Battle for Bengal: Can Mamata Banerjee survive the BJP onslaught?

The rapid growth of the BJP in West Bengal since the 2014 parliamentary elections can unquestionably be seen as a turning point in the state's turbulent politics, writes Asif Rameez Daudi for South Asia Monitor

Asif Rameez Daudi Jan 20, 2021
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West Bengal had been in the hub of all political and economic prominence during the British period. Modern India has also witnessed the impact of the economic and political policies of Bengal that radiated throughout the country.

Since 1930 Communist Party started its long battle for the people of Bengal and, as a result after independence, it enjoyed significant support among intellectuals, workers and farmers, and emerged as a major political force in by 1974. 

During the late 60s and early 70s, West Bengal witnessed increasing violence and chaos, a crisis of governability heightened factionalism and split in the Congress, which ruled the state directly or through the president’s rule from 1969 to 1977, which according to historian Bipan Chandra eventually paved the way for the Communist Party of India (Marxist) to transform into an election victory in 1977.

Long Communist rule 

Since then, the CPM had been succeeding in upholding the left coalition and control of the government for more than three decades until Trinamool Congress came into power in 2011. The reasons for staying in power for this long period of time are worth noting. First and foremost the CPM, immediately after coming into power, launched ‘Operation Barga’ which reformed the tenancy system in the interest of 'bargadars' (sharecroppers). It led to the reforms of the jotedari system and provided inducements to all concerned to increase production.

It became a causative factor in the ushering in of the Green Revolution and multi-cropping the system, which consequently generated greater employment as well as enhancement in higher wages. The second major achievement of the CPM government had been the restructuring and transforming of the Panchayati Raj institution through which the bucolic poor, middle peasants and the rural intelligentsia were empowered. Through this institution, they took up the project of road construction, drainage, and cleansing of irrigation channels and village tank, etc.  Further, the “food for work” programme was another success story of the government to generate jobs for the landless.

The CPM government had one of the best records in the country in containing communal violence. Despite having a large ratio of the Muslim population and a large influx of Hindu refugees from East Bengal, West Bengal remained relatively free of communal violence. It successfully controlled the communal fallout of Indira Gandhi’s assassination in 1984 by her two Sikh bodyguards, and in December 1992 of the Babri Mosque demolition, which was razed to the ground by Hindu zealots.

Overall, the CPM government under the leadership of the longest-running chief minister of India, Jyoti Basu, succeeded in giving West Bengal a moderately effective and on the whole non-corrupt and relatively violence-free government, especially in rural areas. This government successfully checked and even reversed the role of police and lower bureaucracy in favour of the rural poor.

Apart from the success stories of CPM, they had weaknesses as well that flagged the way for its decline, and ushered in the Trinamool Congress era in West Bengal. Where the CPM government fared poorly was in making any improvements to urban living and bringing industrial development and trade to the state. There can be no long-term development of the living condition of the people of the state or country without rapid industrialization and the significant economic development and resultant creation of jobs in the industry, trade, and services.

Despite much efforts of the CPM government in its later years, capitalists and investors were no longer interested and willing to trust a communist government due to industrial unrest, lack of work culture and accountability. The CPM, however, failed to take cognizance of the problem and look for innovative solutions. As a result of growing unemployment, failure to arrest urban decay and develop the state became prime reasons for the deterioration of the party in West Bengal. It could not cope up with the demands of the growing population to provide jobs and sustain livelihoods. Finally, the CPM government lost its power to Trinamool Congress in 2011 after the Tata Nano Singur controversy, in which farm land was acquired by the government for the propose of setting up a Nano factory of Tata Motors at Singur in Hooghly district. This was firmly opposed by the Trinamool Congress and other socialist units.  

TMC rule

After being a member of the Congress for two decades, Mamata Banerjee left the party in 1997, due to difference of views with then West Bengal Pradesh Congress Committee president Somen Mitra. Banerjee then formed her own party, the All India Trinamool Congress, popularly known as the Trinamool Congress (TMC), in January 1998.

She has undoubtedly been a very vibrant, diligent, and energetic leader, who very successfully and strategically subverted and demolished the 'red' fort of the Communist party in Bengal by sheer dint of her hard work. She has been leading a very simple and austere life, wearing Bengali style attires and sidestepping the luxurious life she could easily enjoy as the chief minister of the state.  But to get the political positions and power she did not hesitate to make and change alliances from time to time with the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)- led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) and Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA). In 1999, she allied with NDA and became the union railway minister. And in 2009, the TMC allied with the Congress in the UPA coalition. However, due to the clash of interests, she resigned from the UPA.

Banerjee was sworn in as the first woman chief minister of West Bengal on May 20, 2011. After coming to power, she resolved the much controversial Singur project and returned 400 acres of land to Singur farmers. Later she did a series of reforms in the education and health sectors. Some of the reforms in the education sector included the release of teachers' monthly payments on the first of every month and quicker pensions for retiring teachers. Her reforms in the health sector were appreciated by UNICEF in 2015 for making Nadia the first Open Defecation Free district in the country. She did various administrative reforms as well to enforce the law and order situation under control in West Bengal. Police Commissionerate were created in different cities and Kolkata Municipal Corporation was brought under the control of the Kolkata Police. Some of the notable achievements of Mamata’s government are:

- Kanyashree Prakalpa was established with the aim to improve the life and status of girls in the state;

-  Yuvashree  scheme was launched to provide financial assistance and training to jobseekers;

- Fair Price Medicine Shops were opened all across the state in 2012 with the aim to provide generic medicines, surgical and dressing material, as well as cardiac devices at almost 50 percent less than the maximum retail prices.

