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Mainstream, VOL LII No 18; April 26, 2014

West Bengal Scenario: Will Mamata Learn from her Mistakes?

Tuesday 29 April 2014, by Amitava Mukherjee

If psephological gurus are right then there are prudent reasons behind Mamata Banerjee’s recent political postures. In spite of the drubbing she has received from Anna Hazare, it may be a distinct possibility that her Trinamul Congress (TMC) may turn out to be one of the deciding players in the formation of the next Union Cabinet after the conclusion of the Lok Sabha election. Although the “gale of change” which had brought Mamata to power in West Bengal in 2011 has certainly ebbed a bit, yet the odds are still in favour of the mercurial Trinamul Congress chief. The Left is in disarray and the dominant mood among the top leaders of the State Congress is to run away from the ring. However, even a die-hard cynic would admit that the best course to stay in politics is to steer clear of controversies, a trait the West Bengal Chief Minister is not known for. Two of her recent decisions—contesting a number of Lok Sabha seats outside West Bengal and an aborted tie up with Anna Hazare for this purpose—were unnecessary to say the least. Anna’s refusal to come to the Ramlila Maidan on the appointed day of the rally and his subsequent comments on the character of the Trinamul Congress as a political party had certainly left Mamata Banerjee red-faced. Before committing herself to such a move Mamata should have probed whether Anna’s blessings were enough to cover up the loopholes and limitations which she has exhibited as the West Bengal Chief Minister.

The entire country knew from Anna Hazare’s own statements why he did not turn up at the Ramlila Ground. To all intents and purposes, it was because of poor attendance at the meeting. But beneath his public assertions there are two more serious reasons. According to hints given by a section of the media, Anna had reservations about the TMC nomination given to Mamata’s nephew, Abhishek Banerjee, who has hardly any political background and who is being pushed up by the West Bengal Chief Minister denying claims from some time-tested workers of the party. Secondly, Anna could not approve Mamata’s sudden bonhomie with Jayalalithaa against whom corruption cases are pending.

The Ramlila fiasco certainly jolted Trinamul’s attempt to refurbish its image and gain a respectable percentage of votes, if not any seat, in some of the States outside West Bengal wherefrom the TMC decided to put up candidates in the Lok Sabha elections. This has become important for the West Bengal Chief Minister as she is now desperate to get the status of a national party for her TMC. With this aim in view she has opened the door of her party for one and all. Ranjit Shekhar Mooshahary, the renowned police officer and former Meghalaya Governor, has joined the TMC. In Tripura, the entire Pradesh Congress set-up switched over to the Trinamul a few months back. In Assam and Jharkhand too politicians as well as prominent people from political and socio-cultural life have joined the party. By allying with Anna Mamata wanted to accelerate this process.

Failure to successfully tie up with Anna has mellowed Mamata a bit. She may have become a little more realistic also. “We need time to build our party nationally. If we get six months, we can create conditions favourable for beco-ming a national outfit. We can’t be so for the simple reason that we don’t have thousands of crores of rupees at our disposal. We don’t have the infrastructure. If I say our party occupies the number one slot, it would be a lie,” she said. Yet she has fielded candidates in constituencies as far flung as Barpeta and Silchar in Assam and Moradabad, Varanasi and Rae Bareily in Uttar Pradesh. Some other States would also have TMC candidates. Mamata does not expect their victories. Rather, she wants to increase the Trinamul’s total percentage of votes.

There is, however, reservation among a certain knowledgeable section of the Trinamul Congress about the party’s electoral prospect outside West Bengal and this has forced Mamata to admit the infrastructural limitations so far as contesting outside the State is concerned. According to most of the pre-election surveys, the TMC is supposed to get more than twentyfive out of the fortytwo parliamentary seats in the State. Some very recent ones are even prepared to give it between twentynine and thirtytwo seats. A few months back the TMC’s own in-house estimate gave the party thirtyfour or thirtyfive seats. But as time progressed expectations came down and now a thin air of tension and anxiety is there among individual candidates which the party bigwigs would never admit.

That is the reason behind Mamata’s assertion that the film stars whom she has handpicked for fighting the election would win as she is now being criticised inside and outside the TMC for choosing such rookies. The election arithmetic is, however, in her favour and she can reasonably demand kudos for not only putting an end to thirtyfour years of Marxist rule but even destroying its social base. She has also broken the carefully-crafted myth that the Left’s percentage of votes remains the same howsoever adverse the political climate may be. In the 2006 general Assembly elections the Left Front had secured 50 per cent of the total votes polled materialising in 235 Assembly seats. In 2011 the percentage share had come down to 42 per cent resulting in only 62 seats.

