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Mainstream, VOL LIV No 24 New Delhi June 4, 2016

The Bengal Verdict: Challenges and Opportunities for Mamata Banerjee

Monday 6 June 2016

by Purusottam Bhattacharya

Contrary to all speculations and a certain degree of wishful thinking on the part of her opponents, Mamata Banerjee and her Trinamul Congress have created an electoral record in the annals of Bengal politics by winning 211 seats for the TMC alone in an Assembly which has a strength of 294. The alliance of the Congress and Left Front secured only 77 seats and the BJP increased its tally from one to three.

The TMC’s numbers are a record in the sense that no single party managed to win so many seats on its own since the elections of 1972 which was vitiated by charges of electoral fraud of all kinds (the current elections have been described by a leading Bengali daily as the freest in 50 years). The TMC has got the support of nearly 45 per cent of the electorate while the Left Front received only 25.9 per cent, the Congress 12.3 per cent and the Bharatiya Janata Party 10.2 per cent of the votes cast. Again, in terms of the percentage of votes polled, the TMC has created a record as no single party received such a high percentage of votes on its own in recent memory. The Left Front managed to reach a higher figure during its 34-year rule several times, but only as a combine. The CPM by itself never reached such a figure.

So what explains the scale of such a triumph for the TMC and Mamata Banerjee personally? A lot has already been written by political analysts of all hues since the election results were declared on May 19. What is clear by all accounts is that in spite of the barrage of negative publicity mounted by her political opponents and a section of the media it was the sheer will power, energy, dogmatic determi-nation and last, but not the least, her tremendous charisma and popular appeal that carried Mamata Banerjee to this record-breaking election triumph. As one paper put it, if there was one explanation it was Mamata Banerjee alone who scripted this grand success of the TMC. When the various charges of corruption, syndicate raj and adoption of high-handedness were mounting against the TMC during the weeks preceding the elections, held in seven phases over a period of one whole month, Mamata, in sheer desperation, appealed to the voters that they should treat the elections as a referendum on her personal honesty, integrity and credibility and that they should vote for her as if she was the candidate in all the 294 seats by herself. Incredible as it might sound, the election results bear out the cold fact that the electorate responded in overwhelming numbers to that clarion call by Mamata disregarding some very damaging television footages showing some of her trusted lieutenants in compromising positions of accepting cash beamed repeatedly on television screens throughout the State and the country during the run-up to the polls. The matter is now before the Calcutta High Court and the Lok Sabha Ethics Committee and the veracity of the footages is yet to be established.

However, the personal appeal and charisma of Mamata Banerjee alone does not fully explain the magnitude of her victory. There is no doubt that if Mamata’s electoral success in 2011 when she ousted the Left Front from power was essentially a negative verdict against the 34- year Left Front rule, this time she has ridden some of the positive achievements of her government during the last five years, much touted by the Chief Minister herself and her publicity machine and much derided by her political opponents as well as an influential segment of the electronic and print media. There is no question that a large, possibly a majority, segment of the rural population have been hugely benefited by many of the welfare schemes introduced by the TMC Government such as kanyashri (Rs 25,000 to girl students for continuing their education), sabuj sathi (free bycycles to girl students in rural areas), rice at Rs 2 a kilo for the rural poor, a perceptible improvement in the rural as well as urban infrastructure like roads and electricity gene-ration and distribution, free medicines at speci-fied medical stores in government-run hospitals and the like. Many questions were raised about the actual credibility of these schemes, mainly by the Opposition parties and an influential section of the media. However, the veracity of these claims has received the positive impri-matur of the electorate which is clear from the electoral verdict.

It has been argued by many analysts that the formation of the electoral alliance between the Left Front and Congress only a few weeks before the elections did not go down well with many voters in the State; that the alliance was seen as opportunistic and formed only with a single agenda—removal of Mamata and the TMC Government. There is much strength in this argument. Notwithstanding the arguments favouring such an alliance between two politically and ideologically antagonistic forces (that the Mamata Government has unleashed a reign of terror where no one starting from her political opponents to women and others opposed to her rule were safe and that it was a ‘save Bengal’ platform), it should have been formed much earlier based on a common agenda for governance and emphasising the areas where the alliance thought the Mamata Government had gone wrong and promising to rectify such omissions if a government for the alliance came to power. That would have been a much more positive approach to the elections rather than relying on the barrage of negative campaigning against Mamata and her government. There is still doubt if even such a campaign would have opened the doors of Nabanna (the Secretariat of the West Bengal Government) to an alliance government given the level of popularity enjoyed by Mamata as already analysed above. However, there was a possibility that some voters disenchanted with the TMC would have voted for either the Congress or the Left Front if they had contested the polls independently. A post mortem and a blame game has already started between the Congress and LF with the latter suggesting that while the LF voters voted for the Congress candidates where they were in the fray, the Congress voters did not vote for the LF candidates where they were in the fray. On the face of it, it might seem logical to assume that many Congress voters could not bring themselves to support LF candidates when their memories went back to the days of the LF in power when the principal adversary of the LF was the Congress and many Congress activists were persecuted by the LF, especially the CPM, cadres. The alliance also found it difficult to explain satisfactorily how they reconciled with the contradiction that while in Bengal they were in alliance they were the principal adver-saries in Kerala which also went to the polls simultaneously.

