Kolkata: The last year of the second term of the Trinamool Congress (TMC) government in West Bengal is proving to be the most challenging one for TMC supremo and chief minister Mamata Banerjee. What is, perhaps, more politically significant is that for the first time in the nine years of her chiefministership, the Opposition has been able to corner her on her “I, me and my-centric” functioning and politics at a time when the state is facing huge challenges, be it COVDI-19 or one of the worst cyclonic storms, Amphan, which ravaged parts of the state.
When it comes to tackling COVID-19, Kerala’s success in the battle against the pandemic and the effective role silently played by its health minister K K Shailaja has blunted TMC’s loud claim that Banerjee’s leadership in the crisis had “stood out”. This, when she has had a measure of success in getting public acceptance of her charge that the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and Narendra Modi-led Centre were out to discredit her and create hurdles for her government by denying funds that was legitimately West Bengal’s. She also accused BJP and the Centre for “deliberately doing this” with an eye on the Assembly elections due in April next year.
What queered the pitch for the TMC supremo was that the Central teams that visited the state pointed out many deficiencies in the treatment facilities, and the state government had no convincing answers to why the number of COVID-19 cases as also deaths, were increasing.
As the situation started getting more delicate for Banerjee, the state unit of BJP succeeded to an extent in giving a political colour to her alleged “subtle attempts” to take a pro-minority community stand when the Delhi Nizamuddin congregation become controversial.
Moreover, BJP’s repeated charge that TMC had made money out the Centre’s scheme for ration free of cost, found many takers. In addition, the rush of migrant workers into the state served to add to the chaos and challenges for her government.
Then came cyclone Amphan, severely disrupting life in Kolkata and some districts, bringing to the fore the weakness of Bengal’s CM-centric administration. This reinforced the Opposition’s charge that Mamata Banerjee, with her “autocratic style”, was more interested in denying them their due functional space, especially with regard to relief work. This is despite the Opposition’s repeated offer for cooperation, first in the anti-COVID-19 battle and then for post-Amphan relief and restoration work.
The Left parties, too, got a chance to retort when the chief minister recently told the Opposition that this was not the time for “doing politics.” Some Opposition leaders with whomNewsClickinteracted, reminded the chief minister that whenever the Left Front government had to contend with floods and cyclones, she would indulge in low-level politics and term the situation as a “man-made disaster”.
One stark example of her hostility to the Left Front was visible when in the last week of May 2009, when the Left parties planned to undertake relief, restoration and rehabilitation in the aftermath of the large-scale destruction caused by cyclone Aila in the coastal areas, including the Sunderbans. The United Progressive Alliance-II government was in office then and Mamata Banerjee was Railway Minister.
As per a report carried inThe Economic Times, dated May 30, 2009, “Mamata Banerjee .... had asked Prime Minister Manmohan Singh to not provide Rs 1000 crore to the West Bengal government for relief work .... Reportedly Singh had called ... Chief Minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee to learn about the ... devastation, besides promising help to the state. The then finance minister Pranab Mukherjee had ... held a meeting in Kolkata. Mamata ... had justified her decision to oppose Central assistance by claiming that money transferred as ... aid ... would be diverted to the cadres of the ruling CPM”. She had also alleged shoddy utilisation of the chief minister’s relief fund.
Some Opposition leadersNewsClickspoke to said that despite the advance alert from Mausam Bhavan in New Delhi and its regional office here, the state administration was found utterly wanting in preparedness to cope with Amphan’s aftermath. The chief minister and her trusted political aide, Firhad Hakim, who was until recently Mayor of Kolkata and now heads the civic body as administrator, kept saying that all arrangements and safeguards were in place to tackle Amphan’s fallout.
But, what is being witnessed now is that after waiting for nearly five days, people are out on the streets, protesting the abnormal delay in restoration of electricity and water supply. The exercise for restoration and freeing the streets of large number of uprooted trees gathered momentum only after the Army was drafted. Here, too, the the Opposition’s charge is that the delayed decision to call in the Army only showed that Banerjee had failed to gauge the magnitude of the task. She took the decision on May 23, but the scale of havoc warranted a decision latest by May 21 afternoon, the Opposition leaders contended.