Besides the above, Banerjee proclaimed the setting up of 341 special markets for farmers called Kisan Mandi to help them sell their produce at the right price. She is largely credited with the empowerment of women in the state, along with the cleaning up and beautification of Kolkata.

The TMC apparently has earned considerable political mileage through such schemes to advance the status of women. But, according to National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) 2016 report, West Bengal ranked second after Uttar Pradesh in crime against women. Further, according to media reports, corruption is highly deep-rooted in West Bengal. And involvements of the TMC members in corruption scams are not infrequent. In the Saradha Group and Rose Valley Group Ponzi schemes, nearly Rs. 20,000 crore was estimated to have been duped from investors.

The TMC government had to face another impediment to the health care system when doctors in West Bengal went on a strike following an attack on June 11, 2019, at Nil Ratan Sircar Medical College and Hospital.  The medical fraternity grumbled about inadequacies in health infrastructure and the inability of governments to tackle issues of health care. 

In the economic and industrial developments, the TMC government couldn’t win the confidence of industrialists and traders. Though the government claims to be better than previous governments it has not been too imaginative with economic policies. The trade and infrastructure of the state have also been deteriorating. Political violence has got entrenched in the state and become the political strategy of all political parties.   

Rapid rise of BJP 

The rapid growth of the BJP in West Bengal since the 2014 parliamentary elections can unquestionably be seen as a turning point in the state's turbulent politics. The BJP’s less than impressive performance in the 2019 Lok Sabha elections led the way for aggressive Hindutva forces who unleashed an ambitious campaign in West Bengal to wrest power from the Trinamool Congress. In every by-election since 2016 in the state, the BJP has improved its vote share at the cost of Left Front. The shifting trend reached its height in 2019 when its vote share rose up from 10 percent in 2016 to 40 percent in 2019, and the Left Front vote share collapsed from 27 percent to 7.5 percent. The trend clearly indicates that BJP is emerging as one of the strongest alternatives to the TMC government. 

The BJP has already changed the political discourse of West Bengal from discussing basic issues of health, education, and employment to religious issues. The Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA), the National Population Register (NPR), and the National Register of Citizens (NRC) can therefore be seen as BJP’s strategy in the context.

On the other hand, the Left Front which allied with Congress, is struggling to look for its lost ground. However, this alliance has not displayed any noteworthy and credential challenges to the BJP so far. The Left Front-Congress alliance's only focus seems to be subvert the TMC without presenting any alternative programmes and policies for the state can only help in boosting BJP's chances in the state. 

The Muslim factor

Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee’s problems are getting further compounded by the entry of Muslim parties in the Bengal arena. Asaduddin Owaisi's All India Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen (AIMIM), which was ignored by the 'secular' parties in Bihar, stunned political pundits when it won five seats in the Muslim-majority area of Seemanchal in last year's Bihar elections. However, the AIMIM’s presence may attract some Muslim voters of TMC but may not convert into more than a couple of seats but will definitely damage the minority vote bank of the TMC. Muslims constitute 27 percent of the state's nearly 100 million population and any division of Muslim votes will only help the BJP. 

Among the districts, where the Muslim population is substantially high are Murshidabad, Malda, North Dinajpur, South 24 Parganas and Birbhum. There are a large number of Muslim voters in the East and West Burdwan districts, North 24 Parganas and Nadia as well.  Muslim voters of these areas have been the prime factor for influencing directly on nearly 60-70 seats. Political experts say that the BJP and the AIMIM benefit each other mutually by the kind of politics they do.  AIMIM’s aggressive minority politics certainly suits BJP’s aggressive Hindutva narrative. Therefore, Owaisi’s entry cannot be considered negligible. It may directly damage 60 to 70 seats of TMC which may go against the anticipation of political strategist Prashant Kishor to stop the BJP to less than three-digit numbers. BJP has a further advantage over TMC’s anti-incumbency of ten years that certainly goes in their favour. Besides, TMC’s tall leaders like Mukul Roy and Suvendu Adhikari, etc have joined hands with the BJP which is another setback for Banerjee.

Hence Kishore’s predictions sound wishful in the emerging political scenario and the BJP might consequently get the benefits of Owaisi’s entry and may even succeed in getting a good number of seats. The TMC looks uncomfortable with the rise of the BJP and with the entry of Owaisi because the minority vote bank was the key factor behind Banerjee’s landslide victory over the CPI(M)-led Left Front. Now she has a big challenge to defend herself against the well-organised tactical political attack from the BJP. 

There is a clarion call for Banerjee to wake up as the BJP is roaming in the state like a ravenous lion. At this juncture, even a single mistake may uproot her from West Bengal as has happened to the CPM. Therefore, having realised the political dynamics well she should now ask the Congress and the Left Front to join hands against the BJP. West Bengal is likely to witness a fierce political battle in the coming assembly election. West Bengal, along with Tamil Nadu, Kerala, Assam and Puducherry,  are likely to go to the polls in March-April.

(The writer is an educationist and faculty member of King Abdul Aziz University, Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. The views are personal. He tweets at @asiframeez and can be contacted at asiframeez@gmail.com)

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