West Bengal

Mamata Banerjee's loosening grip

Print edition : July 19, 2019

Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee addressing a meeting of Trinamool Congress councillors of municipalities across the State in Kolkata on June 18. Photo: PTI

Arson at Kankinara in the Bhatpara Assembly constituency on May 19, while a byelection was under way, following clashes between BJP and Trinamool members. Photo: PTI

At a protest by the West Bengal Primary Teachers Association on June 24. The teachers seek pay parity with Kendriya Vidyalaya and other CBSE schools. Photo: Rajeev Bhatt

Mamata Banerjee with junior doctors at the State Secretariat in Howrah, on June 17. The crisis that their strike caused was resolved at this meeting. Photo: AFP

In the month after the election results were declared, West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee appears to be losing control of both the State administration and her party.

The 2019 Lok Sabha election not only brought in a change in West Bengal’s political dynamics but also ushered in a period of prolonged political unrest and violence, which continued even a month after the election results were declared on May 23. Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee and her Trinamool Congress are facing their most trying time since coming to power in 2011. With the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) securing a massive 40 per cent of the votes, and literally breathing down the ruling party’s neck, Mamata Banerjee appears to be unable to either prevent Trinamool leaders and workers from joining the BJP in droves or bring under control the declining law and order situation.

Although the BJP was expected to improve on its tally of two seats in the 2014 general election, its final tally of 18 out of the State’s 42 parliamentary seats took many by surprise. In an election that was projected as a precursor to the 2021 Assembly election, the result clearly pointed to a strong anti-incumbency factor working against the ruling party and an acute communal polarisation working to the BJP’s advantage.

What particularly worries the Chief Minister is that the mandate was more a vote against her party than an endorsement of the BJP. Indeed, the BJP benefited from the popular perception that it was a viable opposition to the Trinamool. In the month following the declaration of the results, Mamata Banerjee’s situation has worsened considerably. There has been massive defection from the Trinamool camp to the BJP and violent resistance against the ruling party’s dominance at the ground level. As the BJP spreads its influence all over the State, she faces a desperate battle for survival.

Between May 23 and June 24, Mamata Banerjee lost six of her MLAs to the BJP, which also seized control of five municipalities and around 50 gram panchayats. The latest round of defections, on June 24, claimed one of the most senior and respected Trinamool members, Biplab Mitra from South Dinajpur, who was with the Trinamool from its inception. With Mitra’s defection, the BJP secured its first zilla parishad board. Mitra said: “There are many people like me who have strived for decades to bring the Trinamool to power. But these days, certain decisions have left us disappointed. People with no mass connect are given priority while the old ones are sidelined.”

There are allegations that the Trinamool is putting its own people behind bars on trumped-up charges in a desperate bid to stop defections. “It is common knowledge that for a long time now the police have been highly politicised in West Bengal. There are reports that they are now also being used against opposition forces, including dissident Trinamool leaders who are trying to defect,” said psephologist and social scientist Biswanath Chakraborty.

VIOLENCE SPIRALLING OUT OF CONTROL

In the course of just one month, the political violence and defections seem to have spiralled out of control. As of June 24, the violence had claimed around 30 lives. Several people are missing and presumed dead. Innocent people who had little to do with active politics have been caught in the crossfire between the warring parties and lost their lives. A number of innocent bystanders, including a 17-year-old boy, have been killed in the violence. On June 22, a student of Class 8 was shot at and seriously wounded in Bankura. While the BJP blamed the Trinamool and the police for it, the ruling party blamed the BJP. Bitter faction feuds in the Trinamool have also reportedly claimed five lives.

Bhatpara in North 24 Parganas has been the epicentre of the political violence. Once a Trinamool stronghold, Bhatpara was wrested by the BJP under the leadership of Arjun Singh, the Trinamool heavyweight who joined the BJP days before the Lok Sabha election. The BJP ended up winning not only the Lok Sabha seat but also the Assembly seat in the byelection. The violence that erupted in Bhatpara during the election has shown no signs of abating and has already claimed five lives. The Chief Minister’s ultimatum to restore peace went unheeded as two people were killed and six seriously injured in fresh violence that broke out on June 20. Rambabu Shaw, a 17-year-old vendor of “phuchka” (Bengali equivalent of the north Indian golgappa or pani puri) was killed by a stray bullet. Bhatpara continued to remain on the edge days after the killings as clashes broke out sporadically. On June 22, two BJP workers were killed in Barrackpore and Purba Bardhaman. The following day, a Communist Party of India (Marxist) activist was shot dead in Baruipur.

