West Bengal

Politics amid pandemic

Print edition : July 03, 2020

Office-goers use the limited public transport in Kolkata. Photo: Debasish Bhaduri

Political parties focus on the 2021 Assembly election even as the COVID situation continues to deteriorate.

The COVID situation in West Bengal is “grim”, the Supreme Court said on June 12 in a harsh negation of the State government’s claim that its management of the public health crisis has been among the best in the country. As on June 15, the State had 11,494 cases, including 5,478 active cases, and 495 deaths. The disease has been spreading exponentially in the State, exacerbated by the return of lakhs of migrant workers from different parts of the country, and the government has struggled to cope with the situation amid allegations of mismanagement and protests in quarantine centres across the State. The government also finds itself under relentless political attack from opposition parties, particularly the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which clearly has its eye on the Assembly election due next year.

While on the one hand the people are reeling under the dual impact of the pandemic and the super cyclone Amphan, which devastated the southern part of Bengal in May, on the other hand the relaxation of the lockdown and the lack of sufficient public transport is turning out to be a nightmare for the working people of Kolkata and its surrounding areas. With commuters forced to ignore physical distancing norms in the limited number of buses that are operated, the danger of the spread of COVID has become acute. Kolkata alone accounted for 104 of the 407 fresh cases reported on June 15.

In the face of the impending catastrophe, the two main political adversaries in the State, the ruling Trinamool Congress and the BJP seem to have shifted their attention to the 2021 election. On June 9, Union Home Minister Amit Shah sounded the battle cry for the election through a “virtual rally” when he called for “paribartan” (change). At a time when the State is facing an economic and social crisis, the BJP installed around 70,000 smart television sets across the State for the rally, inviting criticism from political quarters. In his address to party supporters across the State, Amit Shah not only attacked Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee and her government on every front, but also spelt out what the BJP planned to achieve once it assumed power in the State.

The BJP chose to strike at a time when the Trinamool seems to be in a vulnerable situation. The ruling party has been facing criticism from social and political circles over its alleged mismanagement of the COVID crisis and the cyclone relief. Those confined in quarantine centres, including migrant workers, have been staging protests against the lack of basic amenities or the delay in testing. Some people have reportedly escaped from quarantine centres.

The BJP’s steady campaign against the State government’s alleged reluctance to allow the return of migrant workers for fear that they could cause the spread of the virus, has put further pressure on the Trinamool. Mamata Banerjee made matters worse by claiming that the people of the State called the Shramik Special trains that brought back migrants “corona express”, giving the BJP yet another reason to attack the government.

While the Trinamool has been pummeled by criticism for the past three months, the BJP has kept up a sustained attack on the ruling party on practically every issue–failure to enforce the lockdown, absence of health infrastructure, confusion over COVID deaths, lack of testing, delay in giving test results, irregularities in the disbursal of ration during the lockdown, and mismanagement of the post-Amphan situation. The BJP has tried to derive political mileage from the present crises in the State. A senior Trinamool leader admitted to Frontline that the “political narrative in the State has gone against the party in the last two months”.

If until March the saffron party was on the defensive in view of Mamata Banerjee’s intense political movement against the Citizenship Amendment Act, by June the political fortunes had once again reversed. The COVID outbreak and Amphan put the Trinamool on the back foot, and it was the BJP that emerged as the aggressor.

Joyprakash Majumdar, vice president of the BJP’s State unit and head of the political analysis wing of the party, told Frontline: “The future of Bengal’s politics has been decided in the last three months of the lockdown, and decided unequivocally in favour of the BJP. If we compare the present situation with that prevalent in 2009-2010 before Mamata Banerjee came to power, we see the anti-incumbency sentiment against the Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee government was not as pronounced as it is now against the Trinamool.”

The Trinamool’s reactions to the BJP’s attacks have been tepid, lacking their usual vitriol. A normally combative Mamata Banerjee said: “At a time when we are trying to overcome disasters, one particular political party is saying remove Trinamool from Bengal. Is this the time to do politics? I am not saying drive out Narendra Modi from Delhi, because I believe this is not the time…. Why are you doing this now?”

However, in spite of her protest against the politicisation of the COVID crisis, the Trinamool has been gearing for the election. Mamata Banerjee has directed her party leaders at the central and the grass-roots levels to counter the “communal” propaganda of the BJP, and, according to reports, the party is setting up an army of technology-savvy workers for an online battle with the BJP.

The political battle, which has been a virtual one so far, is now spilling over to the streets. If earlier there was violence over area domination, in recent weeks it has been over relief distribution. BJP leaders and workers have repeatedly complained that they are being prevented by Trinamool members and the police from visiting Amphan-affected areas to distribute relief.

According to the well-known political observer and psephologist Biswanath Chakraborty, in a politically active State like Bengal, it cannot be expected that the issue of COVID will be kept outside the purview of politics. “But the intensity of politics in this pandemic situation is unprecedented, mostly because the Assembly election is just 10 months away. Whereas Mamata Banerjee has been trying to use the COVID situation as a success story for her government, the BJP and other opposition parties have been trying to establish the government’s efforts as a complete failure. In the perception battle that is taking place, the BJP at present appears to have gained the upper hand,” he said.

However, with the “grim” situation threatening to turn grimmer by the day, it is doubtful whether the general populace, weighed down by financial worry and issues of health and safety, will be concerned about who will come to power in 2021.

A letter from the Editor


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Editor, Frontline

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