Mamata faces headwinds, but she may sail through choppy Bengal waters. Corruption, law and order coupled with Singur – a ghost town today – weigh heavy on the mind of voters
Aditi Bhaduri | April 16, 2016
She still remembers that warm day in May in 2011, when the unimaginable happened and the bastion of the left rule came crashing down. One woman almost single-handedly achieved this feat. Sharbani, a housewife in south Kolkata, says she could not imagine such a day would ever dawn. For her college-going daughter Mou, that day had been awe-inspiring. “We saw Mamata-di walk, yes, walk all the way from the Raj Bhavan where she was sworn in to the Writer’s Building. She alone had put an end to the deadwood that the Left Front had come to signify in the state,” she said.
“I felt sheer pride,” Mou continued, “more than anything, Mamata Banerjee that day symbolised for me courage and determination. She did not achieve her victory overnight. She waited for decades, split with the Congress, formed her own party. She was jeered at but she was patient. There was that power and courage that she had exhibited. I felt proud as a woman.”
“It was only to be expected. Three decades is too much for the same alliance to keep occupying the seat of governance,” adds Sharbani.
But the change, the much-touted ‘poriborton’ (change) that Mamata and her Trinamool Congress had promised then, is yet to arrive for Sharbani and Mou.
Whether that courage and victory can be repeated five years later will be clear on May 19, when the results of the staggered seven-phased assembly elections will be out. But much of their enthusiasm seems to have dissipated.
Though a recent ABP-Nielsen poll predicts what has long been known to the people of West Bengal, that Mamata would retain power; but there is a strong Left surge. Combined with the seat-sharing arrangement that the Left coalition has entered into with the Congress, it is going to be a tight race.
“It’s not that she has failed,” says Sharbani. “Perhaps our expectations were too high.” It is this uncertainty that is perhaps the most defining feature of the polls this year in West Bengal.
“If you talk about change I have seen some,” says Manjira Majumdar, a writer of children’s books and a resident of Salt Lake. “Kolkata has become so much cleaner, it looks better.” But whether this change is the result of the Trinamool’s poriborton is not obvious. Her husband, documentary filmmaker Judhajit Sarkar, however, laments that poriborton is totally cosmetic. “Kolkata is beautiful and clean only in parts –and much of it is useless, like painting and repainting pavements and bridges blue and white rather than fixing them.”
Shanties dot the city, waste is strewn around, even major thoroughfares and pavements are taken over by hawkers and vendors of all hues.
“Nothing has changed except the ruling party,” says Sarkar. “There too, many of the cadres are those who were earlier with the Left parties. Their outlook is the same.”
But approval for the ruling party comes from unexpected quarters. A banking professional, who lives in Salboni in West Midnapore district which, just a few years ago had been a hotbed of Maoism, is impressed by the transformation of the infrastructure in these five years. “Roads were built, the Kolaghat bridge was repaired and traffic was regulated,” she says. It used to take her five hours to commute to Kolkata; now with the new highway it takes only three.
This observation is echoed by others like Sudeshna Sen, an executive with a five star hotel. “Throughout the state, infrastructural development work has been carried out and this is clearly one of the major achievements of the government.” She points out that in 2011, Kolaghat had a derelict general hospital, the compound walls were crumbling and animals roamed around on its grounds after sunset. That has now been transformed into a multi-specialty hospital where doctors are being incentivised to live on campus.
Dr Achin Chakraborty, director, Institute of Development Studies, Kolkata, concurs. During the course of a study the institute had undertaken for the state finance commission a couple of years back, he found visible changes as far as roads and infrastructure go, in Jangalmahal, in Bankura and the neighbouring districts. “What was most heartening to see,” he explains, “is that the panchayats were putting in all the extra funds they had into infrastructure development. This was important not just for the development itself, it was important because it reflected a mindset, which understood the importance of infrastructure.” This development had a huge impact on resolving the Maoist problem in Jangalmahal, areas close to Jharkhand, with large tribal population and extremely neglected and backward.
Roads mean connectivity and this impacted almost all aspects of life of the local populace. “Jangalmahal has been a great achievement of the Trinamool government,” says noted filmmaker Ananya Dasgupta, who teaches media studies and is a Trinamool activist.
However, these claims are offset by counterclaims made by the Left parties and their supporters. “There is total anarchy and loss of democracy,” says Rabin Deb, a senior leader of the CPM. “That is a major failure of the incumbent government.” He rattles off names of left activists allegedly killed by those close to the ruling party. He alleges that Mamata has Maoist support.
While that charge may need to be taken with a pinch of salt, the panchayat elections of 2013 in West Bengal did see a lot of violence. The Institute of Social Sciences (ISS), a premier autonomous institution that conducts research on local governance, carried out a study of the panchayat polls. Its report notes: “This election witnessed unprecedented incidence of violence in various forms – criminal intimidation, arson, physical assault, abduction and even murder – at all stages of the elections.”