Mohammed Salim , senior leader of the Communist Party of India (Marxist), said: “I have never seen the Kolkata corporation and the private sector monopoly electricity outfit servicing the city, failing to this extent. Mamata is usually aggressive in her stance whenever deficiencies on the state administration’s part are pointed out by the Opposition. After seeing people venting their anger and frustration in the streets, she is now counselling patience”.
Salim said during times of natural calamity, the erstwhile Left Front government involved people in relief work, right up to the panchayat level. The idea was to make people see for themselves what needs to be done and how can they supplement the efforts of official agencies.
“With the flow of money shrinking during the lockdown phase, the avenues for ‘cut money’ too has shrunk. That’s why you don’t see TMC activists at the site of the devastation”, Salim alleged.
Somen Mitra, President of West Bengal Pradesh Congress Committee, said: “We agreed with her when she said this was not the time to play politics. We strongly feel it’s a national disaster. There is so much of disruption and damage. The Centre has to give much more than Rs 1,000 crore committed by Prime Minister Modi,” adding that the Opposition would cooperate with the state government in relief, restoration and rehabilitation work.
Instead, Mamata Banerjee was contradicting herself and playing politics, the Opposition leaders said. “She does not show minimum courtesy to the Opposition. Should not she have discussed the situation with and sought suggestions from at least Congress legislature party leader Abdul Mannan and CPI (M) legislature party leader Sujan Chakraborty, Mitra toldNewsclick.
Manoj Bhattacharya, state secretary of Revolutionary Socialist Party, said he had serious doubts whether Banerjee was an administrator at all. “People in 24 Parganas - North and South - have been “destituted”. They have had to go without food, water and electricity. Initially, it appeared the government does not exist in these areas. Then, she goes to an absurd extent when she says that CESC Ltd promoters had a field day during the Left Front regime. The truth is to the contrary; it has happened during her rule,” Bhattacharya said.
Swapan Banerjee, state secretary of Communist Party of India was equally scathing. “I have never seen this kind of unpreparedness in a crisis for which there was a serious alert about a week ago. May be Amphan has been more sweeping, but Aila too had posed a serious challenge and the Left Front government had made lot of preparations in advance. What is more regrettable is that other party workers are not being allowed to take up relief work”, Banerjee said.
Continuing the attack on Mamata banerjee’s administrative failure, Anadi Sahu, state secretary of the Centre of Indian Trade Unions, who was labour minister in the Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee government, toldNewsClick: “In May 2009 – the UPA-II government was in office. In the last week of May, Aila had caused extensive damage in 24 Parganas, parts of East Midnapore and Kolkata. The Sundarbans areas were badly hit. A few months earlier, we had withdrawn support to the UPA-II government. It was a difficult phase for us. But, we involved workers of our frontal organisations as also the general public for relief and rescue work. The administration tried its best to deliver. But, Mamata Banerjee then chose politics of vendetta, although she held a high office (in the UPA-II government)”.
The agency that then worked closely with the West Bengal government officials and with the state’s funding support was Sphere India. Whenever a natural disaster occurs, it prepares a situation report and identifies the quantum of immediate relief.
Vikas Gora, who then acted on a ‘Focal Point, Unified Response Strategy’, toldNewsClickfrom Hyderabad that the then West Bengal government’s handling of the Aila aftermath was “brilliant”, aided as it was by both mature politicians and bureaucrats.
Aila was most destructive between May 25-26 and May 28, Gora recalled. Asked about funding, Fr. Sarto, who was the convener of the inter-agency group for West Bengal (he is currently based in Burdwan), said as per the ratio then prevalent, the state government gave 40% and 60% was mobilised by Sphere India as contribution from a host of organisations.
The writer is a freelance journalist based in Kolkata. The views are personal.