No cakewalk for Mamata

No cakewalk for Mamata

No cakewalk for Mamata

Five years ago, Mamata Banerjee and her Trinamool Congress came to power riding the waves of “Poribortan” (change), sweeping away more than three decades of Left rule (or misrule). In the build up to the final assault on the red fortress, Mamata’s assurances to the people of Bengal of “Badla noi, Badol chai” (We wont seek revenge, only change) raised hopes of Bengal’s civil society to blossom into a more democratic tradition of tolerance.

A number of artists, intellectuals with Left leanings joined her campaign and lent her the moral authority to win over the majority of the population. But after she came to power, Mamata took the lead in crushing the voice of the Opposition and the civil society. The ruling party started taking control over the educational institutions, healthcare system and other spheres of life in the state.

Emulating the examples set by its predecessors, Mamata started placing partymen in governing bodies of schools, colleges and hospitals, who would act as an extra-constitutional authority and eventually become the ultimate arbitrators in all aspects of the citizen’s lives.

Mamata knew that her victory in 2011 elections was a byproduct of a negative vote, a vote against the Left. She felt the urgent need to create her own support base. For that, she focused on the Muslims and the Scheduled Castes (SCs). Muslims make up 27% of the total population in Bengal. Unlike their Urdu speaking brethren who are small in number and live in urban areas, the Bengali speaking Muslims are rural people who are engaged in farming.

The SCs, who make up 23% of the state’s population, are also mostly engaged in agriculture. For long years, these communities were major planks of the Left’s popular support base. Singur and Nandigram, two major anti-Left peasant movements that catapulted Mamata to power, were led by these people. 

To win over the Muslims, she started giving monthly allowances to imams and muezzins. But little effort was made to create opportunities for the community to acquire education and jobs. To keep the Muslim and the SC farmers on her side, she crafted a land policy that ruled out acquisition of farm land by the government for the sake of industrialisation. 

Despite making regular public appearances with the Muslim religious leaders and pandering to their whims, Mamata did nothing substantial to make the life of the ordinary Muslim better. The Pratichi Trust’s study on Muslim life in Bengal (2016) clearly showed that a decade after the publication of Sachar Commission Report, there was no significant improvement in the lives of ordinary Muslims in Bengal.

As the first woman chief minister of the state, Mamata raised hopes of the government paying more attention to the women’s cause. But the Park Street rape case, followed by the brutal rape and murder in Kamduni village near Kolkata, and several such incidents set a pattern where Mamata and her government would either question the character of the victim or try to project the incident as an attempt by the Opposition to malign her government. Mamata’s ministers often tried to buy silence from the victim’s family by offering them cash as “relief”.

Teachers in schools and colleges getting beaten up by the ruling party cadres became a regular phenomenon. The culmination was when the present vice-chancellor of Calcutta University (a self-declared ruling party man) was heckled by a group of girl students who were Trinamool activists.

“Poribortan” has become a controversial word in the lexicon of Bengal’s political establishment. A lot of blood was shed in the ensuing turf war that engulfed the length and breadth of rural Bengal as the ruling party gradually established itself as the sole arbitrator between the government and the common people.

Between 2011 and 2016, the state saw three elections, to panchayat, municipality and the Lok Sabha, which Mamata won with a massive mandate. But the victories were not free from blemish. In all these elections, the ruling party musclemen had a free run and they were actively helped by the state police and the administration. 

Syndicates to the fore
One cannot overlook the phenomenon called “syndicates”. Initially, a section of unemployed youth formed themselves into some supply cooperatives (locally known as syndicates) that got involved in supplying material to builders in Rajarhat New Town (a satellite town of Kolkata) project. With political patronage, they started bullying the builders in extracting orders and started looting the project owners by supplying inferior quality materials at a higher than market price. After the collapse of the fly over last month, the investigation reveals that their tentacles spread into all major construction works, including construction of new routes for Metro Rail. In the absence of a boost to economic activities, extortion by anti-socials took the shape of a well-organised parallel economy.   

