The upcoming elections in West Bengal are making heads turn, not only in India but also across the borders. Several factors explain the unprecedented curiosity and interest, within and outside, that the electoral contest scheduled for May is generating.
The elections are seen as a barometer of the national mood, which has been heavily impacted by the farmers' agitation. In the backdrop of animus, will the BJP that is heavily contesting be unceremoniously rejected in a bastion controlled first by the Left and subsequently by the mercurial Mamata Baneerjee's TMC? Or, instead, is a paradigm shift in the offing, with the BJP, storming into the citadel of power for the first time, riding on a feel good traditionalist idiom, crafted in the digital age?
The state, strategically located connects the northeastern part of the country and is also the gateway to the south east Asian region. It shares its borders with four countries --- Bangladesh, Bhutan, Nepal and even China. Small wonder, therefore, that socio-political development in West Bengal, which has typically remained a Left bastion for decades, until Banerjee’s Trinamool Congress (TMC) came into power in 2011, is of immense significance to the country and the region.
West Bengal with about 30 per cent Muslim population has always been considered fiercely secular.
“Typically people of West Bengal have always taken pride in the principles of secularism and the much talked about superior ‘Bhadralok’ culture which differentiated their psyche and intellect from the others in the country even as multiple problems such as unemployment, lack of industrialisation and regular incidents of violence have marred the state,” said political analyst Sajjan Kumar, who has extensively toured the state.
Change in political order in Bengal is not very common. The CPI-(M) dominated Left front ruled the state for 34 years. Thereafter Banerjee’s TMC has been in power for 10 years now.
But the political order in the state is now rapidly changing.
First, the Left front, which was almost the identity of the state is now almost dead -- politically. It is now leaning on the Congress for survival. Two, the dramatic rise of the BJP, which was considered unthinkable even five years ago. In the Legislative Assembly with 294 constituencies, TMC won 209 in the 2011 elections. BJP was a distant number 2 with only 27 seats. But since then, things have changed with BJP’s rising popularity on one hand and weakening hold of the TMC.
Third, entry of “Muslim” leaders with their own parties have altered the contours of the political structure.
What are the reasons for these changes?
“People voted for change in 2011. Banerjee, who was already a very popular political figure, rode on a huge anti-incumbency factor aided by the massive confusion over Nandigram and Singur. She promised change. Ten years later, there is change but the situation has become worse,” said a Kolkata based retired professor.
People of West Bengal said there has been a huge shift in the political culture of the state and that it will not be easy for TMC to storm back to power.
Many who live in Kolkata, who typically do not support the BJP, are looking for a change of guard. "They will play an important role as they would want TMC out and to do so they could end up voting for BJP," the analyst said.
The state election will have far reaching implications not only in the state politics but nationally and internationally as well. “The location of state is of great significance to New Delhi especially in the wake of an aggressive China. New systems and measures have to be put in place in that particular region to ensure security,” an analyst said.
Bangladesh too is directly impacted. While issues relating to the Citizenship Amendment Act and National Register of Citizens led to tensions between New Delhi and Dhaka, they have been put to rest. Both Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his Bangladeshi counterpart Sheikh Hasina in a bilateral summit held in December promised to deepen ties and connectivity. However, while the Centre has been reiterating the need to resolve the issue related to sharing of the Teesta river water, Banerjee has been vehement in not allowing the deal to see the light of the day.
“Bangladesh is keen on this issue to be resolved, we know this cannot happen with Banerjee being at the helm,” an analyst said, adding that the people of Bangladesh are also keenly interested in the elections.
Kumar said that various factors are playing up as the state election approaches.
The state has never been free of corruption. “Corruption was rampant even during the Left Front regime but it was not so brutal and in your face. Today corruption in the state is monopolised, which means the same evil practices remain but only a few enjoy. This has given rise to more frustration,” Kumar explained.
Not just that. Residents complain of regular harassment by corrupt TMC workers. “People are scared to get involved with these people. My friend wanted to set up a showroom but was asked to buy certain items required for setting it up from a particular vendor with connections to the ruling TMC,” one of the residents said on condition of anonymity. The culture of “cut-money” has also become a cause for embarrassment to Banerjee and her team.
A report by ThePrint’s Madhuparna Das last year highlighted that while the state government announced a relief of Rs 20,000 per family for those impacted by the Amphan cyclone, many villagers complained of not receiving the aid.
They alleged “that Trinamool Congress panchayat pradhans and members have been misappropriating the government aid money or have been demanding a percentage of the money in return for being added to the beneficiary list,” the report said.
The aura of the “Ma Mati Manush” slogan of Banerjee’s that brought together the people of Bengal, has been fading due to rampant corruption like never-before.
There is an environment of fear among the people. “Many of us live in fear, if you happen to speak against the TMC, you could be harassed and tortured. We are scared to speak up,” a state government employee said.
Highhandedness of state authorities has irked the citizens. Several workers affiliated to other political parties including the Left have regularly faced the wrath of the TMC with physical abuse. According to a report published on February 11 by the Wire, Kolkata Police “resorted to lathi charge, firing of tear gas shells and water cannons trying to disperse an agitation of Leftist youth workers when they were marching to the state secretariat in protest as part of Nabanna Abhiyan." "Several agitators, including women, suffered bleeding injuries,” it said.
Even during Modi’s recent visit to Kolkata, left leaning students raised slogans against both leaders which did not go down well with Banerjee.
Bengalis—people living in the state irrespective of the language they speak—too have aspirations. Kumar pointed out that the youth has been neglected. “While roads and highways have been upgraded and developed, something that never happened during the Left rule, there is rising impatience among the people, particularly the youth as there is limited job opportunities. They do not want doles, they want opportunities to lead a better life,” Kumar noted.
For India Inc, West Bengal does not feature in the list of focus areas. “There is political uncertainty and people still have the union mindset,” said a senior executive at a multinational, which is looking to set up a manufacturing unit.
Dejection among the Muslims
Call it an irony. Banerjee has often been blamed for her Muslim appeasement politics but the same has come to haunt her. A report titled ‘Living Reality of Muslims in West Bengal’, authored by economist and Nobel laureate Amartya Sen’s Pratichi Institute and Association SNAP revealed that the condition of the Muslims in the state was worse than those living in other states.
According to the report, published in 2016, 38.3 per cent of the Muslim households in rural areas had a monthly income of Rs 2,500 or less.
Besides, West Bengal featured among the top states with the maximum migrant labourers. A third front has come up in the form of the Indian Secular Front (ISF) of Furfura Sharif cleric Abbas Siddiqui besides the entry of Asaduddin Owaisi-led All India Majlis-e-Ittehad-ul-Muslimeen (AIMIM) in the electoral fray. The Left and Congress have now joined this front.
Kumar observed that though these parties have managed to create a stir, the Muslim votes will go to TMC. “Muslims will still go with TMC due to apprehension. The question that is guiding them is what will happen to them if BJP comes to power. They are not willing to take chances and vote for the newly formed political party. So while there is consolidation of Muslim votes in favour of TMC there is counter consolidation happening too against the ruling party,” Kumar said.
Last minute efforts by TMC
As TMC citadel witnesses cracks with several stalwarts moving away to join the BJP, a desperate Banerjee has now hurriedly launched the Rs 5 meal scheme. The scheme known as “Ma” provides state-subsidised daily lunch meals to the poor.