In the middle of all this, the health sector in the State teetered on the verge of collapse as doctors in government hospitals went on a strike for a week following a vicious attack on two junior doctors on June 11. After the death of a 75-year-old patient, Mohammad Sayeed, at NRS Hospital in Kolkata, a mob of over 150 people reportedly turned up at the hospital in bikes and other vehicles and unleashed violence. There is a perception that the doctors’ agitation might have ended sooner had the Chief Minister taken a more sympathetic attitude instead of issuing threats and ultimatums. Close on the heels of the doctors’ strike came a powerful agitation by schoolteachers.

The Union Home Ministry sent two advisories—the first on the doctors’ strike and the second on the continuing violence. “The continued trend of political violence from 2016 through 2019.... is indicative of the failure on the part of the law enforcement machinery of the State to maintain the rule of law and to inspire a sense of security among the people. Government of India is seriously concerned over the prevalent situation in West Bengal,” read the second advisory.

‘Bengali nationalism’

A sudden change in Mamata Banerjee’s politics has further damaged her credibility. Before the general election, when the Bengal Chief Minister harboured ambitions of playing a key role in Central politics, she projected herself as a champion of “inclusive politics”. West Bengal was mini-India where people from all parts of the country were welcome, she said. However, after the BJP’s success in the election, she and some of her party leaders have been singing a different tune.

The emphasis is now on “Bengali nationalism” and Bengali language. “To live in Bengal, one has to speak in Bengali,” she announced at a recent public meeting. Her repeated references to non-Bengali residents of the State as “outsiders” are being seen as a dangerous political tactic that can further divide society in West Bengal, which already appears to be polarised on communal lines. Politically, the strategy is being seen as a move to divide the BJP’s Hindu votes on linguistic lines.

Rampant corruption in the ruling party at the grass-roots level and the arrogance of its leaders fuelled the anti-Trinamool wave in the general election, notwithstanding the considerable development work that this government has undertaken. Widespread extortions and demands for “cut money” for implementing government projects and providing basic services have alienated the people from the ruling party. “The cut money system is something that the Trinamool itself is guilty of putting in place. It is learnt from the field that one of the main routes of raising funds for the party usually was by granting the party ticket to those who can afford to pay for it. In many cases it has been seen that when a person has spent lakhs in getting nominated, he naturally spends his days in office getting back the money he had to spend and more,” Biswanath Chakraborty observed.

Mamata Banerjee appears to have woken up to the problem only now, at a time when the BJP is ascendant all over the State. “Those of you who have taken money, return it. I will not tolerate thieves in my party,” she announced at a party meeting.

However, this has led to more chaos and in effect delivered a crippling blow to the ruling party at the grass-roots level. Local Trinamool leaders in different parts of the State are feeling the heat as people have started demanding that money taken from them should be returned. From panchayat leaders to councillors, influential members of the ruling party are being heckled by angry people asking for their money back. “A person who used to travel on a bicycle before the Trinamool came to power is today a panchayat leader with a two-storey house and a swanky car. Our money has funded all this,” said an irate resident of Mangalkot in Bardhaman district. In several districts, mobs ransacked homes of Trinamool leaders.

This has further demoralised grass-roots party workers. A Trinamool worker from Birbhum said: “I wonder if the issue of cut money would have come up if we had swept the elections. The leaders are trying to create a good image for themselves while we are left to face the consequences.”

Trinamool Lok Sabha MP Shatabdi Roy caused further embarrassment to the party when she said: “This should have been stopped earlier.... returning the ‘cut money’ will cause problems. It is a chain, and so the money has to be returned accordingly.”

Even the popular Bengali singer Nachiketa, known to be close to the Chief Minister and an ardent supporter of the Trinamool, composed a scathingly satirical song on “cut money”. It went viral on social media, much to the discomfort of the ruling party. In a desperate bid to downplay the situation, the party issued a press release stating 99.99 per cent of their leaders were honest.

State BJP leaders admit that Mamata Banerjee is making things easy for them. “We are really not having to do much to topple this government. Mamata Banerjee is doing it for us by going on a self-destructive mode,” one of them said.

But the focus of the public, Biswanath Chakraborty pointed out, will now be on the BJP.

“There is a perception among the people that the end of Trinamool is near. With the defections taking place, it is already being viewed as a force that has declined. It is now time to assess the BJP and look into the alternatives that the BJP is presenting,” he said.

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