West Bengal

Mamata vs the rest

Print edition : April 15, 2016

Trinamool Congress workers carrying hoardings of Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee as part of the campaign for the Assembly elections, in Kolkata on March 18. Photo: PTI

Activists of the CPI(M) and the Congress at a joint campaign rally they held in Siliguri on March 18. Photo: DIPTENDU DUTTA/AFP

BJP leaders (from left) Rahul Sinha, Siddarth Nath Singh, Jharkhand Chief Minister Raghubar Das and State BJP president Dilip Ghosh at a rally in Singur on March 3. Photo: PTI

With the opposition joining forces and a sting operation exposing corruption within the party, West Bengal’s ruling Trinamool Congress finds the going tough in the elections.

SIX months ago, victory in the 2016 Assembly elections was more or less a foregone conclusion for the Trinamool Congress ruling West Bengal. With a weakened opposition clutching at straws to revive itself, there was little doubt that Chief Minister and Trinamool supremo Mamata Banerjee would secure another huge majority in the 294-seat Assembly for a second consecutive term.

However, as the elections drew near, furrows of concern began to show on Trinamool workers’ brows. The first blow to the ruling party’s complacence came from the joining of forces by two unlikely allies, the Communist Party of India (Marxist)-led Left Front and the West Bengal Pradesh Congress. Even if the party had found a way to counter this development with political and ideological arguments and jargons, the expose by the Narada News sting operation (story on page 128), in which senior, high-profile party leaders, including MPs and Ministers, were seen accepting cash on camera, has dealt a severe blow to the reputation and image of the party. With the revelations coming to the fore with less than three weeks before the first phase of the Assembly elections, the Trinamool has not been left with any time to even attempt to salvage the situation.

The elections in West Bengal will be held in six phases over seven days between April 4 and May 5 (see graphics). The spread of the elections and the Election Commission’s (E.C.) decision to deploy Central forces in all the 52,306 polling stations in the State indicate the E.C.’s concern over the possibility of violence during the elections.

Political violence has increased manifold since Mamata Banerjee assumed power. Muscle power to dominate turf has become the order of the day, and an opposition-less government, the ultimate objective. Mamata’s style of conducting elections has been referred to by political observers as “corporate style”—a performance-oriented approach where whosoever wins by a great margin is rewarded. As a result there is competition within the party as to who can orchestrate a bigger victory. The ends justify the means, and this has led to the increase of violence at practically every level of politics, as was seen in the 2015 civic elections in the State.

In 2011, when Mamata stormed to power ending the 34-year rule of the CPI(M)-led Left Front with her battle cry “Paribartan” (change), it was a mandate for the rejection of a deeply entrenched political order. In order to attain this, all the opposition political forces (with the exception of the Bharatiya Janata Party) had to join hands. With a seat-sharing understanding with the Congress, the Trinamool won 184 seats and the Congress 42. After more than three decades of Left rule, it was a call for change for the sake of change. Ironically, in just five years’, it is the Trinamool which is facing a combined opposition that is willing to forget its own history of violent confrontations, for the single purpose of defeating a common enemy.

With the Trinamool’s position getting stronger with every passing election and the opposition getting weaker with the erosion of its workers and dwindling support base, the Left Front and the Congress arrived at an “understanding” guided primarily by the impulse of self-preservation. In the panchayat elections in 2013, the Trinamool won 13 of the 17 zilla parishads, 214 out of the 329 panchayat samitis and 1,783 of the 3,215 gram panchayats, and in the Lok Sabha elections of 2014 it secured 34 of the 42 seats. In the municipal elections in 2015, the party won 71 of the 92 municipalities that went to the polls, including the prestigious Kolkata Municipal Corporation. In a triangular fight, both the Left Front and the Congress faced the possibility of not being able to win even the bare minimum number of seats required to have the status of opposition in the Assembly (30 in the West Bengal Assembly).

If the results of the 2014 Lok Sabha elections are any indication, the situation appears bleak for the opposition. In the Assembly segments of the Lok Sabha constituencies, the Trinamool secured a lead in 214 of the 294 constituencies, the Left Front and the Congress in 28 each, and the BJP in 24. The Trinamool secured 39.79 per cent of the votes, the Left Front 29.94, the Congress 9.69, and the BJP 17.02 per cent.

The BJP factor

In 2014, the BJP, fuelled by a pro-Modi wave, saw an unprecedented rise in its vote share from the usual 6 per cent. In the subsequent panchayat and civic elections, however, its vote percentage fell drastically, shattering any hopes the party may have harboured after the Lok Sabha elections. The vote percentage of the Left-Congress combine still falls slightly short of that pulled by the Trinamool. One of the crucial factors for the opposition will be where the BJP’s votes will go this time.

The Left-Congress combine pins its hopes on a large share of the BJP votes of the 2014 elections coming its way, but there is no certainty that it will not go the other way either—as was the case in more than 50 wards during the Kolkata Corporation Municipal elections where the decrease in the BJP vote share saw a corresponding increase in the Trinamool’s vote percentage. Moreover, the BJP’s vote share may not drop to the level expected by the opposition as the Trinamool’s brand of politics has resulted in a polarisation of Hindu votes in quite a few parts of the State.

The Muslim vote, which constitutes nearly 28 per cent of the total, has played a key role in Mamata Banerjee’s continuous ascendancy. She herself has been quite unabashed in playing the religious card in politics. Soon after assuming power, she announced a monthly honorarium to imams in the State and a stipend to muezzins, who perform the task of calling to prayer. This decision was struck down by the Calcutta High Court as unconstitutional. She has also been seen sharing podiums with Muslim religious leaders who often have put pressure on the government on various issues.

