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Riding on the development wave

The first phase of the crucial Assembly polls in West Bengal was held on Monday with Trinamool Congress (TMC) chief Mamata Banerjee facing the Left-Congress tie-up. In West Bengal, elections will be held on seven dates with the first phase having two polling days – the other being on April 11. The TMC looks well-set to secure another term in the State, following its governance track record through the course of five years. During her first term, Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee has worked towards achieving what the ordinary people of Bengal needed most—better urban-rural connectivity, water and electricity connections in slums and remote areas, intensive agricultural farming with improved market access, better public distribution system offering cheaper foodgrains to the poor, opening a number of new rural and urban education centres, improving healthcare and medical facilities, supporting village and small industries and infrastructure development, among others. Contrary to the perception set out by a partisan national media, West Bengal seems to be doing a lot better than most other States in the country. In the run-up to the elections, many attempts were made to destabilise the TMC. Allegations of corruption against the ruling party, primarily based on the dubious Narada tapes and the Saradha scam, were used by the opposition to gain traction among the voters. On the evidence available, it seems that the voters have remained firmly behind the TMC. However, it remains to be seen whether the Left-Congress alliance creates a dent in the TMC's overwhelming electoral appeal.

On the evidence available, the illusions harboured by opposition parties have been shattered on numerous occasions. In the civic elections held in April 2015, the TMC secured an emphatic victory, winning an overwhelming number of seats in the municipalities and wards across the state. The party swept across West Bengal, as the Trinamool scored 70 out of 92, the Left six and the Congress five.  For the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which had harboured high hopes of challenging the ruling establishment, it was a massive disappointment. It had failed to win a single municipality in the State. Prior to these civic elections, the two by-polls held in February 2015 saw the TMC retain both the Bongaon Lok Sabha seat and Krishanganj Assembly segment with huge margins. Many political commentators had seen these by-polls as a litmus test for the TMC’s popularity in the state following the arrest of key party leaders by the Central Bureau of Investigation in the Saradha scam, allied with murmurs of dissidents within its ranks. After relative success in the Lok Sabha elections and subsequent Basirhat South Assembly by-poll in 2014, the BJP was looking to consolidate its position in the state. The ruling party at the Centre was, however, humbled in both by-polls. Subsequently, in October 2015, the party scored yet another landslide victory in civic poll elections to Bidhannagar and Asansol Municipal Corporations and wrested Bally civic body from the Left Front. These victories have emphatically ensured that the Trinamool Congress’ hold over the electorate continues unabated. The margin of the victory could also be an indication of the shrinking political space for the opposition. Despite the best attempts of opposition parties and the Governor to stifle the poll process, recent results have shown that the voter continues to trust the TMC. Suffice to say, the sudden surfacing of the two-year-old Narada's sting operation against some TMC leaders was a desperate opposition political ploy. Data available in the public domain has emphatically shown how the Mamata Banerjee-led government has taken the State from the pits to relative economic prosperity.

Under the Left Front government, which had run the State for 34 years prior to the TMC, economic progress had come to a grinding halt. When the TMC-led government came to power, the fiscal condition of the State was in disarray. There was a huge debt burden of about Rs 2 lakh crores and the Gross State Domestic Product (GSDP) growth rate was way below national average. But after five years of TMC rule, West Bengal’s growth rate has risen to levels well above the national average, besides a steady rise in per capita income. During its tenure, the TMC government created employment opportunities for 68 lakh youths besides creating 98 crore man-days in the State. In 2014-’15, the West Bengal economy grew at a faster rate than the national average, as also did its industrial sector. Moreover, West Bengal was able to double its tax collection during a period of economic downturn. By making every registered dealer who has to pay tax worth Rs 2 lakh or more to make payments only electronically, the government has succeeded in increasing compliance and reducing leakages.  Greater revenue collection has, in turn, led to increased social sector spending. In a country, which celebrates the “Gujarat model” of economic development, the TMC-led government has always laid an emphasis on human development.  Despite the positive data available, it’s not merely about GDP numbers or the entry of big industry into the State. “Probably West Bengal’s most impactful and wide-reaching health success has been in reducing the total fertility rate, or the average number of children that would be born per woman,” according to a recent report by news website Scroll. “The state has a total fertility rate of 1.6, the lowest in India and approximately the same as Canada’s.” Under the TMC government, the State has also notched up the second highest number of villages declared free of open defecation. This column has often discussed the grave ill-effects associated with open defecation. Studies show that one in every 10 deaths in India is linked to poor sanitation and low-income households bear the brunt. The absence of toilets affects women and adolescent girls more. They are more vulnerable to harassment if they step outside to relieve themselves. To avoid harassment, women often reduce their intake of food and water, which can lead to digestive problems, malnutrition, and dehydration. Poor sanitation has serious consequences on their nutritional status. It also has significant, long-lasting repercussions on their overall, reproductive and sexual health. The State government has taken the lead in ending the scourge of open defecation. Suffice to say, these are only some of the TMC-led government’s landmark achievements in the area of governance.

Despite these achievements, elections in India are notoriously hard to call. But if the above evidence is any factor in how West Bengal’s citizens decide to vote, the TMC looks all set to secure a second term in office.
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