Kolkata: Despite Assembly elections being four months away, West Bengal is already witnessing high-decibel exchanges between Trinamool Congress (TMC) supremo and chief minister Mamata Banerjee and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).
While the TMC is ready to fight tooth and nail to retain power, the BJP has made grabbing power in the state for the first time its Mission 2021. What stands out, as of now, is that for both sides, it is an exercise in follow-up meetings and non-issues marking their war of words.
In sharp contrast, the Communist Party of India (Marxist), which helms the Left Front, is quietly organising a series of protests against the new farm laws in continuation of the nation-wide agitations. Other Left Front constituents and the state Congress have been joining the CPI(M) whenever the situation permits them besides chalking out agitation programmes to be carried out under respective party banners.
The CPI(M)’s anti-farm law agitations has also targeted Mamata’s reluctance so far to get a resolution passed in the state Assembly against the controversial Acts despite her call for a united protest on the issue by all anti-BJP political parties. However, on her directive TMC activists did hit the streets. The Opposition urged her to get the Assembly convened for a brief session to pass a resolution and pointed out to her that Kerala, Punjab and Rajasthan Assemblies had already done it. Finally, on Monday, the chief minister accepted the demand.
An indication that the farmers’ cause is attracting more sympathisers in the state is discernible from the moral support pledged by a section of the civil society, including well-known theatre personalities and litterateurs.
Adding some drama to the evolving political situation was the unannounced on January 3 by All India Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen (AIMIM) leader Asauddin Owaisi. The Hyderabad MP held talks at Furfura Sharief, a popular Muslim pilgrimage in Hooghly district, with pirzada Abbas Siddiqui and announced that AIMIM would fight the Assembly election under the latter’s leadership. Interestingly, Siddiqui soon after announced that he was aiming at building up a united front for Dalit outfits, Christian groups and secular formations. It appears he has broken ranks with pirzada Twaha Siddiqui, who was the face of Furfura Sharief for long and is a known TMC-Mamata supporter.
This exercise by the Siddiqui-Owaisi duo marks the first concrete step to split the Muslim vote--a 27-28% share in the electorate—which has so far remained under Mamata’s monopoly. The tie-up with a local Bengali-speaking Muslim religious leader will help Owaisi to reach out to his target audience in areas with a concentration of Muslims, where speeches in Hindi or English would not help.
NewsClick spoke to Left Front and Congress leaders to get their assessment of the situation and what they thought were their tasks ahead.
State secretary of the Communist Party of India (CPI) Swapan Banerjee, state secretary of Revolutionary Socialist Party (RSP) Manoj Bhattacharya and senior Congress leader and Rajya Sabha member Pradip Bhattacharya lamented that non-issues, such as, caste, sub-castes, religion, sects, size of the plot at Visva Bharati where Nobel laureate Amartya Sen has his residence are dominating the ongoing TMC-BJP slugfest, in which the language used often borders on being slanderous. Mamata is announcing impractical programmes, such as, ‘government at doorstep’ and ‘government in the neighbourhood’, they said, adding that not a day passes by when she does not announce a scheme or two “for the benefit of the people”.
BJP is banking heavily on defections from the TMC and brazenly glorifying turncoats. It is also desperately trying to establish its Bengal connect, in general and appropriating Rabindranath Tagore, in particular. In the process, at times it is committing blunders, giving Mamata opportunities to beat the BJP functionaries with her oft-wielded ‘outsider’ stick.
Neither Mamata nor BJP leaders – Amit Shah and J P Nadda included --- are saying anything on issues that concern the livelihood of people, such as, job loss during the pandemic, lack of fresh employment opportunities, inflation, lack of development in vast stretches of the state inhabited by the poor and the downtrodden, farmers being forced to resort to distress sale of their produce to meet their urgent cash requirements and so on. CPI’s Swapan Banerjee said he has received reports that farmers are selling paddy at Rs 1,100-1,200 a quintal against the minimum support price of Rs 1,868 a quintal (plus Rs 20 as incentive if paddy is brought to the central purchase centre). The distress sale is mainly happening because of delayed procurement by government agencies.
CPI(M) leader and Rajya Sabha member Bikash Ranjan Bhattacharya is of the view that the tug of war between the TMC and the BJP shows there is little difference between them. Both are reactionary parties – BJP is virulent and TMC, maybe, a bit docile, he said. Defection is the name of the game for both and both have worked their way to becoming flush with funds, which they misuse to decimate their political rivals, Bhattacharya claimed.
“In our state, anti-incumbency is slowly manifesting itself and people have started showing their pro-Left inclination. Both TMC and BJP are trying hard to make sure that the pro-Left inclination does not become pronounced and impact the poll outcome”, the CPI (M) leader told NewsClick. Asked what he thought could be the worst-case scenario, Bhattacharya quipped: “A hung Assembly”.
The need of the hour is to change the direction of the discourse to people-centric issues, which is a tough call but has to be brought about, contended the Congress, CPI and RSP leaders while talking to NewsClick on how the conduct of TMC and BJP is vitiating the political atmosphere. This is the rationale behind their emphasis on mass-contact programmes through protests, rallies and conventions on issues that concern the people most. To gain back lost ground, the Left-Congress joint platform must convince the electorate that they mean business and they will be a credible alternative.
Left Front chairman Biman Bose said that they have decided to hold a rally at the Brigade Parade Ground by end-February or early March. By then, the seat-sharing exercise would have progressed and the joint platform partners would be electioneering in the constituencies. There are no hitches over the allocation of seats within the alliance, he said. Bose sounded optimistic that the rally at Brigade Parade Ground -- a venue where a gathering is always billed as a big event by West Bengal’s political parties -- will be the occasion for the joint platform to spell out what they have to offer for the state’s overall development. He also indicated that seat-sharing talks with the Congress would begin in a day or two.
Before the Brigade plan fructifies, the joint platform partners will march in a procession on the occasion of the 125th birth anniversary Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose on January 23. The TMC will also participate in this programme. West Bengal’s education minister Partha Chatterjee is a member of the committee tasked to chalk out the programme and oversee its implementation. Naren Chatterjee, state secretary of the Forward Bloc (FB), which obviously plays the lead role in the January 23 event every year, told NewsClick that BJP had not been invited.
However, both the Left Front and the Congress leaders concede that seat-sharing is a difficult job and dissentions in the Left Front have to be ironed out. FB is known for its strong anti-Congress stance for what they “cryptically describe as historical reasons”. RSP also has reservations about partnering with the Congress; but it agrees that ground realities cannot be ignored. Sources in CPI (M) and CPI hope they will be able to persuade FB to fall in line.
Meanwhile, BJP spokesperson Shamik Bhattacharya told NewsClick that the thrust of the party’s campaign will be restoration of democracy in the state. In the Mamata regime, all democratic norms have been violated, opposition parties have been denied functional space, discussions in the Assembly have been curtailed severely and functioning of the departments held by the chief minister was not allowed to be discussed, he claimed. “Corruption is rampant and even ‘Amphan’ relief funds have not been spared by TMC activists. The less said the better about syndicates dealing in building materials,” Bhattacharya said.
(Rabindra Nath Sinha is a freelance journalist based out of Kolkata, West Bengal.)