With the Left and the Congress teaming up against her, the Muslim vote is now more crucial for her than ever. This perhaps explains why this time she has gone out of her way to woo every prominent Muslim leader, political and religious. She even gave seats to the influential Muslim leader Siddiqullah Chowdhury, who heads the West Bengal wing of Badruddin Ajmal’s All India United Democratic Front. “Her brand of vote-bank politics has turned out to be divisive for the State and as a result West Bengal has been seeing regular communal disturbances in the past few years,” State BJP leader Ritesh Tiwari told Frontline.

‘Friendly contests’

If the Left and the Congress’ decision to join forces has created some panic in the rank and file of the Trinamool, the latter must also have found some reassurance from the oft-emerging cracks in this compact between the two traditional adversaries. As of March 22, the seat-sharing arrangement between the Left and the Congress was “largely” complete, and there were suggestions that in a few of the seats where no consensus could be reached, there might be “friendly contests” between the two. Such a scenario will no doubt be confusing for the supporters of both parties.

Moreover, even if the tie-up is finally formalised, the success rate of the transfer of votes may not be uniform. According to the noted psephologist and social scientist Biswanath Chakraborty, studies have shown that the highest rate of vote transfer may be expected in the districts of South and North 24 Paraganas (94 per cent), Nadia (91 per cent), in the Congress-dominated districts of Malda (90 per cent), Murshidabad (78 per cent) and Uttar Dinajpur (74 per cent). “We expect a low rate of vote transfer in places where the rivalry between the Left and the Congress was particularly bitter, like Bardhaman, Hooghly and Bankura,” said Chakraborty.

Tie-up or not, the Trinamool, before the Narada expose hit the State, seemed ready for elections. The very day the election dates were announced, the party released its list of candidates. While the Left and the Congress were wrangling with considerable acrimony over seat-sharing, the Trinamool and Mamata Banerjee were already campaigning in full force. Then out of the blue came the Narada revelations that brought fresh wind in the sails of the opposition. “There is no denying that the Narada sting has set us back. The image of the party has taken a beating. How can we convince voters, when many of the party workers themselves are not convinced of the innocence and integrity of their leaders?” a Trinamool activist told Frontline.

The Narada sting was the last thing that Mamata Banerjee wanted at this time. With violent inner-party feuds over turf domination spiralling out of control, and the party still reeling from the battery its reputation has taken from the multi-crore Saradha scam, the Trinamool leadership seemed at a loss on how to deal with the situation.

Moreover, a perpetual thorn in Mamata Banerjee’s side has been the ever-deteriorating law and order situation in the State. Rising crimes against women, repeated attacks on the police and police stations, the seeming impunity with which terrorist organisations such as the Jamiat-ul-Mujahideen Bangladesh operate in the State, and the government’s perceived apathy in addressing these problems have done considerable damage to its reputation. A new phenomenon, known as “Syndicate Raj” (a euphemism for extortionists operating in the housing and infrastructure industries), allegedly established by the members of the ruling party or those close to it, has also emerged in West Bengal under Trinamool rule.

The existence of rival syndicates within the same area, owing allegiance to the same party, has led to vicious infighting and even murders on the streets.

Political dividends

Mamata Banerjee is now falling back on her government’s achievements and her personal charisma. For this election, her party’s slogan is “development”.

To date, two of her biggest achievements have been bringing peace to the strife-torn Darjeeling hills and ending the Maoist reign of terror in the Jangalmahal (the contiguous forest area spread over parts of Pashchim Medinipur, Bankura and Purulia districts).

But what will pay her the biggest dividend is the work that her party has been doing at the grass-roots level, particularly in the areas of health and infrastructure building.

She has extended the benefits of the coverage of the National Food Security Act to a large number of people in the State and has come up with a number of popular social welfare schemes which she has successfully distributed through the bureaucratic system to even remote areas.

She herself has been working indefatigably, monitoring the developments and regularly conducting administrative meetings at the district and block levels.

“As much as 54 per cent of the total voters have been beneficiaries of the State government’s schemes. Though this kind of dole politics can work only for a limited period of time, it will bring her success in this election,” said Biswanath Chakraborty. However, there is little indication of any long-term plan for the industrial revival of West Bengal. The legacy of Mamata Banerjee’s violent movement in Singur, which led to the departure of the Tata Motors project in 2008 (and paved the way for her political revival), still lingers, mainly because of the land policy of her government, and try as she might, Mamata Banerjee has not been able to shake off the tag of being “anti-industry”.

While on the one hand Mamata Banerjee’s reputation is that of the benevolent “Didi”, on the other her intolerance for any dissent, howsoever minor, and her impatience with any deviation, howsoever trivial, have given her the image of a ruthless autocrat. Criminal charges have been brought up against people for perceived offences and imagined conspiracies. This attitude has served to alienate from her a large section of the urban intelligentsia and the literati, who once hailed her as the agent of “Paribartan”.

If the Congress-Left understanding has prompted Mamata Banerjee to recall all those leaders who had fallen out of favour, like Mukul Roy, give the ticket to Madan Mitra even though he is in jail, and forge an understanding with fringe elements in Bengal politics such as the Islamist leader Siddiqullah, the Narada sting has forced her to fall back on the one trump card that has never failed her so far—the image of Mamata Banerjee herself.

Days after the Narada sting became public, Mamata Banerjee said at a rally in north Bengal: “I am the candidate in all 294 seats.”

In her desperation she has turned to the electorate and laid bare a fundamental truth of her politics: no one else in the Trinamool really matters, apart from her.

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