Chandan Nandy is a senior, Delhi-based journalist with decades of experience, especially in political coverage and analysis
When Mamata Banerjee led a gigantic people’s rally in central Kolkata a couple of days after her party’s stunning electoral victory in 2011, she and the Trinamool Congress genuinely represented hope. The people of Bengal had booted out the hated CPI(M)-led Left Front, mobilised as they were by Mamata over the twin issues surrounding Nandigram and Singur. Mamata’s rhetoric of ma-maati-maanush appeared to have captured the imagination of Bengal. She had promised paribartan change and her party’s manifesto waxed eloquent on how Bengal would be transformed in no time.
But by the time her first year in office ended, her image and that of the TMC had begun cracking up, enmeshed as she and some of her party colleagues were by allegations involving the Sarada and Rose Valley chit fund cases. The people mocked her move to play recorded Rabindra Sangeet numbers at street intersections. Her penchant for painting on canvas was seen as a fake attempt to project herself as a refined connoisseur and practitioner of an art that was good only for the campaign leading up to her 2011 victory.
Whispers turned into torrents of public anger when it was revealed that some of her abstract paintings were sold for a few crores, whose trail led uncomfortably close to the TMC. Bengalis were not amused when financial scandals, surrounding the awarding of contracts to paint public buildings and other government installations white-and-blue, surfaced to reveal that the only beneficiary was her nephew Abhishek who had earlier been inducted into the TMC and given an elevated position in the party’s power hierarchy.
There were allegations that a shadowy company run by Abhishek was the sole beneficiary of a contract involving the purchase and installation of trident-shaped street lights. There were no serious attempts to pull Bengal out of the economic morass: the state’s coffers remained empty, public debt continued to mount, visits abroad to fetch investments were simply junkets and policies sounded more like jokes. Credible stories leaked that some of her closest party colleagues, including ministers, had amassed huge wealth and had taken to unrelenting loot.
Suddenly, the promises of parivartan and ma-maati-maanush began to sound hollow. Doubts were raised about Mamata’s ability to govern. To ward off growing public anger, she announced schemes, which were really doles and showering of patronage. And yet, the people of Bengal persisted with her, voting her and the TMC in for a second term.
By this time, a different kind of affliction appeared to have struck her: as a means to hold on to her most-valued constituency, the Muslims, Mamata took to unbridled appeasement, which had the unintended consequence of polarising the Hindus.
The embrace of the Muslims grew tighter and tighter still. This too had its unintended consequence: the drift among several Bengali Hindu communities towards the BJP picked up a rapid pace. This was certainly not lost on Mamata, who found this alarming enough to assuage the sentiments of the majority community. But cracks had begun to appear on the ramparts. It took just about three years for the force of public anger to breach the dam: the BJP, whose vote share stood at 17 per cent following the 2016 assembly elections, steam-rolled the seemingly unbreakable TMC’s party machinery to win 18 of 42 Lok Sabha seats in May when the parliamentary election results were announced.
How could this be achieved? After all, the BJP was always an anathema as far as Bengalis were concerned. From the heydays of the Left Front which too had carefully cultivated the state’s Muslims, albeit with liberal public doses of secularism and protection of minority rights, the BJP had for years been a pariah political party, always on the fringe.
Before we embark on how the BJP could dramatically turn its electoral fortunes around, an examination of the rapid decline in the popularity of the Trinamool Congress and its supremo is in place.
Economy in Ruins
Speaking to the Parliamentarian, Kolkata-based veteran journalist and political analyst Subir Bhaumik said that much of the problems that Mamata is faced with today are a creation of her own a result of her own folly. “Mamata should have gone for resurrecting Bengal’s traditional strength in manufacturing. Having come to power through the Singur-Nandigram agitations, she should have shown sagacity by aggressively courting investments in automobiles, engineering, food processing, pharmaceuticals and chemicals, and like Narendra Modi as Gujarat chief minister, should have turned to China for big ticket investments.”
Instead of single-mindedly pursuing the investments route to reviving industry in Bengal, which had been laid to waste by the Left, the TMC outdid the Marxists in political patronage. There was no real urgency on her part to draw up a blueprint, for that could have at least conveyed to the people that she meant business.
Her 2011 election manifesto was quickly abandoned and she launched into theatrics, inanities and opening the floodgates of corruption and criminalisation of the polity self-glorification, free allowance to some of her closest aides to resort to loot, involving members of her extended family to be part of the skimming and appeasement of the Muslim minority to an extent that put the CPI(M) to shame.
In between her less than infantile statements – like Rabindranath Tagore and Shakespeare having taken walks together by the Thames – bought her loads of ridicule.
