Ipso Facto Comment

Could it take two to tango with Mamata?

The year 2011 was a watershed in West Bengal politics. Principal opposition parties, led by Mamata Banerjee’s Trinamool Congress (Trinamool), joined hands to finally oust the 34-year-old CPI(M)-led Left Front government from power. Five years later, as the State gears up for the next edition of Assembly elections, it’s almost a redux, except that this time round it’s the ruling Trinamool that is the behemoth and “democratic forces” are coalescing in a bid to best it at the hustings.

Though there is no formal alliance yet, >a grass-roots level ‘understanding’ has apparently been reached between the Congress and the CPI(M). This tacit joining of hands, notwithstanding their ideological differences and the fact that they would be going head-to-head in Kerala around the same time, has been forced by exigency more than anything else: with the Trinamool making successful inroads into their support base, it’s a battle for survival for the CPI(M) and the Congress. Over the past four years, even panchayats and civic bodies controlled by the Opposition have been wrested by the ruling party; more than a dozen MLAs from the Opposition parties switched loyalties and joined the Trinamool.

Extending a hand

Even before the Central Committee of the CPI(M) made it clear it “will seek the cooperation of all democratic forces in the State to strengthen people’s unity in West Bengal to defeat the Trinamool Congress”, senior party leaders have been publicly reaching out to the Congress. Former Chief Minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee and the Leader of the Opposition, Surjya Kanta Mishra, had publicly >exhorted the Congress to join forces . “We Leftists have come together... We are asking the Congress, on which side of the fence are you? On which side are you in this fight?” Mr. Bhattacharjee had said at a recent public rally.

State Congress president and MP Adhir Ranjan Chowdhury was more forthright when The Hindu sought his comments. “The alliance has already taken place at the ground level between the Congress, the CPI(M) and other forces opposed to the Trinamool and the BJP [Bharatiya Janata Party]. At the national level we are at present seriously deliberating upon the alliance, and hopefully something positive will emerge,” he said.

The proposed alliance is all about electoral arithmetic. The CPI(M) had secured around 23 per cent vote share in the 2014 Lok Sabha polls and the Left Front 29.6 per cent overall; the Congress got around 9.6 per cent votes. Put together, the Left Front-Congress tally more than matches the 39.3 per cent vote share secured by the Trinamool in the election. The thinking is that a formal alliance, or short of it an ‘understanding’, would not only mean a combined vote share but might consolidate the entire opposition vote, weaning away a chunk of the BJP’s 17 per cent vote share in the general election.

Advantage Didi

The Trinamool is, without doubt, the most powerful political force in the State and Ms. Banerjee the most popular political leader. Her government has largely been able to rein in Maoist extremism in the Jangalmahal region. The separatist movement in the Darjeeling hills has also been contained to some extent.

The government has also been able to notch up achievements beyond law and order. Recently, it extended the >benefits of the National Food Security Act to nearly 70 million of the 90-million population of the State. The disbursement of Scheduled Caste, Scheduled Tribe and Other Backward Class certificates was more than three times higher during Trinamool rule compared to the Left’s last term.

Other than the usual schemes, >the Chief Minister has devised schemes such as Kanyashree , aimed at providing scholarships to schoolgoing girls. As per State government figures, the number of beneficiaries from the scheme has crossed three milion. A scheme to provide bicycles to nearly four million students from class VIII to XII in all State government-run schools was also recently unveiled.

The social development indicators of the State show an improvement from the Left era. While the infant mortality rate has dropped from 31 per 1,000 live births in 2011 to 27 now, the maternal mortality ratio has reduced from 148 per 1,00,000 live births in 2011 to 113 at present.

As per latest Census figures, Muslims comprise 27.1 per cent of the State’s population. In at least two districts and in 65 of the 341 blocks of the State, they are a majority. The community has, in the past few elections, supported the Trinamool — and this in turn has led to the State government devising schemes with a minority focus. The government claims to have increased the number of scholarships for minority students, as also the disbursement of loans to Muslim farmers and small-scale entrepreneurs: data from the State’s Minority Affairs Department show that more than 8.2 million students and over 3,50,000 people from the community have been beneficiaries of scholarships and loans respectively. The government even brazened it out to give honorariums to imams and muezzins in mosques across the State.