As things stand, the TMC (read Mamata Banerjee for she has once again proved beyond any shadow of doubt that the TMC is synony-mous with her) is assured of an almost unbridled reign of power for the next five years with all Opposition (Congress, LF and BJP) virtually decimated in the West Bengal Legislative Assembly. The question arises: would such a brute majority in the Assembly and the huge popular support base throughout the State inject a degree of humility and self-introspection in Mamata as the leader and the TMC as the ruling party? Seasoned watchers of Indian politics over decades are fully conversant with the phenomenon that once they win power Indian politicians begin to behave like feudal satraps paying only lip-service to democracy and the rule of the law. While this is not a space to start a discussion on this much-debated issue, it may be worthwhile to remember that Bengal is also not immune to this much- witnessed ‘democratic’ disease. Even the highly respected Bidhan Chandra Roy, the former Chief Minister of West Bengal, was often accused of high-handedness though his stewardship of the State during the 14 years he was at the helm still remains, to many, the golden years of West Bengal since independence. So the moot point is that, armed with such power reinforced by the massive electoral mandate, would Mamata Banerjee give greater space to dissent and develop a modicum of tolerance towards her defeated adversaries and critics rather than taking shelter behind conspiracy theories and so-called slander-mongering allegedly being indulged in by her opponents? She really has nothing more to fear from her political opponents as the road for the next five years remains pretty smooth except for a few caveats.

However, the reality is that the Chief Minister is virtually unrepentant on everything she and her party have done or said in the past five years. She declared point-blank that there is no corruption either in her party or government and therefore no action is necessary. She is on course in reversing all the transfers at the administrative level enacted by the Election Commission to conduct a free and fair poll. The attacks on Opposition party activists and sympathisers, which started even before the poll (and which has been a feature of the rule of the TMC Government during the past five years) and persisted when the poll process was on, have increased in intensity since the elections ended on May 5 and the declaration of results on May 19. Mamata Banerjee appealed for peace at the post-declaration press conference she held on May 19. However, the violence continues unabated and there is no perceptible attempt on the part of the government and administration to stop the mayhem.

So the new government needs to demonstrate that it is keen on starting the next term on a clean slate by showing greater tolerance to dissent, upholding the rule of law, especially when it comes to allegations of police inaction with regard to crimes against women, indul-gence of unlawful and undemocratic practices by ruling party activists and sympathisers. This is not to say that the activists of the Oppo-sition parties are entirely without any fault in this regard. However, as the largest political force, a great deal of the onus rests with the ruling party and it can be said with confidence that if a climate of healthy politics free from violence and intimidation is created at the instance of Mamata Banerjee, Bengal will be the beneficiary generating greater confidence among the business community to come forward with new proposals for investment in the State which will be the harbinger of change on all the fronts, political, economic, social and commercial.

The Chief Minister has all the options wide open for an all-round regeneration of Bengal which she wants to turn into the Number One State in India. That can only happen when there is peace and security in the State and all sections of the society feel that the gover-nment is working for everybody irrespective of any political colour. The crying need of the State is generation of jobs for the youth, many of whom have to move to other States or even abroad in search of jobs and livelihood. The TMC Government has done well in promoting small and medium enterprises (SMEs) as well as self-employment. However, jobs on a bigger scale can only be created by bringing in large entrepreneurs in manufacturing as well as service industries in which West Bengal lags behind States like Gujarat, Maharashtra, Karnataka, Tamil Nadu and a few other advanced States of India. The huge debt burden of Rs 3088 billion as of March 2016—which rose from Rs 2000 billion in 2011— will be a gargantuan challenge for Mamata. The TMC Government has always blamed—and rightly so—the Left Front Government for leaving it with this unresolved debt when it first assumed power. Since then both the governments of Dr Manmohan Singh and Narendra Modi have failed to offer a solution acceptable to the State as well as the Centre. The matter is riddled with enormous technical complications and repeated pleas of Mamata to the Centre for a moratorium on the interest payments have drawn a curt response on the ground that if it was granted to West Bengal, it would create a precedent and other debt-stressed States would also clamour for a similar treatment.

The 2016 elections have been a milestone in Bengal politics. While it has empowered the TMC and Mamata Banerjee with the largest majority for a single party in recent history, the challenges for the incoming government are also aplenty. It now remains to be seen how the most iconic and powerful woman leader that West Bengal has thrown up since independence can turn these challenges into opportunities to carve out a niche not only for herself and her party but also for the State of West Bengal.

Former Professor of International Relations and erstwhile Director, School of International Relations and Strategie Studies, Jadavpur University, Kolkata, Dr Purusottam Bhattacharya is currently a Visiting Professor of Political Science, Rabindra Bharti University, Kolkata