TMC comfortably placed in Bengal
Literally, the writings are on the wall. They are there all over Kolkata and West Bengal, also in banners and festoons. Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee’s All-India Trinamool Congress (TMC) has occupied nearly 80 percent of the walls across the state. It would appear that the people of Bengal have already given their informal verdict in favour of TMC to govern the state until May 2021. The unprecedented six-phase, seven-day Assembly election in Bengal – from April 4 to May 5 – announced by Election Commission to ostensively ensure free and fair polls in the state under batteries of central observers and police may have been welcomed by opposition parties. But the general public is upset with such irritating measures that also seek to downgrade their political maturity, question their political judgement and ability to participate in the secret ballot system.
Last five years of the TMC rule in the state may not have witnessed a surge of large industries after they were systematically driven out of Bengal by CPI-M and its Left allies in their very first full-term administration between 1977 and 1982. But during her first term, TMC’s Mamata Banerjee has done what the ordinary people of Bengal needed the most. They include metalled roads through villages, better urban-rural connectivity, tap 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, better healthcare and medical facilities, supporting village and small industries and self-help groups among many others. West Bengal’s GDP growth rate is well above the national average. Contrary to the outside perception -- often ignorant and politically tilted -- West Bengal seems to be doing better than most other Indian states. Massive real estate constructions around Kolkata and across other state urban centres with offer prices per square feet ruling often higher than those in Noida, Gurgaon, Thane, Pune, Bangalore, Hyderabad, Chennai and Vizag certainly indicate the improving economic health and spending power of Bengal. While large industries are yet to return to the state in a noticeable way, the agriculture and the services sectors seem to be doing very well.
The local public perception of the party’s ability to govern has certainly improved in the last five years despite a surge in political crimes. And, that is bound to reflect on the ballot boxes in the forthcoming Assembly election. Among the political factors that seem to be working in favour of TMC in the Assembly polls is the chaos and near absence of strong and reliable leadership in other parties, including CPI-M, Congress and BJP. Most CPI-M leaders have grown old and weary. And, a good number of them are physically less comfortable and mentally less innovative to face the energy-sapping campaign rigours of the Assembly election through the day temperature varying from 34 degrees to 40 degrees Celsius and humidity level at 90 percent plus. The West Bengal state CPI-M is still largely under the control of the old guards such as former CM Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee, former state Secretary and Left Front chairman Biman Bose and former Housing and Urban Development Minister Gautam Deb. Former state Finance Minister Asim Dasgupta has lost much of his clout after he failed to win even a municipal election recently. The official top CPI-M state leader, Surjyakanta Mishra, is a good man but has little hold over the party. If the state CPI-M contested the election alone, it could certainly lose more seats this time.
Can the CPI-M-Congress election alliance pose a threat to the poll fortunes of TMC and Mamata Banerjee? Hardly. As of now, the alliance is too loose to build a formidable political bond. The so-called “friendly” contests between CPI-M and Congress candidates in a number of seats have already made a joke of the alliance. The alliance may help the much younger and fitter state Congress leadership win, at least, eight to 10 more seats in the election this time, mostly at the cost of CPI-M. The participation by Congress president Sonia Gandhi and Vice-president Rahul Gandhi is bound to add colour to the Congress campaign. CPI-M's outside leaders are disliked by the party's state cadre since Prakash Karat killed late Jyoti Basu's chance to become Prime Minister, representing mostly a socialist coalition group in the Centre, almost two decades ago. Many of CPI-M's Left front allies are upset with the state party leadership as they were mostly left in the cold while the CPI-M colluded with Congress for a Bihar style (Lalu-Nitish) poll alliance to fight TMC.
Few in CPI-M and Congress agree that the poll alliance will noticeably weaken the public support for TMC. If the loose political alliance is able to hurt the election prospect of any party, it is BJP, which did unexpectedly well in the last parliamentary election in Bengal, appearing as the second largest vote catcher after TMC in a good number of constituencies. BJP has lost much of its face in Bengal after it failed to expose the alleged link between TMC and some of the large illegal chit fund operators, led by Saradha. Before Lok Sabha elections in 2014, top BJP leaders, including Narendra Modi, Amit Shah and Siddharth Nath Singh, had threatened to expose and book the corrupt businessmen and their top level TMC contacts in Bengal. Though BJP came to power in May 2014, the Central government investigative agencies failed to push the charges through in the last 22 months.
Politically, TMC is in a much stronger position now than it was in 2011 and 2014. The party has thrown an open challenge to the BJP government in Delhi, its anti-corruption agencies investigating into alleged chit fund companies-state government nexus as also political opponents CPI-M and Congress in Bengal by fielding its allegedly tainted former Sports Minister Madan Mitra, known to be close to Mamata Banerjee, as one of its candidates. An election victory of Mitra, still in jail, will severely dent the public trust in BJP’s promises and actions. Mamata Banerjee has tackled some recent senior party level dissensions by honourably accommodating those leaders in the party to fight the election unitedly. Professional poll stars doing pre-election sample surveys are cautious about forecasting post-poll party positions, this time. The sudden surfacing of the two-year-old Narada sting operation against some TMC leaders is clearly seen as a desperate opposition political ploy. Nonetheless, the TMC is aiming at an absolute majority in West Bengal assembly, again. The party supremo has the uncanny ability to influence party workers and voters.
(The author is a senior commentator. Views expressed are strictly personal)