One of the chief public complaints against her was her patronage to thugs and criminals who masqueraded as politicians. The result of this “allowance” was the rise of a “syndicate” a criminal-politician nexus that turned parasitic. This syndicate controlled the real estate and construction markets, forcing the people to buy from them rather than from legitimate sellers. The syndicate’s grip and writ ran not just in Kolkata but across West Bengal. No wonder now that Mamata is witnessing a rapid erosion of her political ground that she has begun to openly voice her “anger” against her party colleagues’ practice of accumulating “cut money” (some prefer the abbreviation, CM).
Indeed, Mamata’s second term in office was marked by internecine battles between various groups within her party seeking to partake off the proceeds of extortion.
Blind to Extortion
A former senior journalist, who did not want to be identified, said: “Mamata knew all along about the existence and extortions of the syndicate, but turned a blind eye to it because it helped swell the party’s coffers. And now that she is faced with an electoral challenge, she is trying to rid herself of the taint. This may not work as her party faces the threat of implosion.” No senior TMC leader was prepared to comment on the record.
It is not that the TMC did not work to lay claim to achievements. The doles and patronage, in the form of schemes for school girls and women, the laying of cemented roads in many villages, where too party functionaries benefitted from skimming, and improving municipal services in Kolkata were amplified and projected as “great deeds” by the chief minister.
In development-starved Bengal, such patronage was more like a drop in the ocean that helped a miniscule section of the population.
According to Bhaumik, what Mamata should have done was to focus on “Shilpo (Industrial) Bangla rather than Biswa (Global) Bangla. She should have pushed for big infrastructural projects such as a deep-sea port at Sagar or Tajpur and pushed for growth in tourism by taking advantage of Bengal’s climatic diversity in a relatively small geographic area. After all, tourism creates more employment than hi-tech industry. Mamata did make some progress in tourism but not of the kind that could match Kerala. She took some initiative for generation of new IT ventures focused on areas such as Artificial Intelligence but Bengal needed SEZs for the IT sector.” To compound the problem was growing unemployment and underemployment, which are at the root of the BJP’s sudden popularity. From the perspective of realpolitik, the BJP was able to successfully identify the demographics that could bolster its electoral push.
In the once semi-industrial belts of North 24 Parganas, where over the years hundreds of thousands of migrants from Bihar and UP had settled, the BJP pushed for celebrating Ram Navami and other socio-religious functions of no consequence to the larger Bengali-speaking population. It was a strange but effective brand of Hindutva that helped mobilise the non-Bengali, Hindi speaking population. To battle Mamata’s Muslim appeasement, the BJP used such Hindutva tools as legitimate means to make a crack.
A more potent weapon was the unabashed use of the deadly issue of the National Register of Citizens, whose application in Assam had won the BJP rich political-electoral dividend, and the 2016 Citizenship (Amendment) Bill which promised to grant citizenship to millions of Bangladeshi Hindu immigrants settled illegally across Kolkata and other parts of the state. The Bill and the promise associated with it helped the party mobilise the Hindu immigrants in ways that could balance the weight of large Muslim support for the TMC.
While the periodic and episodic use of the CBI and the corruption cases that hung over some TMC leaders worked to the BJP’s advantage, the real body blow for Mamata’s party was the almost wholesale shifting of the Left vote to the saffron party.
CPI(M) general secretary Sitaram Yechury was candid enough to admit this shift which party cadres on the ground rationalised as the only means to stay safe from TMC-orchestrated violence against them. What Mamata failed to do was to ensure a broad-based alliance between the TMC, the Congress and the Marxist parties to prevent the so-called “secular” vote from splitting.
On the one hand, she did not try hard enough to stitch this alliance and on the other “payoffs” on the ground by the BJP helped the Left voters to go out in droves to vote for the former. The Left is finished in West Bengal, but even in its death throes the CPI(M) has ensured, perhaps for all times to come, that there could be a credible opposition to the rising and frightening tide of right-wing politics in the state.
On its part, the BJP doesn’t even have to project an alternative plan to revive Bengal’s economy for its ruthless strategists know only too well that progressively lethal doses of Hindutva and other means, legitimate or otherwise, will catapult it to power sooner than even the party believes. The writing on the wall for Mamata is clear: the BJP is now on the ascendant in Bengal and to stop it in its track would be well-nigh impossible at this juncture. After its spectacular electoral performance in the state, the BJP will not quite slow down its march to capture power. It has already begun to chip away at the TMC’s legislators who are pulling out in ones and twos to join the BJP fold.
Already, the buzz is that BJP strategists are in “talks” with 58 TMC MLAs and will slowly but surely cause the cracks in Mamata’s outfit to widen before the inevitable blow is delivered. Mamata is fully aware that her seeming invincibility just three years ago will not last too long as she faces an imminent crisis. She has hired the services of political and electoral strategist Prashant Kishor who in the past has proved his mettle. But this move may not pay off because Bengal is primed for another parivartan.