Also read: >Communal polarisation in West Bengal and U.P.?

With Assembly elections round the corner, the Chief Minister has been actively courting smaller minority groups and parties perceived as having some sway over the electorate. Be it All India United Democratic Front State president Siddiqullah Chowdhury or Toha Siddique, the Peerzada of Furfura Sharif, a prominent shrine in Hooghly district, all have shared the stage with the Chief Minister in the recent past and vowed to support her in the upcoming Assembly polls.

Also read: >Muslims in West Bengal more deprived, disproportionately poorer: Amartya Sen

The BJP factor

For the BJP, the main challenge in these elections would be to hold on to its general election vote share of nearly 17 per cent. The party hasn’t been able to build on the momentum of its 2014 high, with many who had lately joined the BJP — such as the youth wing of the All India Forward Bloc — opting to return to their old parties. The party is likely to unleash its tried-and-tested formula to arrest the slide: stir the communal pot and polarise the vote, particularly in the border area constituencies. Four Union Ministers, including Home Minister Rajnath Singh, who visited the State to address party rallies recently, raised the issue of violence at Kaliachak in Malda district where a police station was ransacked by Muslim miscreants in early January. Some of them also referred to the accidental blast at Khagragarh in Burdwan in October 2014 which exposed a large network of Jamaat-ul-Mujahideen Bangladesh operatives hatching a terror plot to destabilise the government in Bangladesh. “We will be pointing out how the Trinamool has been indulging in vote-bank politics and made West Bengal a safe haven for terrorists and other anti-national elements,” said a BJP functionary.

Also read: >BJP to make Malda violence a poll issue in Bengal

For all its tall claims, the government has failed on the industrial front. It has not been able to attract any big-ticket investments nor has it been able to check the flight of capital from the State. There is also an unemployment crisis brewing with the old labour-intensive sectors of tea and jute in the doldrums.

The law and order machinery has also been weakened by a spurt in incidents of violence. At least five policemen have been killed in the line of duty by goons. Moreover, factional fights between different groups of the ruling party have become commonplace. West Bengal has also earned the dubious distinction of being one of the worst States vis-à-vis incidence of crime against women. In the National Crime Records Bureau’s (NCRB) 2014 report, released in August 2015, it ranked second after Uttar Pradesh, to go with third spot in the 2013 report and the worst-State billing in the 2012 report.

Ms. Banerjee’s administration has also developed a reputation of being intolerant to any kind of dissent and criticism. >From arresting a university professor for forwarding an innocuous cartoon of the Chief Minister to sending a poor farmer to prison for raising the issue of increase in fertiliser prices, the State government has displayed a streak of ruthlessness in dealing with even the slightest opposition.

The Chief Minister’s credibility has also suffered with her repeated failure to return the land to the farmers of Singur who were unwilling to part with it for the setting up of the proposed Tata Motors car plant that subsequently moved to Gujarat. It was the Singur agitation, after all, that catapulted Ms. Banerjee into political prominence, paving the way for her eventual victory in 2011.

Despite these drawbacks, Ms. Banerjee retains an edge over her political rivals as the countdown for the Assembly elections begins. The BJP, for all its promise, is still a fledgling outfit in the State. Three-plus decades of Left rule left the Congress a party that is strong in only a few pockets. And the Left, unable to quickly absorb the shock of its 2011 defeat, has barely recouped — as its measly return of two seats in the general election three years later shows. The poll plot, however, thickens if the ‘enemy’s enemy’ logic brings the CPI(M) and the Congress together. Will they go for broke?

The battle of Bengal

Achievements:

Failures:

* Largely contained Maoist extremism

*No big investments

*Controlled statehood movement in Darjeeling

*Unchecked flight of capital from the State.

*Extended benefits of the National Food Security Act

*Increase in unemployment

*Reduced infant mortality rate

*Increase in crimes against women and anti-social activities.

*Reduced maternal mortality rate

* Reputation of being intolerant to criticism.

*More SC, ST and OBC certificates distributed.

*Land not returned to Singur farmers



shivsahay.s@thehindu.co.in


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Printable version | Jan 16, 2022 8:22:10 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/op-ed/west-bengal-assembly-polls-could-it-take-two-to-tango-with-mamata/article8286172.ece

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