But the elections effectively also brought to an end the Left dominance in the panchayats and hence in the rural areas. So while there may be disenchantment with the ruling party in Kolkata, loyalty to ‘Didi’ it seems is assured in the rural areas.
Parbati Deori, a native of Pathar Pratime in the Sunderbans, is married to Haripada Deori from Mednipore. Both husband and wife come from families engaged in agriculture. But because subsistence farming, the kind prevalent in the state, makes it impossible for people to depend on agriculture alone, Parbati and her husband both had to make their way to bustling Kolkata for a living.
Life was hard, Parbati tells me. She worked as a domestic help while he initially took up odd jobs, then worked as a daily labourer and finally learnt driving and now works as a driver for a businessman. Though Parbati and Haripada continue to live and work in Kolkata two decades later, it’s a different story for their daughter Tagari. She went to school and a couple of years ago, married a wage earner. But now they have made their way back to the village and live there with occasional visits to Kolkata. The reason? They are guaranteed work, food and healthcare in the village.
“The government gives us rice at '2 per kg, there is guaranteed 100 days’ work for all, the anganwadi centres are functional, and we can take the children there any time.” Tagari has found herself work in one of these centres.
Dr BD Ghosh, a senior fellow with the ISS who prepared the report on the panchayat elections, says that the singular success of Trinamool in the rural areas has been the successful implementation of central government schemes like MNREGA and the Pradhan Mantri Grameen Sadak Yojana.
But, in Kolkata, Parbati and her husband are confronted with the spectre of price rise. It is a headache for many like Susheela Dasgupta, a widow who lives on her husband’s pension.
“In urban areas there is disenchantment with the ruling party,” says noted film critic and journalist Shoma Chatterji. “In the villages, people do not have to face some of the issues that we do.”
For example, issues like corruption and law and order. The recent Narada scam – a TV channel’s sting operation that purportedly showed several high-profile Trinamool leaders taking bribes – underscores that charge. Manoj Mitra, a tainted party member who had been in police custody since December 2014 for his alleged role in the Saradha chit-fund scam, has been given the election ticket. The scam robbed thousands of people, mostly poor, of their savings. Many agents and investors committed suicide. That, according to sitting Forward Bloc MLA Ali Imran Ramz, is the plank of his campaign in his constituency of Chakulia in North Dinajpur district. There are no jobs, no law and order, and corruption thrives. In fact, law and order and unemployment are the main thrust of all the other major parties contesting in the state.
Robin Deb laments the lack of industry in the state. When I remind him that it was the Left that had begun the end of industry, he shoots back – that is not true. “Our leader Jyoti Basu began the industrial policy in 1994 and we are determined to resurrect industry in the state again.” He alludes to Singur, where Tata Motors were forced to pull back by the Trinamool and where farmers are still waiting, jobless, to get their land back. “It is a ghost town today.” The case is pending in the high court. While releasing the TMC poll manifesto Mamata again promised to get the farmers in Singur their land back.
And it is not just Singur. The Falta industrial zone wears a forlorn look too.
Incidentally, there is electricity in much of rural Bengal. Power cuts are virtually unknown. West Bengal has a surplus of power. “Because there is no industry,” says Dr Ghosh.
Nirjhar Mukherjee, a youth activist and a guest lecturer at Deshbandhu College, says that while infrastructural development in the rural areas has been meaningful in the urban areas they are just cosmetic. “But even these cosmetic changes have populist value.”
“Lack of industry means no jobs. Our children are leaving the city,” says Chandra Bose, Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose’s grandson who has joined the BJP and is contesting from the south Kolkata constituency of Bhowanipore. “Kolkata is in such a sad state. Just painting and repainting roads and pavements blue and white does not mean development. My constituency is so close to the chief minister’s residence, yet just one rainfall and there is water logging. There are shanties where people live in such inhuman conditions. The government has no land policy and no industry wants to come in, though she holds big events to woo them.”
The state suffers from a lack of investor confidence. It began with the Left rule, with very militant trade unionism. “We are trying to change that culture. There have not been any bandhs during the last five years,” says Ananya Dasgupta.
The TMC manifesto promises to boost industry, by setting up industrial clusters and corridors and revamping existing ones, setting up an industrial fund, and new ports to increase naval trade. But the manifesto also promises to take care of agriculture and “...farmers and their lands and ensure Bengal remains green in future”.
Dr Chakraborty says, “A whole range of medium and small industry can offer much employment opportunity but they are not promoted.” So people move into the urban areas and from there move out of the state. HMV closed shop, Dunlop closed shop, Haldia Petrochemicals downed its shutters a year ago. Even in Salboni, in spite of all the development it has seen, an iron and steel factory that was being planned by the Sajjan Jindal group had to be axed because of the government’s dilly-dallying and has now been replaced by a much smaller cement factory.
