Kolkata: Trinamool Congress supremo and West Bengal’s Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee is quietly doing her ‘electioineering’ through significant administrative decisions to woo rural voters in general and farmers, in particular.
In the past five-six weeks, Banerjee first decided to significantly expand Kisan Credit Card (KCC) coverage and then to bring 100% of the state’s estimated farmer population of 72 lakh plus under the state’s own crop insurance scheme, Bangla Sashya Bima Yojana (BSBY), under which a farmer has no premium payment obligations. In the last rabi reason, the coverage under BSBY was 40 lakh or so. Therefore, a very sizeable coverage expansion is being attempted which, with Assembly elections about nine months away, can be considered a politically relevant move.
The premium being borne entirely by the state government contrasts with the Pradhan Mantri Fasal Bima Yojana (PMFBY), under which a participating farmer had to pay a premium of maximum 1.5% to 5% of sum insured for rabi and kharif cultivation for various crops. West Bengal, pursuant to Banerjee’s decision to be a step ahead of the Narendra Modi government at the Centre, withdrew from PMFBY from 2019 kharif season and launched BSBY.
There is scope to see a second political angle in the crop insurance coverage expansion. The CM is making it appear that it is the state government’s obligation to bring 100% of the farmers under coverage. The is because on February 19, New Delhi announced several changes in PMFBY, the most vital of which was making participation of loanee farmers availing crop loan and KCC facility voluntary from compulsory. This was done as farmers’ organisations and states were raising concerns over many issues, including claim settlement by insurance companies, Agriculture Minister Narendra Singh Tomar told Lok Sabha in a written reply.
The political angle can be stretched further – extension of the scheme without any premium payment obligation will particularly benefit farmers who do not possess land ownership documents and, therefore, do not get bank loans. It will also help those who till others’ land. It follows that a liberal view will be taken by the state administration of their cases.
The benefits of crop insurance can’t be ignored and even if the Centre’s action to make participation in PMFBY optional results in withdrawal from the scheme, it does not follow that the number of participants will not increase later, said N N Goswami, a former chief manager of erstwhile Dena Bank.
With the thrust on wooing rural people’s support at the hustings, the CM has also deftly persuaded the Centre recently to allow a politically important change in a scheme for piped water supply to rural households. She has not increased the Centre’s outgo on this count, instead she has increased the state government’s financial commitment and ensured that beneficiaries in rural areas get piped water free of charge.
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The scheme had envisaged sharing of the project cost thus: 50% by the Centre, 40% by the states and 10% by the beneficiaries. The state argued that as a matter of policy it does not collect water charges and, therefore, if it is to participate in the scheme, it should be allowed to bear the beneficiaries’ 10% share. Thus, it has to be on 50:50 basis between the Centre and West Bengal. New Delhi accepted the proposal.
It appears that Banerjee is being extra cautious this time round, given her party’s extreme disappointment with the results of the 2019 Lok Sabha elections, which saw the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) improve its tally to 18 seats out of 42 from just two in 2014. BJP did quite well in the western part of the state, known as Jangal Mahal.
Moreover, aggressive posturing in recent months by the saffron party’s top brass with an aim to give West Bengal its first BJP government in 2021, it seems, is not being taken lightly by TMC. In public, though, TMC leaders are not commenting on this issue.
Already, COVID-19 management has proved more difficult than what the state administration had assessed initially and Banerjee, in fact, tried to suggest that her administration’s management of the pandemic deserved praise.
As matters deteriorated and the Left Front and the Congress became vocal against mismanagement, the CM saw the writing on the wall and restrained herself. With the Prime Minister under attack from the Opposition for mismanaging the fight against the pandemic, BJP could not say much against the Bengal CM.
The migrant worker issue also proved delicate for Modi and, therefore, his party had to restrict its attack against Banerjee for her refusal to accept trains meant for their journey from work places and her description of the trains as “Corona trains”. But, the Left and the Congress targeted the chief minister on her doing precious little to alleviate their suffering. She moved very late and did little, they alleged.
The extensive damage and dislocation caused by Cyclone Amphan on May 20, of course, increased the challenges for the state administration but what was politically more damaging was the Opposition charge of corrupt practices resorted to by TMC activists in the distribution relief foodgrains and other materials. The charge forced her to caution the wrong doers and ask all those who fraudulently managed to get cash relief for damaged dwelling unit repair, to return the money. No information is available on the money returned.
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Be that as it may, COVID-19 mismanagement, inaction in the case of migrant workers and alleged corrupt practices of TMC activists in post-Amphan relief measures combined to add to Banerjee's concerns at a time when she would have liked to pay undivided attention to tackling the Opposition politically.
Alongside her efforts to retain and register support for TMC in rural Bengal, Banerjee has made many organisational changes – abolished coordinators’ posts, removed people facing corruption charges and bringing youths and middle-aged people to positions of responsibility. Nephew and MP Abhishek Banerjee continues to play a key role along with image-maker and election strategist, Prashant Kishor.
Commenting on Banerjee’s strategies, political analyst and sociologist Surajit C Mukhopadhyay, who teaches sociology at Amity University in Raipur, Chhattisgarh, thinks that at the moment TMC has an edge. “BJP has not been able to match the persona of Mamata. Both Mamata and BJP practice populism, but Mamata is more populist. It cannot be ignored that she is in control of Nabanna (state secretariat), which gives her more scope in this regard. BJP’s money power also cannot be ignored. But the misery of migrant workers and the absence of decisive steps have had a disruptive impact on their lives. This may prove a big headache for both BJP and TMC, may even cause a slight swing in favour of Left-Congress tie-up,” he added.
Mukhopadhyay thinks the position of the Left-Congress combine will crystallise once they are able to clarify what they can offer from their platform. “There are though faint signs, akin to signs of green shoots in economic recovery parlance, that the Left is gaining some acceptance. Better to say that it’s a developing story,” he told NewsClick.
Debasis Sarkar, who teaches economics and is a national executive member of All-India Federation of University and College Teachers’ Organisation, sees TMC, BJP and the Left-Congress combine at first, second and third position, respectively, “if voting were to take place today”. “But, as there is still time and given that BJP’s political ambition to gain West Bengal is becoming stronger, that party will try to manipulate the vote with its money power and corner TMC on the chit fund and other corruption issues. If the Centre remains in an uncomfortable position over mishandling of the pandemic and migrant workers’ misery, it will become desperate. Its tactics may become clear from January next,” the professor said.
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Although the Left is miles away from being able to create an environment for spontaneous public support, “the allergy about the Left seems to be slowly diminishing”. Left-oriented students and youths are registering their presence by stepping up social networking. “I see them once again creating, after a long gap, space for the Left. The Congress will gain if a split in TMC becomes inevitable. There will be large-scale desertions; deserters opting for either BJP or the Congress,” Sarkar told NewsClick.
Psephologist and political analyst Biswanath Chakraborty sees COVID-19 proving to be a major factor. Asked whether he sees any indication now that BJP may become a cause for worry for TMC and whether the Left-Congress tie-up may become a factor, Chakraborty said on the corona front, both the Centre and the state administration are “far, far away from comfort zone”.
“Mismanagement has caused anguish to people. If people’s problems aggravate, both TMC and BJP will feel its impact. The Left-Congress platform may then gain. But, if Mamata can improve matters and generate a feel-good factor, she will be better placed to fight,” the psephologist and political analyst told NewsClick.