girl child is over seven times the total amount of Rs 50,000 given to a girl child under Banerjee’s existing signature schemes, Kanyashree and Rupashree.
“This amount will come in its entirety without any cut money (commission), and go directly into people’s accounts,” Union home minister Amit Shah reiterated on Sunday, while also taking a veiled dig at the state’s ruling Trinamool Congress (TMC) over charges of corruption in welfare schemes. A top BJP leader said this was “the best manifesto of BJP” so far for any state.
BENGALI IDENTITY, JOBS PROMISE
With the TMC repeatedly accusing the BJP of being a “party of outsiders with no sense of Bengali identity”, the latter has tried to walk the extra mile to change this perception. The BJP’s manifesto has promised establishing BPOs, vocational training centres and an expressway between Howrah and Siliguri — which will be named after Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose; funds for education named after novelist Bankim Chandra Chattopadhyay and author and reformist Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar; a Tagore Prize named after Nobel laureate Rabindranath Tagore on the lines of the Nobel Prize; a Satyajit Ray award — named after the legendary filmmaker — on lines of the Oscars; a Gurudev Centre for cultural excellence; a Sonar Bangla museum in Kolkata; and the compulsory use of Bangla in government correspondence. But even on Sunday, after the BJP released its manifesto, senior TMC leaders Abhishek Banerjee and Derek O’Brien attacked the opposition party, saying its manifesto was “released by an outsider” from Gujarat, a reference to Shah.
What is also significant is Shah’s promise of providing a job in each family of the state over the next five years. This goes beyond what Banerjee has promised in her manifesto: “reducing the unemployment rate by half by creating five lakh new jobs annually”. The BJP has also promised that the jobs will be provided “on the basis of merit, irrespective of religious considerations or political favouritism” — which, in a way, tries to rake up the appeasement charge it levels against the TMC.
The jobs promise has also been backed by a plan to bring in investment to make the state an industrial hub, form an economic revival task force and work on the state’s ease of doing business framework. The TMC, for its part, has promised to create 10 lakh new MSMEs (Micro, Small and Medium Enterprises) annually, and add 2,000 big industrial units over five years if re-elected to power for a third straight time. The BJP, in a counter, has promised dedicated Industrial parks and Mega Food Parks.
WOOING KEY SECTIONS
By promising to implement the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) in the first cabinet meeting of a new BJP government in the state, the party’s manifesto puts a deadline on the issue. Previously, Shah promised to roll out CAA once the Covid-19 vaccination is over. Banerjee, on the other hand, says she will not allow CAA if voted back to power.
The CAA promise in the BJP’s manifesto woos immigrant voters who are awaiting citizenship, such as the Matuas. It has promised a corpus of Rs 100 crore for the welfare of such refugees; Rs 10,000 per year to each refugee family for five years after citizenship is granted; a single-window clearance to get documents such as Aadhaar card, ration card and voter ID card; special funds for refugee colonies in Jadavpur, Thakurnagar and Coochbehar; and a monthly pension of Rs 3,000 to Matua Dalpatis. The Matua support could be crucial for the BJP in nearly 30 seats.
Both the BJP and Banerjee have promised to address the issue of including Hindu OBCs under the ambit of OBC reservation. While the BJP has clearly mentioned the inclusion of Mahishyas, Tilis and other Hindu OBCs in reservation net, the TMC manifesto says Banerjee will form a special task force “to examine and propose OBC status” to all the communities who are not currently recognised as OBCs, such as Mahisyas, Tilis, Tamuls and Sahas.
The BJP has been asking why Banerjee did not give these groups reservation for all these years even as she favoured Muslim OBCs.
A BJP leader said the party manifesto also raised issues such as developing a ghat along Hooghly river for daily Ganga Aartis. “Why did no government think of this so far?” he asked.