In a first, corruption becomes a key election issue in West Bengal 

But will voters be able to overcome the temptation of ruling TMC’s welfare schemes?

Published : May 11, 2024 16:51 IST - 11 MINS READ

Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee at a rally in Purulia on April 7.

Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee at a rally in Purulia on April 7. | Photo Credit: UTPAL SARKAR

The issue of corruption was never a deciding factor in West Bengal’s electoral politics. The Saradha scam and the Narada sting revelations, which surfaced weeks ahead of the 2016 Assembly election, could not stop the Trinamool Congress from returning to power with a thumping majority. Again in 2021, the party returned to power, with its highest ever tally of 215 seats, amid allegations of coal and cattle smuggling, ration scam, and cut money taken from funds for government projects.

In recent years, elections in Bengal have been driven by questions of identity, political violence, electoral malpractice, dole and welfare schemes, and, of late, the Citizenship (Amendment) Act (CAA) and polarisation on religious lines. These issues will have an impact on polling in 15 diverse constituencies in the fifth phase on May 20 (Bongaon, Barrackpore, Howrah, Uluberia, Sreerampur, Hooghly, Arambagh) and in the sixth phase on May 25 (Purulia, Bankura, Bishnupur, Medinipur, Jhargram, Tamluk, Kanthi, Ghatal). The difference this time is that corruption as an issue may also prove to be a crucial factor, particularly the School Service Commission (SSC) recruitment scam.

In this election in Bengal, local and regional issues have taken predominance over national issues. With no perceptible “Modi wave”, the electoral battle appears to be centred around anti-incumbency and corruption on the one hand, and social welfare schemes and Bengali identity on the other.

Also Read | Trinamool, BJP locked in an intense, evenly-matched battle in West Bengal

According to the veteran political analyst Biswajit Bhattacharya, the election resembles a “State election”. “There are hardly any national issues that are being raised either by the ruling party or the opposition. And for the first time, we see corruption, especially the SSC scam, becoming a big factor, mainly because it has become a social issue. For so long it was a citizen’s right to be able to sit for competitive exams for government jobs. When the deserving candidate was denied her right, and the job that was rightfully hers was sold off to an underserving person, it made a massive impact in society.” Leader of the Opposition Suvendu Adhikari said at a campaign rally that the State need not wait until 2026 for Assembly elections, the matter would be decided in 2024.

On April 22, a Calcutta High Court ruling in the recruitment scam case cancelled the 2016 recruitment panel set up by the West Bengal School Service Commission (SSC) and dismissed 25,753 teachers and non-teaching staff of Classes IX to XII. The Supreme Court stayed the order saying it “cannot be unmindful of the impact of setting aside of a large complement of assistant teachers recruited for teaching Class 9-10 and 11-12 students”. Nonetheless, it also came down heavily on the State government, calling the SSC scam a “systemic fraud”.

“Nothing remains if the faith of the public goes. This is systemic fraud. Public jobs are extremely scarce today and are looked at for social mobility. What remains in the system if their appointments are also maligned? People will lose faith,” Chief Justice D.Y. Chandrachud said.

In the run-up to the fifth and sixth phases of the election, opposition parties are clearly set to use the SSC scam and the allegations of sexual harassment of women by Trinamool strongmen in Sandeshkhali. On May 6, a bomb blast in Hooghly, which killed an 11-year-old boy and seriously injured two other children, brought back the spectre of political violence that has been associated with the ruling party.

The SSC scam will be at the centre of focus in Tamluk, which will vote in the sixth phase. The BJP’s candidate there is former Calcutta High Court judge Abhijit Gangopadhyay, whose rulings in the SSC recruitment scam case caused acute discomfiture to the ruling party. Following the High Court order of April 22, Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee accused the BJP of “taking away jobs rather than giving them”. She said that she had intentionally chosen a young leader, Debangshu Bhattacharya, to take on Gangopadhyay.

Abhijit Gangopadhyay, the former Calcutta High Court judge who is the BJP candidate from Tamluk, campaigning at Mahishadal in the constituency on March 28.

Abhijit Gangopadhyay, the former Calcutta High Court judge who is the BJP candidate from Tamluk, campaigning at Mahishadal in the constituency on March 28. | Photo Credit: SAIKAT PAUL/ANI

Politically, Hooghly and Tamluk are significant for Mamata because in them lie the Assembly segments of Singur and Nandigram respectively. The two places have practically become synonymous with her politics and her rise to power; she had staged a prolonged and often violent movement there against the Left Front government’s forcible land acquisition for industries.

