As West Bengal goes to the polls in May this year, will the magic and chutzpah of chief minister Mamata Banerjee see the Trinamool Congress sailing past other political parties?
By Kalyani Shankar
IF the quintessential quality of a leader who believes in a personality cult can be summed up as the ability to attract crowds, retain mass base and deliver results, West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee possesses them all. She has reached heights through sheer hard work and idealism without the support of a family name (Sonia Gandhi), a mentor (Jayalalithaa or Mayawati) or wealth.
What is her appeal to the common man? Her support base is the youth between 18 to 35 years, who see her as someone fighting their battles. Mamata herself has often said: “My boys come, work day and night and make my meetings a success.” Those who sniggered at her crumpled white cotton saree, torn Hawaii chappals, jhola (bag) on her shoulders and her incoherent and shrill voice were astounded in 2011 when she outmatched the Marxists who were ruling the state for 34 years.
When Mamata occupied Writers’ Building on May 24, 2011, she raised high hopes with her “paribartan” slogan. This first woman chief minister of the state is again facing the electorate in May 2016. Going by ground reports, the electorate is yet to become disenchanted with her despite some mistakes.
In order to understand the success of Mamata, one should first understand West Bengal, the fourth most populous state in India. As per the 2011 census, the state’s demography is as follows: 70.54 percent are Hindus, while Muslims are 27.01 percent. Almost the entire Buddhist population of the state is from the Darjeeling Hills. There are 18 million Scheduled Castes and four million Scheduled Tribes. Almost two-thirds of the population is engaged in agriculture.
When Mamata took over, she no doubt created history. Time magazine rated her among the 100 most influential women leaders of the world in its April 18, 2012, issue. She won 227 of the 294 seats in 2011, trouncing the Left. This was a great feat as she had launched the Trinamool Congress in 1998, breaking away from the Congress. She also proved her critics wrong who said she would fail because she was a child of confrontational politics. Of course, she took time to move into governance mode.
At the end of her five-year term, Mamata still has her vote bank more or less intact. Since the 2008 panchayat polls, the TMC has been on an upward curve in every election. It won 114 of 144 seats in Kolkata Municipal Corporation elections in 2015, up from 95 in 2010. The party won 50 percent of the votes in Kolkata and 42 percent overall in these polls.
RIGHT TIME, RIGHT PLACE
Mamata took over the reins of power at a time when the people of the state were getting tired of Marxist rule and she spoke of “Ma, Mati, Manush” and promised change. She was there at the right time with the right credentials and chose the right issues. She has been fighting the Leftists since the eighties even when she was in the Congress.
Another opportunity for her was the disastrous attempt by the CPM government to forcibly acquire agricultural land for industry in Nandigram in 2007 and Singur in 2008, which resulted in a backlash from the farmers. Mamata took advantage of this and promised that if she was voted to power, she would return the land. The indiscipline and factionalism in the CPM, which did not support chief minister Bud-dhadeb Bhattacharya, also led to her rise. Many CPM leaders lived in their own world and lost touch with the masses. Also, the arithmetic was right for the TMC-Congress combine, which gave a good fight to unseat the Left. And Mamata with the support of the media convincingly wooed voters to emerge victorious.
However, the 2016 elections will be different. She is on the other side of the fence and the opposition will challenge her. She has to present her report card of the last five years to the people. She has largely delivered on many promises and retained her popularity despite the Saradha chit fund scam and the terror tactics of TMC cadres.
One of her major achievements has been on the Naxalite front, particularly in Jangal-mahal area in South Midnapore district. Tax collections have also improved with advanced technology. Though she was against disinvestment, she sold five state-owned tea gardens to private players. Despite populist positions, Mamata had raised user fees for utilities. Keeping aside her agitational politics, she had declared to the media on April 28, 2015: “In Bengal, our stand is clear that there will be no bandh, no strike. We are against bandh and strike. Administration will take strong action against those who will go for bandh. We won’t let them stop the growth of Bengal.”
For the Left parties, the secularism slogan is not enough to revive them in Bengal. The change of leadership from Prakash Karat to Sitaram Yechury has not helped matters. Parties like the CPI and Forward Bloc have expressed reservations against a tie-up with the Congress.
Regarding industry, her focus has been restricted to the small-scale sector, where, she claims, `39,000 crore was invested. She also claimed that nearly four million new jobs were created and 2,00,000 recruitments for teachers and the government made. Who would have thought that after becoming CM, Ma-mata would woo industrialists, something she vehemently opposed earlier in Nandigram and Singur? At a two-day Bengal Global Business Summit recently, a jubilant Mamata proudly announced that the state currently has projects worth `2,50,104 crore and more were on the way.
There is also some revival of the construction sector and relaxation of the land ceiling law. There are perceptible changes in other sectors also. On the health front, Bill Gates on February 16, 2012, sent a letter to Mamata applauding her government for accomplishing a full year without any reported instances of polio. The flagship Kanyashree project has benefitted close to 2.8 million girls. Subsidized food grains to nearly seven crore of the state’s total nine crore population is another plus.
