Assembly Elections: West Bengal

Losing hold

Print edition : May 13, 2016

Deepa Dasmunshi, Congress-CPI(M) alliance candidate, during a road show in her constituency in south Kolkata. . She is contesting against TMC chief Mamata Banerjee. Photo: Ashoke Chakrabarty

Anubrata Mandal, the Trinamool Congress strongman in Birbhum. Photo: SUHRID SANKAR CHATTOPADYAY

Buddhadeb Bhattacharya, former Chief Minister, with CPI(M) candidates at a rally in Kolkata. Photo: Ashoke Chakrabarty

After a flyover under construction in Kolkata collapsed on March 31. Photo: Ashoke Chakrabarty

The Trinamool Congress’ grip on voters is loosening as corruption, rural suicides and strong-arm tactics of party workers emerge as the main themes of the opposition campaign in West Bengal.

NEVER in the past 40 years has the issue of corruption cast such a long shadow over elections in West Bengal as in the ongoing Assembly elections. The image of the ruling Trinamool Congress party, which is yet to recover from the arrest of a number of its prominent leaders for involvement in the multi-crore Saradha scam, was further dented by embarrassing incidents on the eve of the elections.

The sting operation carried out by Narada News in 2014, which was aired three weeks before the elections, showed top Trinamool Congress leaders, including Ministers, Members of Parliament and the Mayor of Kolkata, accepting cash on camera. While the party was trying to contain the damage, another blow came in the form of the collapse of an under-construction flyover in Kolkata three days before the elections commenced. The flyover tragedy brought to the fore not only the negligence on the part of the State government but also a nefarious connection between some of the local bigwigs of the party and the subcontractors engaged in the construction. To make matters worse, another sting operation exposed what was actually widely known but not corroborated—the ruling party’s dependence on “syndicate raj”. In West Bengal, the term “syndicate” is a euphemism for extortionists disguised as suppliers and businessmen operating in the real estate, housing and infrastructure industries. Vicious turf wars between rival syndicates have in the recent past resulted in the escalation of violence in urban areas, with murders committed in broad daylight.

Sabyasachi Dutta, Bidhannagar Mayor and Trinamool Congress Member of the Legislative Assembly, was caught on camera saying that the syndicate bore the bulk of his election expenditure. That the syndicates are the muscles of the ruling party became clear when Dutta proudly stated that syndicate youths arranged for 25,000 people to accompany him when he went to file his nomination.

Dutta’s revelations have been particularly embarrassing for Chief Minister and Trinamool supremo Mamata Banerjee, for she had declared once: “If anybody feels they need to have ties with the syndicate, let them do so; but they cannot be a part of Trinamool.” All these exposes added to the woes of the ruling party, which is already showing signs of strain in the face of a combined opposition of the Communist Party of India (Marxist)-led Left Front and the Congress.

With the latest revelations, it was no surprise that “corruption” and “crime” became the dominant themes in the opposition’s campaigns in Kolkata, which went to the polls on April 21 in the third phase and other areas that will vote on April 30 (fifth phase). Even Prime Minister Narendra Modi made “corruption” his pet theme when he addressed the Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) election rallies in the State. “Didi is not talking about m aa, m aati, m anush [Trinamool Congress’ motto: mother, earth and humanity] these days. It is now m aut [death] and money. Do you know what TMC stands for? T for terror, M for m aut, and C for corruption,” he said at a rally.

The Saradha scam, which broke out in mid-2013, did not affect the Trinamool Congress’ performance in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections despite evidence of the ruling party’s proximity to and dealings with the tainted Saradha Group and its chairman, Sudipta Sen. The Trinamool Congress won 34 of the 42 Lok Sabha seats and appeared stronger than ever politically in the State. The corruption within the party was not as blatant in the Saradha case as in the Narada sting operation, which showed two Cabinet Ministers, one former Minister, six Lok Sabha MPs, the Mayor and Deputy Mayor of Kolkata accepting money from a fictitious company set up for the sting.

The Narada sting is bound to have an impact on the Assembly elections. Five Trinamool Congress heavyweights, who were featured prominently in the sting, are contesting the elections—Panchayati Raj Minister Subrata Mukherjee from Ballygunge, Urban Development Minister Firhad Hakim from Kolkata Port, former Transport and Sports Minister Madan Mitra (at present in jail for his alleged involvement in the Saradha scam) from Kamarhati, Kolkata Mayor Sovan Chatterjee from Behala Purbo, and the Deputy Mayor Iqbal Ahmed from Khanakul in Hooghly district. Sabyasachi Dutta is contesting from the Rajarhat seat.

