Mamata Banerjee led Trinamool Congress(TMC) is facing a tough fight in West Bengal assembly election. The incidents happened in last five years shows, the TMC government couldn't live up to the aspirations of the people voted it to power. Many of the leaders of the authoritarian government are allegedly involved in scams and corruption issues.The Saradha chitfund scam and Narada Sting operation show the level of corruption in the state.
Newsclick interviewed Dr. Amit Sengupta to discuss issues related to the election. Dr. Sengupta said that, it would be erroneous to assume that TMC would sweep the West Bengal poll. The Left and the Congress giving a good fight to TMC. The general mood amongst the people reflects the TMC government’s failure in policies and governance. The BJP, which gained some votes in the last Lok Sabha election in 2014, doesn’t seem to gain any more this time. He said, there is a muted alliance between TMC and BJP as far as the parliamentary affairs are concerned.
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Prabir Purkayastha (PP): Hello and welcome to Newsclick. Today, we have with us Dr. Amit Senguptas who has been following West Bengal elections quite closely. Amit, West Bengal elections have rather been disturbing if we look at the second day of the first phase where there seems to be a lot of violence and a lot of intimidation of the voters and so on. So what does it seems to indicate? Do you think that this is really going to effect the elections?
Amit Sengupta (AS): Well some would say that it was expected because over the last month or so the ruling Trinamul Congress has been under severe pressure of different kinds. There have been sort of clear evidence or what seems to be clear evidence of a number of senior party people taking bribes which have been part of the sting operation and has been widely shown across Bengal. There are also the allegations related to her party people being involved in supplying sub standard material which led to the collapse of the major bridge in Kolkata. So they have been on the defensive as far as public perception is concerned. Now the Trinamul Congress in the last five year has had a very clear kind of a role in trying to manipulate elections or rig elections in certain ways by creating an atmosphere of violence, intimidation etc. Now, this is the back ground, this was the history of Trinamul Congress which election commission knew about and there were number of promises made that and some steps also taken by the commission including removal of some key government functionaries etc., to ensure that elections are not marred by these kinds of allegations. The second day of the first phase on 11th April saw a number of incidence of intimidation and violence and some of actually false voting taking place in booths where opponent polling agents have not been allowed to enter or have been thrown out. What it points to is one the inability of the election commission to follow up on what they had claimed what they would do which is to ensure that the elections are intimidation free, people are able to cast votes based on their personal choices. What it possibly shows is the increase in desperation within the Trinamul Congress in an atmosphere where now the media and the general people are starting to speculate that may be the Trinamul Congress will not be voted back to power. So that sort of sums up of what we saw as an effect on 11th April when the allegation of mal-practice and violence was much higher on the order than what was saw on the 4th. On the firs day, there were incidences that took place but now in the scale it has take place now.
PP: The interesting part is that actually the media earlier did not report this in the earlier election which were taking place whether it be elections in the corporations, municipalities or the Panchayats or the Parliament elections as well. Both this time the media has played a relatively complicit roles and not really focusing on the kind of violence that was there. This time, some parts of the media has opened in talking about violence and intimidation and it is very quite different from what they have done earlier. Do you see also the change of perception of the media vis a vis the Trinamul Congress?
AS: Well, definitely the media is much much more hostile with the Trinamul Congress and concurrently much less hostile to the Left in particular than it was say five years back. So you had this honeymoon period with the media which lasted, it did not last very long and in fact, media has started within the six months or a year when Trinamul Congress come into power of starting to report of various incidence the people in Trinamul Congress in embroiled in including the cases of rape, cases of intimidation cases of harassment etc. and then the Sharda Chit fund scam which was reported widely in the media. As far as elections are concerned, the reporting was much more low key. It was not as if they were not reporting the ma-practices. It was widely known. It was being written about in the media. But not at the scale at which... in fact, things actually turned during the corporation elections two months back in Calcutta and the neighboring areas while there was wide scale intimidation and and it was not proper election at all. The fact that a lot of media personnel got beaten up who had gone to report also played the role in turning significant sections of the media against what the Trinamul Congress was doing. So yes, this time around there is a much larger level of the media playing a watch dog role and reporting incidence that takes place. What we see now was practically inconceivable even a month of a few weeks back. For example, even on the 11th, when we are talking about the incidents that took place of violence and intimidation but what is significant and what was not seen at that level at least for the last four, four and a half years is that in spite of the intimidation, huge number of people who are obviously going to vote against the Trinamul Congress not only came and voted but many of them were willing to face the camera and say that they were being threatened, say that they were going to vote against Trimanul Congress this is something that you would even see a few weeks back. So there is obviously a churning that is taking place and a belief in sections that this government can be defeated. So earlier when there was this belief that nothing is going to change, people will be silent, people would also go along with the current dispensation believing that they would have to live with it. Now, people are starting to say that, starting to think at least that may be things will change, may be Trinamul Congress can be defeated.
PP: But in a close election, which is what it still be what's happening, even a small percentage of votes, booths being captured, rigged and so on could have an impact.
AS: Sure, If you look at the opinion polls, again opinion polls in Bengal have rarely captured the actual situation. But if you look at the opinion polls, forget the seats that are being allocated based on the polls but the percentage of vote is almost the same for the Congress and CPI(M) put together.
PP: 44%-43% well within the margin of error.
