Millennium Post

Celebrations galore

On a bright and sunny Friday afternoon, Mamata Banerjee took oath as Chief Minister of West Bengal for the second time. The swearing-in ceremony took place at the historic Red Road in Kolkata. While selecting the venue, Banerjee had said: “It is the government of the masses and so we will take oath on the road.” To the uninitiated, swearing-in ceremonies are usually held within the official confines of the Raj Bhavan. The choice of a popular road as the venue was a clear deviation from tradition, but symbolic of what Mamata represents—the common man. For those who have been living under a rock, the Mamata Banerjee-led Trinamool Congress won 211 out of 294 seats, with a vote share of 45 percent, in the recent Assembly elections. 

This is even better than the party’s performance in the last Assembly elections, where it won 184 seats with a 39 percent vote share. The results were never in doubt, despite a concerted campaign by opposition parties and certain media houses to undermine the TMC government. The people have reposed their faith in Mamata once again. During her first term, the Chief Minister worked towards fulfilling the basic needs of the common man. Despite the real mess left behind by the erstwhile Left Front government, the TMC-led administration has taken the state’s GDP growth rate to well above the national average. Contrary to the outside perception, which is often ignorant and politically biased, the state is performing better than most Indian states. 

Moreover, the positive changes brought about by the TMC government have been visible to the electorate, especially in the rural areas. In a detailed data analysis of the recent Assembly election results in West Bengal, Gilles Verniers, a professor of political science at Ashoka University, noted a rather interesting pattern in the recent poll outcomes across Bihar, Tamil Nadu, and West Bengal. “The victory of the Trinamool, just like the victory of the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam in Tamil Nadu or the victory of Nitish Kumar at the head of the Grand Alliance in Bihar six months ago sends the signal that parties that have a strong ground presence, and provide access to tangible resources through state policy and local patronage networks, are more likely to win elections than national or state-based parties who remain aloof from voters’ daily concerns,” he said. “It clearly indicates that voters expect a return from their support. Parties that are unable to portray that role or who fail in that role are the ones to be punished by the voters regularly.” With over two-thirds of the seats and almost half the vote share, it is evident that the people of West Bengal are very confident of greater returns this time after the performance of the previous TMC administration. 

On the question of visible changes, greater urban-rural connectivity comes to mind. Data from the Union Ministry of Statistics and Programme Implementation (MOSPI) states that there has been a significant surge in the construction of roads connecting rural areas. Under the TMC government, it has been development with a human face. When politicians talk about development, social justice often takes a back seat. Not with a TMC-led administration. On education, for example, the Sabuj Sathi, a government scheme to distribute cycles to students from classes 9 to 12 is very popular in rural West Bengal. The Kanyashree scheme — education stipends for girls, including a one-time payment of Rs 25,000 at the age of 18, provided the beneficiary continues to study — has been a roaring success. Besides education, the TMC government has also sought to address the problem of hunger, which continues to afflict vast swathes of this country after consecutive years of drought. 

Earlier this year, the government announced the Khadya Sathi scheme, which aims to ensure that 70 lakh people in the state get subsidised food and cereals at half the market price while over 7 crore people would receive 5 kg of foodgrain every month at Rs 2 per kg. The scheme has targeted the “poor and very poor”, many of whom who aren’t covered under the National Food Security Act (NFSA). While the apex court slams the Uttar Pradesh government for not implementing NFSA, the TMC administration not only implements it but also goes a step further. How does it manage to fund all these “populist” schemes? Observers and commentators often reduce politicians to certain attributes. The qualities often attributed to Mamata Banerjee are her perceived street doughtiness and “left-wing” populism. However, one of the hallmarks of the Mamata government has been its ability to strengthen the state’s fiscal framework, which is one of the hallmarks of a competent administration. In the past five years, the TMC government has doubled tax revenue in West Bengal, which, in turn, has meant more money for her pro-people schemes. There is little doubt that increased social sector spending, which is primarily aimed at the common man, is what won her these elections. Recent reports indicate that social sector spending has tripled in the past four years under the previous Mamata government.

Moreover, unlike various state governments, West Bengal has also done exceptionally well to leverage the benefits of centrally-sponsored entitlement schemes. In the past four years, for example, West Bengal has been one of the leading states in generating labour from the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee scheme. Another feather in the cap is its record on the construction of toilets and the reduction in open defecation. For farmers, the TMC government introduced crucial land reforms, which included giving rights to sharecroppers for the land they tilled and the scrapping of the state’s Special Economic Zone policy. As this newspaper reported, the government’s decision not to repeal the land ceiling act in the interest of farmers annoyed certain pro-industry lackeys. Another term for the TMC should mean more of the same—pro-people policies. However, unlike what certain sections have suggested, it will not be at the cost of industry. After the Left Front government's disastrous attempts at industrialisation, the TMC has picked up the pieces and gradually brought industry back into West Bengal.

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