Rattled by the revelations of corruption in the party and party leaders’ alleged nexus with the syndicate, Mamata Banerjee changed her stand on the issue in the middle of the elections. Initially, the party challenged the authenticity of the Narada footages but did not seek a forensic test of the video. With the opposition mounting pressure and looking for some electoral advantage from the ruling party’s embarrassment, Mamata Banerjee was not seen defending the leaders caught in the sting. “Nothing can be done now. I cannot change candidates after announcing their names. Had it been earlier, I would have thought about it,” she said at an election rally. Her statement served to dampen the prospects of the five leaders caught in the sting. It is inevitable that the issues of corruption and crime will have a direct bearing on the Trinamool Congress’ performance in the urban areas of the State, particularly in 24 seats in and around Kolkata. In 2011, the Trinamool Congress won all the 24 seats. In Jorasanko constituency in central Kolkata, the flyover tragedy appears to have given the BJP an advantage. In the 2014 Lok Sabha elections, the BJP established a substantial lead in this Assembly segment. The BJP got 45,075 votes, the Trinamool 28,593 votes, the Left 15,463 votes and the Congress 20,643 votes.

In fact, the BJP also had a slight edge in Mamata Banerjee’s constituency, Bhowanipore, where it secured 47,465 votes, against the Trinamool Congress’ 47,280 votes. This time, it is the Left-Congress combine candidate Congress heavyweight Deepa Dasmunshi who is perceived as the main challenge to the Chief Minister.

The BJP also led in the Bidhannagar seat by over 6,000 votes against its nearest rival, the Trinamool Congress. However, in the controversial civic body elections in 2015, which was fraught with violence, the Trinamool Congress re-established its dominance in the region by winning 37 of the 41 seats. The CPI(M) and the Congress won two each.

Moreover, the autocratic attitude of the ruling party, the intimidation tactics adopted by its cadres during elections, its intolerance to criticism, increasing crimes against women, the declining law and order situation, lack of employment opportunities, and the moribund state of industries in the State in the past five years have served to outrage and alienate a sizeable section of urban voters, including Mamata Banerjee’s traditional supporters. The Chief Minister tried to offset this by doling out financial assistance to various local clubs. In 2015, she announced a cash assistance of Rs.105 crore to 7,000 clubs in the State, even though the debt burden of the State stands at a staggering Rs.200,000 crore.

The disenchantment among urban voters is visible in several places, and the ruling party appears to be losing its grip somewhat.

In the 2014 elections, the CPI(M) even secured a marginal lead of 308 votes against the Trinamool Congress in the Jadavpur Assembly segment, where in the 2011 Assembly elections, Chief Minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee of the CPI(M) lost by over 16,000 votes. In fact, going by the Lok Sabha results, it can be said that the Left-Congress combine will give the Trinamool Congress a tough fight in Jadavpur, Kolkata Port, Ballygunge, Entally, Metiabruz and Maheshtala.

However, the 2014 results, which were influenced by an upsurge of BJP votes owing to the Narendra Modi wave, may not necessarily be an indicator of the shape of things to come. For example, in the Chowringhee Assembly segment in Kolkata, the Congress was in the lead with 35,988 votes and the Trinamool Congress got 34,440 votes. However, in the byelection held a few months later, the Trinamool Congress won by a margin of more than 14,000 votes. The BJP was in the second position.

Howrah

Across the river, in Kolkata’s twin city of Howrah and in Howrah district, the Trinamool Congress is apprehensive of the impact of the Narada sting. The results of the 2014 elections show that of the 16 seats in the district going to the polls on April 25 (fourth phase), the Trinamool Congress has a lead in 14 Assembly segments even after adding the Left and Congress’ tally. The BJP holds the second position in two seats—Bally and Howrah Uttar. “Things were absolutely fine here until the Narada sting footage was released. The party’s image has taken a beating, and that too at such a crucial time,” a Trinamool Congress activist from Howrah told Frontline. The BJP’s hope to capitalise on its gains has been hindered by open factional feuds.

Agrarian crisis in Bardhaman

If corruption is the precipitating issue in urban Kolkata and Howrah, agrarian distress is the cause of concern for the ruling party in the 16 seats of Bardhaman district, where elections were held on April 21. Death and distress have been stalking the agricultural belt of the State for the past five years. With the increases in the cost of inputs and labour, farmers, unable to realise even the cost of production, have fallen into a vicious cycle of indebtedness, leading to a large number of suicides.

In 2015, 16 potato farmers, most of them in Bardhaman district, committed suicide following the State government’s ill-conceived decision to freeze exports to neighbouring States.

According to senior CPI(M) leader Samar Ghosh of Jamalpur in Bardhaman, more than 100 farmers in the district committed suicide in the five years of Trinamool Congress rule. “The entire farming community of Jamalpur is now against the Trinamool Congress. If the elections are free and fair, the farmers who elected Mamata Banerjee to power will reject her. This year, the farmers did not get water for the rabi crop, which is unheard of. Had the government spent Rs.50 crore to source water from neighbouring Jharkhand, lakhs of farmers of Bardhaman would have been saved from ruin. But the government would rather spend on clubs and festivals,” Ghosh told Frontline.