The rout of the Left in 2011 was primarily due to the revulsion against its sudden policy of forced industrialisation by acquiring fertile agricultural land. But the actual watershed in the State’s politics came a little later when the Left Front was again trounced in the all-important panchayat and municipality elect-ions. The results established that small and marginal farmers, the traditional base of Left politics in West Bengal, have changed sides and the Left can no longer bank on their support.

Mamata Banerjee is now going to face the electorate with widespread allegations not just by her political opponents but by a significant section of the Bengali intelligentsia that she has betrayed the expectations which the people of West Bengal had reposed in her. Law and order has not shown much improvement, rather marks of deterioration are there on all hands. Incidents of arson and rape have increased. The Trinamul Congress supremo has not been able to show any administrative acumen and instead created one controversy after another by relying on bureaucrats and police officials.

Two incidents have left very bad impressions on the people. The first involved the rape of a young married woman. On the advice of a top CID official and without waiting for the facts to come out, Mamata Banerjee described the victim’s allegation as concocted. Later on the allegation came out to be true and another very courageous lady police official, in charge of the investigation, confirmed it. Instead of acknow-ledging her courage, the State Government showed vindictive attitude towards the official. On another occasion, when a local farmer was trying to draw attention of the State Chief Minister towards some local agricultural problems in the midst of the latter’s public meeting, Mamata Banerjee described him as a Naxalite and got him arrested. Since then she has committed one gaffe after another but at the same time a qualitative change in the State administration is also noticeable

Singur and Nandigram had provided Mamata the much-needed wherewithal to remove the Marxists from power and during her nearly three years of rule the Trinamul supremo has nursed her rural constituency very well. She has been able to achieve this mainly by an attempt to eliminate the culture of ‘agents and middle men’ in the panchayat administration The number of mandays generated under the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA) has nearly doubled than what it was under the Left rule and in spite of a general impression, particularly in the wake of the withdrawal of the Tatas from their Nano project in Singur, that industry has suffered under the Trinamul dispensation, investments in the small and medium scale industrial sector have increased. Last year, from January to July, West Bengal realised a net industrial investment of Rs 1331 crores. This is the highest industrial investment in recent times. In 2009 the State had recorded an investment of Rs 632 crores, in 2010 Rs 1163 crores, in 2011 Rs 325 crores and in 2012 the investment figure stood at Rs 962 crores. As the small and medium scale industrial ventures are known generators of employment, Mamata is likely to get electoral dividends.

But she believes in gimmicks. So she has selected several film stars, notably Moon Moon Sen, daughter of the lately deceased Bengali actress Suchitra Sen, for contesting the poll. Some of them are expected to be sure successes. On the other hand the Left Front, particularly the CPM, has chosen several new faces as most of their senior leaders are wary of defeats. The situation has come to such a pass for the Left that it has chosen Suhasini Ali, daughter of Lakhsmi Seghal of the INA fame but an outsider, to contest from West Bengal. She is Prakash Karat’s choice but was vehemently opposed by the West Bengal unit of the CPM.

True, Mamata’s attempted alliance with Anna Hazare was a misadventure. But she might turn out to be a key player in national politics if the nation gives a fractured verdict and the TMC gets more than thirty seats in West Bengal. Observers are not discounting this possibility as the Congress, the third force in State politics, is now in a famished condition and the Left’s percentage of votes has consistently declined since the Lok Sabha elections of 2004. The results of the 2011 Assembly elections were not any surprise and quite in consonance with these of the 2009 Lok Sabha poll. It shows that the stock of the Trinamul Congress is showing a tendency to remain steady. The Congress, which previously used to get between twelve and thirteen per cent of votes, could have turned out to be a game-changer. But its condition in the State is so pathetic that desertions have been taking place almost each day.

It is to be noticed as to what extent the BJP can come out as a spoiler. It commands a committed vote-bank of around five per cent in West Bengal. One pre-poll analysis has predicted that this time it may reach upto somewhere near eleven per cent. If this prediction comes true, then there may be a major topsy turvy in election result. In the 2001 Assembly elections the BJP had cut so deep into the non-Left vote-bank that the Trinamul and Congress lost forty-eight and ten seats respectively due to the BJP’s inroads. If the euphoria over Narendra Modi leaves an impact in West Bengal then there may be surprises. However, latest estimates from a number of district committees of the CPM have expressed the anxiety that the BJP may cut into the vote-bank of the Left Front more than that of the Trinamul Congress.

So far as the urban votes are concerned, Mamata is certain to lose some amount of those due to the ongoing controversy over the Sarada scam. However, the time has not yet come to say that she has totally lost her credibility with the urban voters. But her success or failure in the Lok Sabha poll will depend on her ability to retain her rural vote-bank.

The author is a senior journalist and can be contacted at amitava_muk[at]yahoo.co.in