The Trinamool was long considered invincible in both. Yet in 2019, the BJP not only won the Hooghly seat, but also secured a lead in the Singur Assembly segment. Then in the 2021 Assembly election, the BJP could not win a single seat in the Hooghly region. For the BJP’s sitting MP, Locket Chatterjee, retaining the parliamentary seat will not be easy. The government’s welfare schemes, particularly the hiked Lakshmir Bhandar allowance for women, are likely to work in favour of the ruling party. That a large section of the electorate perceives Chatterjee to be an absentee in the constituency may hurt the BJP. Besides, she faces a challenge from the Trinamool’s Rachna Banerjee, an actor and well-known TV personality.

Malati Patra, 48, of Khasher Bheri village in Singur was confident that women of the region would vote for the Trinamool because of Lakshmir Bhandar alone. “For the past five years no one here even caught a glimpse of Locket Chatterjee. We have realised nobody looks after us like Didi does,” she told Frontline.

The situation appears different in Nandigram. At Amtala village, Krishna Das, 42, quietly confessed that she prefers the Trinamool but is apprehensive about admitting that because the area is overwhelmingly pro-BJP. “In my heart I want the Trinamool to win; but I don’t want any trouble,” she said.

Tamluk and Nandigram, once Trinamool bastions, shifted allegiance to the BJP following Suvendu Adhikari’s defection. If Mamata was the leader of the Nandigram movement, Adhikari was its architect. He defeated Mamata in Nandigram in 2021, thereby stamping his authority on the area. His influence also brought the neighbouring Kanthi constituency under the BJP’s control. Although the Trinamool won the seat in 2019, when Adhikari was still with Mamata, in 2021, the BJP, under Adhikari’s leadership, won most of the seven Assembly segments falling under the Kanthi Lok Sabha constituency.

Adhikari’s defection, however, created dissensions within the local BJP. Somnath Bhowmik, a BJP worker from Boranberia village in Nandigram block, admitted that the struggle between the “old” and the “new” in the BJP was no less intense than that between the BJP and the Trinamool. “The BJP’s victory is certain in Tamluk, but the margin would have been higher were it not for inner-party conflicts,” said Bhowmik.

Like Hooghly, Ghatal, which votes on May 25, will witness a battle between two stars of the silver screen. The Trinamool’s two-time sitting MP and Bengali movie star Deepak Adhikari, better known as Dev, will be up against popular actor and MLA from Kharagpur Sadar, Hiran Chatterjee, of the BJP. Though Dev is known to have brought about considerable development in his constituency, the BJP has made political inroads and even won the Ghatal Assembly seat in 2021.

The fifth and sixth phases will also see family feuds being played out in the political arena in Sreerampur (May 20) and Bishnupur (May 25). In Bishnupur, the sitting BJP MP, Saumitra Khan, is facing his former wife, Sujata Mandal. Sujata, who played a crucial role in Saumitra’s victory in 2019, is going all out to defeat him. The line between political attack and personal recriminations blurred as the contest took on the appearance of a soap opera.

However, the BJP’s organisation is strong in Bishnupur, and though Sujata hails from the place, the Trinamool is a little wary about the outcome. Harakali Protiher, the influential MLA from Katulpur, which falls under the Bishnupur Lok Sabha seat, told Frontline, “The fight is evenly poised.” Protiher left the BJP in October 2023 to join the Trinamool.

In Sreerampur, three-time MP Kalyan Banerjee is up against his former son-in-law, Kabir Shankar Bose of the BJP. The Trinamool has won from Sreerampur five times, and the last three wins were Banerjee’s. Though he is the favourite to win again, the various allegations of corruption and tensions within the party are matters of concern for the Trinamool.

Arambagh, the other Lok Sabha constituency in Hooghly district, is also expected to witness a close fight. In 2019, the Trinamool’s Aparupa Poddar edged past the BJP’s Tapan Kumar Roy by 1,858 votes. In 2021, the BJP managed to win four of the seven Assembly segments under the Aramabagh Lok Sabha constituency. This time the Trinamool has replaced Poddar with Mitali Bag. The BJP’s candidate is Arup Kanti Digar.

  • The issue of corruption has never been a deciding factor in elections in West Bengal.
  • This time, the electoral discourse is dominated by corruption and the Sandeshkhali disclosures.
  • Welfare schemes such as Lakshmir Bhandar are still expected to pay dividends for the Trinamool Congress.
  • National issues are practically absent from the electoral discourse.