AS: So everybody accepts today that it is going to be a very close election and yes, in a close election of this kind you can theoretically micro manage the system where you almost know how many votes you need to garner through unfair means. In many constituencies, it may be a few hundred or may be a couple of thousands. So that means basically that you need to concentrate five or six booths. Five or six booths means three thousand votes. So if you are able to manipulate 3000 votes, it can swing one seat either way. So yes, theoretically this even if the scale in terms of number of booths effected may not seem very high. But they still have the ability to turn the election in a different direction.
PP: So what do you expect over the next now that five phases or six phases which are there? Do you think there would be change what election commission would do. Do you see a possibility because election commission seems to have done what we call really I close my eyes and everything is well kind of spot. They said by and large the elections have passed off peacefully. Though the media has denied the statement of the Left and others have protested against it. Do you think election commission is likely to change the election or this is a pattern now for the rest of the elections?
AS: You see, technically the election commission has enormous powers. Now while supposedly an independent commission, there are several indications it tends to follow the directive from the party in power at the centre and this is what has speculated for a long time. The BJP is much happier having the Trinamul elected again than the Left getting elected back in West Bengal. If you look at the record of the Trinamul voting for significant bills which the government is interested in passing. Clearly there is alliance between the Trinamul, a tacit alliance between the Trinamul and BJP in parliament which means that it would be fairly stupid to believe that alliance does not extend at least under the table as far as elections in Bengal are concerned. But BJP is really caught in a cleft state. It is a very interesting situation in Bengal where the BJPs increase in vote share which was prominently seen during the parliamentary elections and they went up from traditional 5-6% to something like 17%. it is widely believed a larger, much larger proportion of that came from the traditional support that the Left had earlier received. It was really not really a vote for the BJP but more of seeing the BJP as a shelter because they were in power in the centre. A shelter from Trinamul Congresses terror and intimidation specially in rural bengal. Now everybody again including the opinion polls projects that 17% is going to come back much nearer the base 5% to 6% of the vote that the BJP has, which means BJP is interested in getting the Trinamul elected back then they should not get anywhere near the 17%. because if they get anywhere near the 17% that means that's the piece of the vote that otherwise could have gone to the Left. So on the one hand they obviously have a tacit understanding on the other hand, they need to be seen to be fighting the elections seriously so that people vote for them and draw away some portion of the vote that otherwise would have gone to the Left.
PP: Anti Trinamul vote might go to Left otherwise.
AS: So the logical thing for them to do is to posture on the ground during the campaign so that they can draw in the vote but at the level of for example the election commission ensure that the Trinamul has an almost free run in places where they are in a position to influence the election by rigging the votes. So that's the dual nature of the BJP which is reflected in the attitude of the election commission as well.
PP: So Attributing the fact that election commission is sort of closing it's eyes to reality which everybody has charged them with. A part of it is because of the kind of signal they are getting from the Centre and that's what reflected in this particular case of election commission not really …
AS: Absolutely, I mean yes, one can say that can not still make the election hundred percent water tight. It requires the use of the security forces of much much higher order. But they can do a much better job than what they are doing.
PP: Also the fact that the Central Security Forces are much more directly under their control. Even they have not been used adequately. They have not really made an effort to responds to the complaints. The fact that even the central observers could not go when requested and so on. So there has been a whole set of issues that has been there with election commission. Again, reported widely by the press and also the complaints of the Left as well as the Congress and even officially the BJP. So all these seem to indicate that there is a kind of a tacit willingness to have Trinamul rig at-least part of the election and looked other way.
AS: That's clearly what the BJP would want. I mean without any other evidence what is it goes to BJP's benefit is that Trinamul should come back to power.
PP: So what you are saying is an essentially the BJP has this dual approach to West Bengal elections that they would like to retain their vote share that will effect the Left votes you think in this case and help Mamata win and at the same time would like at least Mamta to be able to do what she has done in the last couple of elections in Bengal both corporations, municipal, panchayat as well as parliament elections.
AS: Yes. Except to I would again insist there is a countervailing force that is in operation now which we have not seen in the last four and a half years at least not anywhere in this scale of people actually mobilizing coming out and resisting attempts to rig the vote.
PP: So essentially, that has been at least the direct fall out of the fact that the two major opposition parties in Bengal have come together the Left as well the Congress and particularly, in North Bengal Murshidabad areas the Congress has been able to retain it's place unlike in Southern Bengal where actually it has lost it's place to the Trinamul.
AS: That's one area where the close if you look at the percent, the fact that Trinamul Congress, Congress and Left put together very near each other. But this is the fact that both the Left and the Congress are fairly strong in North Bengal. Means that the likely scenario is in most of the seats in North Bengal the Left and the Congress nominees will win with large margins. But in South Bengal because the Congress is a much weaker force there the contest will be much closer. So in vote percentage what is being speculated and it is not entirely something that is out of the realm of imagination that the Trinamul will end up with a vote percentage that is lower than that of the Congress and the Left and yet have a higher number of seats. I mean one of the scenario that is being discussed at the moment.
PP: So a very close election even to call even otherwise with the added element of rigging of selective areas booths and so on even more difficult to predict.
AS: Yeah, I mean if it was six months back with reports of this kind of rigging one would have said that Trinamul is getting away this. This time, it is not possible to see that. It seems like a close election.
PP: The fact that people have come out in spite of this and hopefully will come out means elections still remain in the balance. Thank you very much Amit. We hope to discuss this issue with you as the other phases takes place. Thank you very much.
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