According to the social scientist and psephologist Biswanath Chakraborty, the diminishing support for the Trinamool Congress among farmers has little to do with the peasant movement of the Left, which was once very strong in Bardhaman. “After Singur and Nandigram [two regions which saw violent resistance to the then Left Front government’s land acquisition policy for setting up industries], the Left has been losing the organisational strength of its farmers’ wing. Moreover, the Left is also facing a leadership crisis at the grass-roots level. What we are seeing in Bardhaman is essentially a reaction against the Trinamool Congress rather than the result of a sustained peasant movement of the Left,” Chakraborty told Frontline.

In the 2011 elections, even with a massive Trinamool Congress wave and a combined opposition against the then ruling CPI(M)-led Left Front, the contests in Jamalpur, Monteswar, Memari, Bhatar, Purbasthali Uttar, Ketugram and Mangalkot in Bardhaman district were close. The change in the political trend is visible in Katwa constituency. In the 2011 Assembly elections, the Trinamool Congress-Congress alliance defeated the CPI(M) by over 28,000 votes. But in the 2014 elections, the CPI(M) had an edge with 61,105 votes: The Trinamool Congress got 52,885 votes and the Congress 40,805 votes. The usually brazen and forceful Mamata Banerjee was seen adopting a softer tone while campaigning in Mangalkot, where she has fielded Siddiqullah Chowdhury, who heads the Bengal wing of Badruddin Ajmal’s All India United Democratic Front. “If I have made some mistakes, please forgive me, and remember I am the candidate in Mangalkot not Siddiqullah Chowdhury,” she told the voters. Mamata Banerjee’s appeal to the voters to see her as the candidate in every constituency is also a sign that in times of pressure there is no one in the party she can rely on except herself.

Birbhum

In another setback for Mamata Banerjee, the Election Commission (E.C.) issued a show-cause notice on April 14 seeking explanation for her announcement of a separate district of Asansol during the campaign. E.C. officials said the announcement was a violation of the Model Code of Conduct. Dealing a double blow to the ruling party, the E.C. directed that Anubrata Mandal, the Trinamool Congress’ strongman in Birbhum, be kept under round-the-clock surveillance until the polling concluded on April 17.

Anubrata remained unfazed. “We will win all the 11 seats in Birbhum district as well as Mangalkot, Ketugram and Ausgram in the neighbouring Bardhaman district. And the reason for our victory is simply development,” he told Frontline. Around 2014, the BJP emerged as a strong political force in the district. The situation has changed since then, and according to Anubrata, the main rival of the Trinamool Congress is the CPI(M). However, bitter factional fights within the ruling party may give the opposition a fighting chance in Nanoor, Suri and Labhpur constituencies. An understanding between the Left and the Congress has made the fight tough for the Trinamool Congress in Nalhati, Hansan and Muraroi constituencies. Although in the 2011 elections, the Trinamool-Congress alliance won by over 15,000 votes in Nalhati, in the 2014 elections, the CPI (M) led in the Assembly segment by a little more than 1,000 votes.

Moreover, in spite of the strong-arm tactics allegedly adopted by the ruling party against opposition cadres in the district, the Left-Congress tie-up has boosted the confidence of the workers of the two parties. “Earlier, the opposition was nowhere to be seen; but after the jote [alliance] was formally announced, they have become more active, and their rallies have been drawing supporters,” a resident of Bolpur told Frontline.

Murshidabad

The electoral battle in Murshidabad, which is known to be a Congress stronghold, has a touch of the bizarre. While the Congress and the Left have arrived at an electoral understanding in most parts of the State, in 10 of the 22 seats in the district they will be engaged in friendly contests.

The CPI(M) has fielded its candidates in Jangipur and Domkal. Although the CPI(M) won the Domkal seat defeating the Trinamool Congress-Congress alliance candidate in 2011, in the 2014 elections the Congress secured a massive lead in the Assembly segment, securing 90,277 votes against the CPI(M)’s 57,139. Although the Congress won the Jangipur Assembly seat in 2011, in the 2014 elections the CPI(M) led in the segment.

Complicating matters, the Left Front’s constituents, the Revolutionary Socialist Party (RSP) and the Forward Bloc, have fielded six and two candidates respectively in eight other seats. The CPI(M), however, will not be throwing its weight behind all of them. “We will be supporting the RSP in Bharatpur and Burwan. In the other seats, we will more or less support the Congress,” Moinul Hassan, CPI(M) leader from Murshidabad and a former MP, told Frontline.

Nadia

For the 17 seats in Nadia district, the Left-Congress combine may cause problems for the ruling party in at least seven seats—Tehatta, Karimpur, Palashipara, Ranaghat Dakshin, Haringhata, Krishnanagar Uttar and Kaliganj. In the last Assembly elections, the CPI(M) won Karimpur, Tehatta and Palashipara. Although it maintained its lead in the Palashipara and Karimpur Assembly segments in the 2014 elections, the Trinamool Congress was way ahead in the Tehatta segment.

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