The BJP appears to be putting up a tough fight in some Trinamool bastions, but that should not make it complacent about seats where it is believed to be stronger. In 2019, the saffron party wrested from the Trinamool the Jangalmahal area, the contiguous forest region of Purulia, Bankura, Paschim Medinipur and Jhargram. It could boast then that it had drawn on its side the support of the tribal and Kurmi communities. The situation has changed now.

In Purulia, Kurmis account for over 40 per cent of the population, but in both Purulia and Jhargram the BJP cannot count on the complete support of the community. The influential Kurmi leader Ajit Prasad Mahato, contesting as an Independent in Purulia, is bound to draw a substantial number of votes with his campaign for ST status for Kurmis. That is no reason for the Trinamool to rejoice because the Mahato factor can be hurt it too.

Ajit Prasad Mahato, an influential Kurmi leader who demands ST status for the community, campaigning in Purulia. He is contesting as an Independent.

Ajit Prasad Mahato, an influential Kurmi leader who demands ST status for the community, campaigning in Purulia. He is contesting as an Independent. | Photo Credit: JAYANTA SHAW

At Agoya-Narra in Purulia, Neel Kamal Mahato told Frontline, “I am an old supporter of the Trinamool; but this time our entire village will support Ajit Mahato as it is a fight for our identity.” His wife has received the enhanced Lakshmir Bhandar allowance but will not be swayed into voting for the Trinanool. “Maybe next time we will vote for Didi, but this time we are voting for Ajit Mahato,” she said.

Mahato has also fielded a candidate in Jhargram. But here, the BJP’s problems are more internal than anything else. A highly placed source in the party told Frontline, “Jhargram would have been an easy seat for us to win, but for the selection of Pranat Tudu as the candidate. His lifestyle and his attitude are not sitting well with BJP workers themselves.” In 2019, the BJP had a lead in five of the seven Assembly segments in Jhargram, but it lost in all of them in the 2021 Assembly election.

In Bankura, too, the BJP is plagued by inner-party feuds. In fact, in September 2023, some BJP workers locked up the sitting MP and Union Minister of State for Education, Subhas Sarkar, in a district party office. The Trinamool, meanwhile, has been recovering lost ground. In 2019 the BJP won with leads in all the seven Assembly segments of the constituency. In 2021, the Trinamool won three of those Assembly seats.

The BJP’s former State president, Dilip Ghosh, won from Medinipur in 2019, with leads in six of the seven Assembly segments. But in the 2021 Assembly election, the Trinamool won six of the seven Assembly seats. This time Dilip Ghosh has been replaced by the BJP MLA from Asansol South, Agnimitra Paul, whose main opponent will be the Trinamool MLA from Medinipur, June Maliah.

Agnimitra Paul, BJP candidate in Medinipur, campaigning ahead of the sixth phase of the election.

Agnimitra Paul, BJP candidate in Medinipur, campaigning ahead of the sixth phase of the election. | Photo Credit: JAYANTA SHAW

The implementation of the CAA will add to the advantage that the Trinamool enjoys in Howrah and Uluberia. But it will also cement the BJP’s chances of retaining the Bongaon seat, where the Matua community (Namashudra community that had migrated from Bangladesh) accounts for more than 40 per cent of the electorate. The implementation of the CAA has been a longstanding demand of the Matua community, which has shifted its once firm loyalty for the Trinamool to the BJP.

Also Read | Trinamool fights back in north Bengal

A constituency to watch is Barrackpore, where the controversial strongman Arjun Singh left the Trinamool to join the BJP after being denied a Lok Sabha ticket ahead of the 2019 election. He won on the BJP ticket. After the Trinamool returned to power in 2021, Singh returned to it, only to leave it again after being denied a Lok Sabha ticket for the 2024 election. Though such rapid defections can cost a politician his credibility, and though the BJP could win only one of the seven Assembly seats under the constituency, Bhatpara, in 2021, Arjun still has enough political muscle to worry his opponents.

The opposition has plenty of issues to “defeat the corruption-ridden ruling party”, a senior BJP source told Frontline; but he also admitted that his party lacks organisational strength. “One undeniable fact is that the people are now sick of the corruption in the ruling party and badly want a change. But they are also torn between wanting to rid themselves of a party that is steeped in misdeeds and continuing to receive the welfare schemes, like Lakshmir Bhandar, of the State government. We believe they will vote for change,” said the BJP leader.

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