Kolkata, for instance, is becoming an ageing city with many youth moving out. Numerous training and business schools have also mushroomed but do not offer quality education. The collapse of the flyover in one of the busiest and congested thoroughfares only adds grist to the mill.
Another area of concern in the state is women’s safety. “The crime rate has gone up,” says a researcher in trafficking. “I have grown up in this city but I feel much insecure now. I hesitate to go out after sunset,” she says. Dasgupta conceded that crimes like the Park Street gang rape case – in which a young woman and mother of two was befriended by a group of men in a nightclub and then raped in a car – and the nun’s rape case – in which a convent in Nadia district was robbed and a senior nun was raped by the robber who turned out to be part of a criminal gang from Bangladesh – happened under the TMC’s watch. But adds, “These are very regrettable but it’s not that such things did not happen earlier.”
Kakoli Ghosh Dastidar, a TMC national secretary and sitting MP, stoutly defends the government. “The number of FIRs has gone up drastically. More women and girls feel confident to report crimes against them. ”
The National Crime Record Bureau (NCRB) data, however, reflects a rise in crimes against women in the state. West Bengal fairs poorly on this parameter. It is a state with one of the highest number of trafficked and disappeared women.
The TMC manifesto promises ‘zero tolerance’ towards crimes against women. It has also fielded more women candidates this time – 45 instead of the previous 31.
“It’s not as if the government has not tried,” says Indranil Banerjee, an engineer and Kolkata native who has just shifted back to the city after spending decades in Bengaluru. “But it inherited a collapsing state and a certain image which it has not been successful in getting rid of. Mamata herself is clean and leads a simple lifestyle but she is surrounded by corrupt people. And because of corruption, crime thrives.”
Allegations of playing vote bank politics and minority appeasement by the incumbent government are often heard. At the same time a recent report titled ‘Living Reality of Muslims in West Bengal’, co-produced by Nobel laureate Amartya Sen’s Pratichi Institute and Association SNAP, claims that Muslims in West Bengal are poorer than other communities since most of them live in rural areas.
Dastidar refutes these allegations. “What we are trying to do is to give a level playing field to backward communities – the minorities, the scheduled castes and tribes, the backward classes, and the Dalits. We are trying to bring them forward. This is not appeasement...it is for all people who got left behind for the last 34 years... Jangalmahal is an example, where left wing extremism had flourished for so long previously.”
The party manifesto promises a slew of measures for minority communities.
That exactly is the point, Bose contends. Appeasement has nothing to do with empowerment of communities. “It just encourages things like crime when the police are asked to look the other way when some hoodlums are found to be riding motorbikes without wearing helmets, just because they belong to a certain community.”
Senior journalist Subir Bhaumik contends: “They have not promoted Islamisation but by trying to build a dedicated Muslim vote bank, they have backed very controversial and even anti-national Muslim elements. The Bengali Muslims have not really backed Mamata – 2014 Lok Sabha polls proved that.”
Still, Banerjee did give her consent to the three-decade-long land boundary agreement with Bangladesh, where territorial enclaves were exchanged between West Bengal and Bangladesh. The state government’s nod was mandatory and this agreement was a major foreign policy triumph for the Narendra Modi government.
And this gives rise to allegations of another kind: a tacit agreement under which BJP downsized its campaign in West Bengal in exchange for TMC support in the Rajya Sabha for major legislations.
This has disenchanted many BJP sympathisers in the state where the party never really had a foothold. But the downfall of the Left coupled with unease at the incumbent government did make people receptive to the Modi wave during the 2014 parliamentary elections. In a by-election, the same year BJP sent its first MLA to the state assembly.
The buzz is that an undercover deal between the two sides is in place. Some of the support for the BJP seems to have dissipated and its supporters are moving over to the Congress-Left combine.
But for BJP leaders like Rahul Sinha, the party is still a major contender, enough for the Left to tie up with the Congress.
“We want to save Bengal from the Trinamool and we want to isolate the BJP,” clarifies Deb. “For the sake of democracy and secularism we have entered into a seat-sharing agreement with the Congress.”
“And if the election commission can ensure a violence-free election without rigging or booth capturing then the combine is sure to get quite a few seats,” says Ghosh. And since BJP is fielding candidates in all constituencies it is sure to eat into the anti-TMC vote.
The voters are caught in between. Judhajit’s most recent film ‘Kolkatar King’ deals with this theme. “Without naming names,” he says wryly. And then sums up the Bengali’s predicament: “We are living in a bubble, so out of touch with all that is happening elsewhere, how other places are progressing. It is a sad reflection of ourselves.”
Bhaduri is a journalist and researcher specialising on politics, international affairs and gender.
(This article appears in the April 15-30, 2016 issue)
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