WB: As Mamata Goes on Defensive, Non-BJP Opposition Taps Into Discontent
West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee. Image Courtesy: PTI
Kolkata: For the ruling Trinamool Congress (TMC) and its supremo Mamata Banerjee, the third term, which began in May 2021, is proving ticklish. In the first two terms, the rather steep decline in the fortunes of the non-BJP Opposition enabled Banerjee to have her way, both in administering the state and running party affairs.
The rise of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), seen in the 2019 Lok Sabha election and 2021 Assembly election, did not dent her authority, as despite the uptick in its fortunes, the failure to grab power, on which the Sangh Parivar brass had staked so much, left its cadres and leaders dispirited. They blamed the top BJP leadership for excessive intervention and failing to judge the Bengal electorate's psyche. Intra-party squabbles have weakened the party.
Nineteen months into the third term, changes in the ground realities have been surfacing. TMC has a sullied image, and Banerjee finds herself in a tight spot. Her trademark aggressive stance is practically missing. The alleged teacher recruitment scams involving, among others, TMC's education minister and secretary-general Partha Chatterjee, who was number two, have tarnished the party's image.
The continuing probe by the Central investigative agencies, in which over Rs 50 crore has been seized, has revealed the involvement of a host of senior education department officials. This episode may prove more damaging than the Sarada and Narada scams in terms of dimension and political fallout because of the determined protests by job seekers who felt they had been deprived of a fair chance for being selected as teachers because of the widespread malpractices in recruitment. The Chief Minister has not bothered so far to intervene, although the agitation has crossed over 600 days. Civil society activists, including those who were originally pro-Left but later became Banerjee's admirers, have condemned her attitude.
Anubrata Mondol, another trusted leader of the chief minister, is neck-deep in allegations of being the pivot of cattle smuggling, illegal sand trading, and acquisition of rice mills by dubious means. Investigations being conducted by Central agencies continue to yield information on how he amassed wealth disproportionate to his known sources of income.
The Chief Minister's generosity toward this highly controversial Birbhum district party chief can be gauged from the fact that she made him the chairman of a state public sector undertaking, with all attendant benefits. The Bogtui incident on March 22 last year in a Birbhum district village in which 10 people were charred to death and which is seen as a glaring example of TMC cadres' infighting over sharing the spoils of panchayat posts and contracts raised serious questions about handling of law & order by Banerjee, who holds the home portfolio.
Preceding this act of violence was the murder by persons wearing official uniforms in the wee hours of February 18, 2022, in a Howrah district village of youth student activist Anis Khan, whose political affiliation is not yet established. Still, knowledgeable quarters have suggested that Khan was anti-TMC.
Her management of dengue, whose incidence has risen abruptly in recent weeks, has provided an opportunity for the Opposition to corner the chief minister, who also holds charge of the health portfolio. The main charge of the Opposition is that the health department is extremely economical with the truth about the spread of the vector-borne disease and the number of deaths.
While several states have furnished data up to October to the National Centre for Vector Borne Disease Control Programme in the Union Health Ministry, West Bengal has furnished data till June. Dengue has added to the problems she already has on hand because of the nearly seven-month-old squeeze on the release of funds for the rural job scheme by the Centre, whose inspection teams have detected serious flaws and misuse of funds in the implementation.
In the eleven-and-half-year TMC rule, Banerjee's ministers and senior officers have seldom visited New Delhi to raise funds and projects. Banerjee herself skips meetings called even by the Prime Minister and Home Minister. West Bengal is often not represented at high-level meetings called by the Centre. But, now the state government is not only assuring New Delhi of abiding by all rules and guidelines; she even sent her rural development minister Pradip Mazumder to meet Union Rural Development Minister Giriraj Kishore Singh to sort out the impasse, which has resulted in joblessness among a large number of job card holders.
The chief minister finds herself on the defensive because of a combination of adverse factors. Also, there are indications of
discontent among senior TMC leaders; too much concentration of power has stood in the way of effective supervision.
Does this mean the space for the Opposition, out of bounds for a fairly long time, is opening up? It is. Politics in West Bengal at the
ground level is witnessing signs of slow but sure changes. The Communist Party of India (Marxist) or CPI-M, the pivot of the Left
Front, has activated its youth and student wings, whose agitation programmes are seeing increasing participation. The Insaaf rally in the third week of September attracted media attention not seen in the preceding two years. District visits by state secretary Mohammed Salim soon after his elevation to the post have helped the party regain some lost space. The legal battles against the alleged scams by Rajya Sabha member and eminent lawyer Bikash Ranjan Bhattacharya and his team are also helping the Left politically.
CPI-M politburo member Ramchandra Dome told NewsClick: "Disenchantment with the TMC regime is surfacing even in the rural areas; one key reason being extortion and cut-money culture of TMC activists. There are signs of a rethink on the part of wage earners, bargadars and small traders who had moved en masse to TMC as Banerjee, forgetting her May 2011 pledge of 'no revenge but only change' provoked her party leaders to reduce Opposition parties to signboards. Even among Muslims, there is unease about TMC after Khan's murder and because of the chief minister's occasional but calculated words of praise for
RSS. Clearly, Banerjee is on the defensive. It is an opportunity we must tap into; we have definitely made a beginning."
Even the state Congress sees some positive change. In the last two weeks of October, two Forward Bloc leaders – Imran Ali Ramz and Hafiz Alam Sairani of Cooch Behar and Murshidabad districts, respectively, and who have to their credit victories in Assembly elections – joined Congress, prompting senior Congress leader Manoj Chakkravorty to say, "We can't recollect when was the last time that senior political leaders of other parties had joined our party."
There are hints of some more leaders In Murshidabad and Makda returning to the Congress fold.
Senior AITUC leader Debasis Dutta, who heads the outfit's jute union, confirmed to NewsClick that they find people disillusioned with TMC rule. They include Muslims too.
"Tolabaazi, syndicate raj, teacher recruitment scams, recovery of wads of currency notes, virtual halt in rural job allocation to people who depend so much on MNREGA work, and incidents of violence have all combined to dent people's comfort level with Banerjee's rule."
But, is the effort to capitalise on the discontent enough? Well, some beginning has been made. But much more needs to be done to connect with the people, particularly the working class, Dutta observed.
Ashok Ghosh, senior RSP leader and president of the United Trades Union Congress, too concurs with the assessment that discontent among people is showing up. But, it may be unwise to rush to the conclusion that TMC can be ousted from power easily. People will wait till such time an alternative is visible to them. More agitations by the Left to highlight people's miseries due to the TMC regime's misplaced priorities, lack of job-generating opportunities and failure to industrialise the state are called for.
For BJP, the priority is to set its own house in order. The new team of leaders tasked with strengthening the party has begun their work. The lack of a presentable face remains a key issue for the party. Implementing CAA 2019 is easier said than done in a politically conscious state like West Bengal.
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