TMC ON A ROLL
The TMC appears better placed in rural areas following improved road connectivity, communication development, water and health services. The flow of central funds for the rehabilitation and development of backward regions is expected to benefit the party. The undercurrent of dissent and anger which was visible during the Left rule is missing here.
At the national level too, the TMC is well-placed with 34 MPs in the Lok Sabha and 12 in the Rajya Sabha. It emerged as the fourth largest party in parliament. In June 2015, Mamata supported the Land Boundary Agreement with Bangladesh in parliament (which became a reality after 41 years) after bargaining for a financial package. She also accompanied Prime Minister Modi to Dhaka to sign the agreement. However, the Teesta treaty with Bangladesh is still a problem.
But there is still a long way to go for Mamata. The absence of big industry, unemployment, lawlessness in educational institutions and the crisis in the tea industry are some areas of concern. There is also disillusionment in the intelligentsia which supported the TMC in 2011 over acts of lawlessness against teachers, media, women and on campuses. The Saradha scam and the Khagragarh blasts that revealed a shocking terror connection with Bangladesh outfits are a big setback.
In all probability, there will be a four-cornered contest in the coming assembly polls between the TMC, the Left, the BJP and the Congress. This might help the ruling TMC because of a split in anti-TMC votes. Mamata has carefully chalked out her poll strategy, which includes keeping the opposition divided, keeping her flock together and checking unpopular actions of the TMC. Some time ago, chiding her party strongmen, she said: “Trinamool Congress is a party of poor people. Let it remain so.” This sent out a message to the entire party that infighting would not be tolerated and tickets would be given only on the basis of good behavior.
As far as leadership goes, Mamata’s stature remains unmatched as the Left, Congress and BJP have no tall leaders at the local level. Though the Congress and the TMC were all-ies in the 2011 polls, the TMC broke away on September 18, 2012, ostensibly against the hike in petrol and diesel prices. The Congress could have some understanding with the TMC again, but the Left is also making overtures to the Congress. As far as the BJP is concerned, it will go it alone.
Mamata has also managed to keep her flock together despite falling out with her one-time lieutenant, Mukul Roy. She has also not committed any big mistake in her five-year term and has retained the support of the minority Muslims by giving allowances for maulvis and muazzims, building of a Haj Ho-use and naming a university and an airport after Kazi Nazrul Islam, the national poet of Bangladesh.
For the Left parties, the secularism slogan is not enough to revive them. This is because their main opponents are the TMC and the Congress, not the BJP. The Left has also not learnt from its mistakes. Fiascos like Singur and Nandigram are explained away as exceptions. The change at the top level leadership from Prakash Karat to Sitaram Yechuri has not helped matters. The Left has lost whatever presence it had in states like Andhra Pra-desh, Bihar, Maharashtra, Odisha and Punjab. The Left has also failed to build sustained movements against the TMC’s rule.
There have been sporadic protests on issues like the Saradha scam, crimes against women and power tariff hike. The lack of unity among Left parties has also stymied them. Parties like the CPI and Forward Bloc have expressed reservations against a tie-up with the Congress. So any opportunistic alliance with the Congress may further divide the Left. In 2014, the CPM’s vote share dropped to 23 percent from over 38 percent in 2004. A recovery from this huge deficit would be a challenge.
The Congress, which was a major force at one time, has also declined over the decades. It has no presence in South Bengal. In the 2014 Lok Sabha elections, the TMC got 39.3 percent votes, the Left 29.6 percent, the Congress 9.6 percent and the BJP 16.8 percent.
The absence of big industry, unemployment, lawlessness against teachers, media, women and in campuses and the tea industry crisis (above) are some areas of concern for Mamata. But ground reports say the electorate is yet to become disenchanted with her.
Since 2014, the Congress has weakened further. Both the Congress and the CPM are in Catch-22 situations for a poll tie-up. Whi-le they could have some strategic understanding in West Bengal, the two are direct contenders for power in Kerala.
Coming to the BJP, its rise coincided with the slide of the Left Parties. But rather than taking off from there, the party has taken many missteps. The saffron party was not able to sustain the Modi magic after the Lok Sabha polls as was evident in the 2015 local bodies poll where it drew a zero. The BJP has no matching organizational capacity either in Bengal. Moreover; there are group rivalries and factional fights within the West Bengal BJP unit.
Mamata’s tacit understanding with the BJP at the national level has done more harm to the BJP than the Trinamool. The BJP struck a deal with her for two reasons—for the passage of crucial reform bills in parliament and in order to weaken the Left parties, which suited the TMC too.
However, the recent Malda violence is likely to be a core issue for the BJP in West Bengal. In Malda, which has a high Muslim concentration, a mob had attacked the Kaliachak police apparently protesting an insult to the Prophet Mohammad by Hindu Mahasabha’s Kamlesh Tiwari. While it is accused of playing communal politics, the BJP calls it a national security concern.
It would be a feather in Mamata’s cap if she gets a second term. From 1984, when she first became a giant killer defeating CPM veteran Somnath Chatterjee, she has climbed the ladder, ultimately launching the Trinamool Congress in 1998. She went on to become a minister in the Vajpayee government and in 2009, became a minister in the UPA government. In 2011, she became the CM. For the 2016 polls, the TMC is eying a comfortable victory. It waits to be seen what finally emerges.