As Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar’s statue was vandalized in Kolkata on Tuesday in a shameful display of thuggery and random violence, it revealed the unhappy truth about West Bengal politics. That violence is on tap, and goons are a fungible commodity. They were the “cadres” during CPI(M)’s tenure, after 2011 they moved to do the bidding of the TMC. In this election season, they have worked for both BJP and TMC in competitive violence. Equally unhappily for the average citizen, if Bengal ever votes BJP, the same goons will be theirs to use.
In this last phase of elections, the stakes have never been higher for Mamata Banerjee defending the Bengal citadel from the relentless march of BJP and the BJP’s burning ambition to break into a market that they have little love for.
Trinamool Congress reckons Kolkata and its suburbs should be easy pickings during this last phase. But, as BJP president Amit Shah’s massive roadshow on Tuesday showed, it won’t be without a fight. nine constituencies go to the polls this Sunday — Basirhat, Barasat, DumDum, Kolkata North, Kolkata South, Jadavpur, Diamond Harbour, Mathurapur and Joynagar. While the CPI(M) expect to put up a fight in Jadavpur (Bikash Bhattacharya) and is slated to be runner-up in Diamond Harbour, where Mamata Banerjee’s infamous nephew rules the roost. Congress is barely in the running. Its a visceral battle between Mamata and Modi.
Mamata Banerjee recognizes the danger that the BJP poses. It’s the only rising political force in the state, where traditional parties like Congress and CPI(M) are merely footnotes this time. She has pulled out all stops to attack, block and counter the BJP, using every state machinery at her command. The BJP, no stranger to tough politics, have joined the battle squarely.
Voter intimidation and violence has been rampant. People have reported receiving midnight knocks on the door to remind them of their correct polling duty. In some of the more rural areas, wives receive white sarees to indicate their men may not return home alive if they voted any other way. Political workers told TOI that the rigging pattern was slightly different. TMC workers are reportedly targeting specific Assembly segments for the exercise.
Mamata’s TMC is largely believed to net the bulk of West Bengal’s 42 seats, but it won’t come easy. And, as elections come to a close, her pain points are showing through.
At the top of these is rampant corruption, particularly at the retail level. In all conversations “commissions” come up within the first minute. Bribery and corruption was practised by the Left Front government as well, but the TMC government has made it a routine exercise. Somen Mitra, the state Congress chief told TOI, “The bribe rate for a primary school teacher is Rs 10 lakh. Admission to schools and colleges comes with a price tag. The chief minister recently told her party workers in a meeting, ‘you can go ahead and “collect”. But you have to give me75 per cent of that collection.’ She just legitimized corruption.” The personification of this corruption is her nephew, the powerful Abhishek Banerjee, who is the candidate in Diamond Harbor.
The only redeeming feature during this violence-ridden election campaign has been the huge presence of central security forces. In many polling booths, election officers have refused to open without central forces on duty. For the last phase, more forces have been despatched.
The 2018 panchayat elections, which TMC swept and BJP came second, constitutes a real low point for Mamata. With 36 per cent politically aware people denied the right to cast votes, the open aggression has gone down very badly with a population that values its vote. “We can go without food and water, but how can our right to vote be denied?” demanded Nemai Mondal in Rajarhat.
Kolkata is variously described as a “vacation economy” and a “festival economy”. “Every festival comes with extra holidays,” says a teacher. Durga Pujas are a week-long holiday, and every other festival in the Bengali calendar is another. That leaves fewer working days, but happier families. Mamata doubled down on Hindu pujas after attracting flak for her decision to pay salaries to imams and muezzins. Within Bengal, “para” (neighbourhood) clubs of young men get Rs 2 lakh in “donation” from the TMC. BJP sources say in these clubs, after the carrom board the money is spent on a lot of the good life — one of West Bengal government’s top revenue sources is excise duty. Go figure.
As for the BJP, they don’t have a local organization or local leadership to speak of. Only Modi is carrying them through. They may have shed the “Marwari party” tag, but let’s face it, they estimate success from the non-Bengali voter. That has to change if they want a future in Bengal. Moreover, the leadership of the party appears to look at West Bengal like its a non-Hindi Bihar. The minute Amit Shah says “Ravindranath Tagore” in his speeches, you yawn. It is possible most BJP leaders heard about Vidyasagar after his statue was broken.
Mamata’s anger is rooted in the fact that the BJP is playing the long game – she worries that at some point, BJP will learn Bengali and the Kolkata intellectual may switch loyalties like they did from the CPI(M) to her. Unlike in most other states, intellectuals still sway opinion in West Bengal. Therefore, the vandalism of Vidyasagar’s statue, whether the BJP admit it or not, will affect public opinion against them. Don’t laugh, but Mamata has opened over 40 colleges in the past few years. Many need infrastructure, staff, faculty even students — but in small towns and suburban centres, they are a point of pride.
Is Bengal at an inflexion point? It’s difficult to say, but the average Bengali, normally quick to defend Bengal, Bengaliness and everything in between, now meekly admits the parlous condition of the state. West Bengal now sees a lot of incomes from remittances, largely from other parts of the country as semi-skilled labour from Bengal venture outside for jobs. Nevertheless, to be fair to Mamata Banerjee, she has unshackled investment and industry in West Bengal, which, after 34 years of Left Front’s communism, is a breath of fresh air.
Whatever the final outcome of these elections, in West Bengal, the real battle is shaping up for the Assembly elections in 2021. That will be the battle for the soul of Bengal. This is a warm-up.
DISCLAIMER : Views expressed above are the author’s own.