Advantage Trinamool in Kolkata municipal election

Print edition : December 31, 2021

Trinamool Congress supporters in a show of strength outside the nomination centre as TMC candidates file nomination for the Kolkata Municipal Corporation elections, in Kolkata on November 29. Photo: PTI

BJP leaders (from left) Suvendu Adhikari, Samik Bhattacharya, Dinesh Trivedi and others release the party’s manifesto for the KMC election, in Kolkata on December 8. Photo: PTI

The Left hoped to regain political relevance in the KMC election. Here, Left Front chairman Biman Bose and CPI(M) State secretary Surya Kanta Mishra paying tribute at the Lenin statue in Kolkata on November 7. Photo: PTI

The Trinamool Congress’ victory in the upcoming municipal election in Kolkata is a foregone conclusion, say most political observers. While the BJP struggles to retain its position as the main opposition, the Left hopes to make a political comeback.

At a time when West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee has made clear her ambition of playing a key role in national politics, the upcoming election to the prestigious Kolkata Municipal Corporation (KMC) assumes particular significance. It gives the ruling Trinamool Congress another opportunity to assert its political dominance after its overwhelming victory in the Assembly election earlier this year. For the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which has been rapidly losing ground since the Assembly election, it will be a critical test to prove that it is still the principal opponent of the Trinamool in Bengal. On December 19, the 144 wards under the Kolkata Municipal Corporation will go to polls, and the results are expected to be declared on December 21.

The municipal elections in the State, which were supposed to be held in 2020, were deferred because of the COVID pandemic. The KMC election will kick-start the process for the rest of the civic bodies in the State. The State Election Commission has informed the Calcutta High Court that it will conduct the elections to the remaining 111 municipal bodies by May 2022. For the past one year, the KMC was run by a Board of Administrators headed by Firhad Hakim, the outgoing Mayor and a senior Cabinet Minister.

The KMC has been under the Trinamool Congress’ control since 2010. In the last election in 2015, the party won 124 out of the 144 wards. The Left Front won 13, the BJP five and the Congress two. In the 2021 Assembly election, the Trinamool had a lead in 134 wards, and most political observers agree that the Trinamool’s victory in the upcoming election is a foregone conclusion. According to the political observer and psephologist Biswanath Chakraborty, the Trinamool is not expected to face any significant challenge. “Right from the time of the birth of the Trinamool, even when it was in the opposition, Kolkata has been its stronghold. This time it is going to be a one-sided election for the Trinamool. The only thing to look out for is whether the Left can replace the BJP as the second force in terms of either vote percentage or seats won,” said Chakraborty.

Also read: West Bengal Election Commission announces December 19 as date of elections to the Kolkata Municipal Corporation

Notwithstanding its clear edge over political rivals, the Trinamool is playing it safe. It has fielded six MLAs, one Lok Sabha member, family members of senior party leaders, and party loyalists. This is a blatant deviation from the party’s professed policy of “one person-one post”, which Abhishek Banerjee, the Trinamool’s all-India general secretary and Mamata Banerjee’s nephew, has emphasised. The following candidates are family members of senior Trinamool leaders: Kajari Banerjee, sister-in-law of Mamata Banerjee; Pooja Panja, daughter of the Minister Shashi Panja; Sourav Basu, son of the Minister Chandrima Basu; Kakoli Sen, wife of Rajya Sabha MP Santanu Sen; and Tanima Chatterjee, sister of the recently deceased Minister Subrata Mukherjee. Vasundhara Goswami, daughter of the late Kshiti Goswami, who was general secretary of the Revolutionary Socialist Party of India, was also given the party ticket.

Mamata Banerjee is the final word in Trinamool

According to political sources, the selection of candidates sent out two clear messages—first that Mamata Banerjee’s is the final word on key decisions within the party; and second, when it comes to elections, the party will be relying more on loyalists and family members instead of trying out new experiments. Biswanath Chakraborty said: “It is clear that the political family of the Trinamool dominated the candidates list. There are no leaders from the slums, nor any representative from the urban poor. Most are affluent and kin of senior leaders. This is a complete departure from their policy of one person-one post…. Mamata Banerjee has shown that she is the ultimate decision-maker in the party and only her trusted people were given nomination.”