Mamata’s carefully crafted image of honesty and integrity, too, suffered a serious dent in a series of incidents where she was found to be protecting her party men, ministers and legislators alike, who were involved in various criminal activities.

Unlike the Saradha scam, where the complicated money trail made it difficult to pin the culpability of the ruling party people, the visuals of the flyover collapse and Trinamool ministers and legislators taking bribes has had more impact on the minds of the people. The suspicion that the state government was corrupt to the brim turned into firm conviction after Mamata refused to institute an inquiry into the Narada graft case.

Now, armed with charges of visible corruption and lawlessness against the ruling party, the Opposition has been successful in setting the agenda for this election. Mamata and her party are now pushed into a defensive mode. With the Congress and the Left joining hands against the ruling Trinamool, the sagging morale of the grassroot workers got a massive boost. On the other hand, the perception of a secret deal between “Modibhai & Didibhai” damaged the BJP’s poll prospects. In the absence of a Modi wave, there is a strong possibility of the Congress-Left combine gaining at the cost of the BJP.

But the big question is: Will the Election Commission take pro-active measures to provide security to voters in the remaining phases? In the first two phases of the elections, its role or lack of it, came in for a lot of criticism. If the commission becomes proactive, the election would be a closely contested one. Even if Mamata scrapes through, her margin would be reduced substantially. Or else, Bengal might see a “Poribortan of Poribortan”.

(The writer is a senior journalist based in Kolkata)

Western districts (Bankura, Purulia, West Midnapore): A sweet spot for Trinamool Congress, Mamata is likely to retain the region.

ungle Mahal: Mamata won hearts and minds after the encounter killing of Maoist leader Kishenji in 2012 and ushered in much-awaited end to bloodshed but the tribal-dominated region could go against and stand by Jharkhand Party (Naren), a Trinamool ally in 2011

Nadia: Despite being a Trinamool stronghold, dissident Trinamool MLA Arjun Singh could play spoilsport, helping Left-Congress combine to gain seats

Asansol-Durgapur-Ranigunge: The traditional industrial belt with collieries, steel plants and sponge iron factories, the area’s mixed bag of voters helped BJP win Asansol Parliamentary and could retain the trend

Malda-Murshidabad: The last Congress stronghold in Bengal is likely to retain its flavour although influential Trinamool MP Subhendu Adhikari has made inroads in last one year

North Bengal: The weakest link in Mamata’s chain, from the plains of Siliguri, where CPM is strong, to the Darjeeling Hills, where GJM rules the roost, Trinamool is not likely to gain much

Key Players
Mamata Banerjee  The firebrand Trinamool Congress chief who fought the Left Front for nearly three decades to wrest power in 2011, upsetting a 34-year-long regime. Her popularity has been on the wane after becoming the CM over various issues.

Surjya Kanta Mishra  The former Left minister was made CPM state secretary in 2014 and became the first party state chief to contest in polls. Mishra has been instrumental in bringing the Congress on board to form a coalition against Mamata.

Dilip Ghosh   An RSS pracharak of more than 25 years with extensive organisational experience across the North East, he was brought in as BJP state president to guide the party through troubled waters as the party seemingly lost gains made in 2014 Lok Sabha elections.

Adhir Ranjan Chowdhury: The ex-junior rail minister and state Congress chief is the party’s strongman from Murshidabad and has been holding the last Congress stronghold in Bengal. He realised the need to join hands with the Left to fight Mamata.

Asok Bhattacharya: A former minster and CPM heavyweight from North Bengal, he has shown the way to work with the Congress by jointly forming the Board at Siliguri Municipal Corporation in 2015; responsible for keeping

Mamata at bay in the region.

Bimal Gurung: The Gorkha Janamukti Morcha (GJM) president, who fought the 2011 state polls as a Trinamool ally, switched sides to BJP and gave the saffron party a toehold in Bengal by helping win two subsequent MPs from Darjeeling. He is likely to remain a roadblock for Mamata.

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