BJP’s challenge

For the BJP, the crucial challenge is to stem the rapid decline it has been facing. Not only has the saffron party been losing its leaders and workers to the Trinamool through defections, it has also been repeatedly thrashed in byelections held after the Assembly election. Unlike in the Assembly election, this time the saffron party decided to bank on its own party workers and booth-level activists, rather than on celebrities and defectors. BJP spokesperson Samik Bhattacharya said: “I am not going to compare the candidate list for the KMC elections with that of the Assembly election. This is an election for local bodies, and our priority was to select those who have been working with the people. Our emphasis was on our own party workers, particularly women.” The BJP has selected 50 women candidates, 48 candidates below the age of 40, and nine Muslim candidates.

The BJP’s political decline in Bengal has been dramatic. In the 2019 Lok Sabha election, the party had a lead in 50 out of the 144 wards under the KMC. In the Assembly election, just two years later, it led in only nine wards and could manage to secure merely 29 per cent of the votes in the KMC area. One of the main reasons for the BJP’s repeated failure in the State is that it has not been able to counter the Trinamool’s allegation that it is a party with an “alien” culture. Chakraborty said: “Out of 144 BJP candidates, 61 belong to non-Bengali communities. This once again suggests that the BJP failed to address the successful campaign of the Trinamool that it was a non-Bengali party.”

Also read: Bubble of BJP's organisational base in West Bengal burst

Moreover, the BJP’s poll preparation appeared tepid and devoid of any effective planning and strategy. It was among the last to finalise its candidates’ list, and there appeared to be confusion and mismanagement there as well, with a section of the State leadership voicing its dissatisfaction at not being consulted. One candidate, Mumtaz Ali from ward 134, withdrew her nomination alleging there was no support from her party at the ground level. In fact, according to BJP sources, the prevailing situation had prompted Amit Malviya, the head of the BJP’s IT cell and one of the central observers of the party for West Bengal, to haul up the State leadership and ask it to get its act together. In a meeting on December 6, less than three weeks before the election, Malviya apparently lashed out at the State BJP for “conceding defeat” before the election had begun.

Left hopes up

As the BJP struggles to retain its status as the main opposition in Bengal, the Left Front hopes to emerge from the political wilderness and once again assert its relevance as a viable opposition. The Left and the Congress were the only parties ready with their nomination lists and their manifestos as soon as the election was declared. With its emphasis on the younger generation, the Left presents a far more dynamic and vibrant picture than the BJP does. A large number of those nominated are “Red Volunteers” who worked for the people tirelessly during the pandemic and remained in constant touch with them.

Sujan Chakraborty, senior leader of the Communist Party of India (Marxist), told Frontline: “The people of Kolkata have realised the kind of crisis the society is in today—be it the lack of dignity of life, the pollution in the air, and so many other things. The poor and the middle class are finding it increasingly difficult to survive in Kolkata, and they are getting fed up. They are gradually understanding that they are being deceived. An impression was created that the BJP was the only hope, and the Left was destroyed; but the Left by constantly remaining with the masses proved that the impression was not correct. People are beginning to understand that the Left tries to inculcate fresh thoughts and bring to the fore fresh faces in politics.”

Also read: Lotus of borrowed petals

The Samyukta Morcha (the alliance of Left parties, the Congress and the Indian Secular Front) managed to get only around 7.3 per cent of the votes in the KMC region in the Assembly election, against the BJP’s 29 per cent. However, the Left leadership hopes to perform better than the saffron party in the KMC election. This time the Left has not entered into any political understanding with the Congress, though, according to Left and Congress sources, workers of both have reached an understanding at an informal level in several wards.

A major concern, according to Sujan Chakraborty, is whether the election will take place in a free and fair manner. “There is no guarantee that people will be able to cast their votes. The Election Commission is also being controlled by the government. There is a silent attempt to thwart the democratic process by both the State government and the Election Commission,” he said.

On December 7, the State Election Commission informed Governor Jagdeep Dhankhar that the State police and not Central forces would be deployed in the KMC election. The BJP announced that it would approach the Supreme Court seeking deployment of Central Armed Police Forces.

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