FIGHTING FOR SURVIVAL
The Lok Sabha elections may be over but West Bengal continues to rage because of the turf war between the Trinamool Congress (TMC) and a resurgent Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP) ahead of the next state Assembly election slated two years from now.
The state has seen many incidents of political violence, with as many as 12 people from both parties losing their lives since the Lok Sabha polls began.
Even though political violence has become commonplace in the state, the recent upswing in such incidents along with a protest by junior doctors and a raging political storm over “cut money” has brought Bengal to the boil.
Ever since the BJP performed spectacularly by winning 18 Lok Sabha seats, up from 2 seats in the last poll, in the state where 42 seats were at stake and stormed into the Trinamool's bastion, the violence witnessed an upswing.
Both the TMC and the BJP are blaming each other for the violence. While the TMC alleges the BJP is trying to destabilise the Mamata Banerjee-led state government, the BJP claims that the Trinamool is fomenting violence in order to retain power.
Political analysts believe the stakes are high in Bengal because unemployment is high and many depend on the economic spoils of political parties for their livelihood.
According to the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) data, the state has topped the chart of political killings for many decades.
To make matters worse, earlier last month doctors across the state stopped working in most government hospitals after a brutal attack on two junior doctors by the family members of a dead patient at the NRS hospital.
The doctors said there was an “environment of fear” in the state, embarrassing Mamata who was already under the scanner for political violence amid the deteriorating law and order situation.
The strike lasted seven days and spread to other parts of the country where doctors joined the protests.
Then came the political storm over “cut money” which rocked the state and engulfed Mamata’s party in a corruption scam that was so far only alleged by opposition leaders.
While campaigning for the general elections, Prime Minister Narendra Modi had talked about the corruption against ruling party leaders at various levels.
However, his remarks were met with a barrage of denial and protests from Mamata and other Trinamool Congress leaders.
But four months on, 64-year-old Mamata has ordered Trinamool workers, who have taken a commission from beneficiaries of government schemes, to return the ill-gotten amount to the public.
Following Mamata’s warning, many people across districts laid siege on houses of many Trinamool leaders and members in panchayats and local municipalities, demanding return of the "cut-money".
The Trinamool leaders, who faced the brunt of the heat from the locals, denied the charges and instead accused the BJP of hatching conspiracy to "discredit" their party. However, there are reports of some TMS leaders returning the money to villagers after Mamata’s warning.
Violence broke out in districts where locals hurled bricks at the residence of Trinamool leaders accusing them of misappropriating money earmarked for government schemes.
According to party sources, Mamata also warned that MLAs and MPs would face consequences if their involvement in such corrupt practices was established.
Actress-turned-politician and party's Birbhum MP Satabdi Roy said Mamata should have initiated measures to stop the practice much earlier.
With the amount having reached somebody's home already, it would be "difficult to get that money back", she said.
Mamata recently said that 0.01 per cent of those in the Trinamool could be corrupt, and said she was trying to discipline her party workers.
"There is nothing wrong if I want to discipline my workers. But at the same time, no one can malign us without any proof," she said.
Under fire from the BJP, Mamata also reached out to the opposition Congress and CPI(M) to join her fight against the Saffron party in the state but the two parties rejected her appeal saying her policies are responsible for the saffron party's growth.
“I strongly feel all of us, the Trinamool, CPI-M and the Congress should come together against the BJP. [The violence at] Bhatpara is an eye-opener for the people of the state as to what happens if votes go to the BJP”, Mamata said while speaking in the assembly.
The Chief Minister, however, clarified that she was not suggesting that the three parties need to join hands politically. “What I am suggesting is that we can be on the same page with regard to common issues at the national level,” she added.
Political observers have repeatedly blamed Mamata’s policy of excessive Muslim minority appeasement for the BJP’s rise in the state. They believe the BJP was able to use Hindutva polarisation because of the TMC’s overt appeasement of minorities.
However, there was a strong anti-Mamata sentiment in the state as well. Mamata’s poor handling of people chanting “Jai Shri Ram” received a lot of backlash. Actor Aparna Sen recently warned Mamata that she could be digging her own grave with such incidents.
The ruling government’s high-handedness was also evident when a BJP worker was arrested for the chants along with a BJP woman activist who spent five days in jail for sharing a Mamata meme on social media.
Mamata is also grappling with defections as many TMC leaders, including MLAs and MPs, have been joining the Saffron party for the past several months.
As many as 18 councillors of the party and six legislators have joined the BJP already and more could follow before the state goes to polls.
To stem BJP’s tide, Mamata has roped in the services of election strategist Prashant Kishor as the party prepares for the 2021 assembly polls. Kishor, a vice-president of Janata Dal-United, an ally of BJP in Bihar, has successfully conducted election campaign strategies, the latest being that of YSR Congress in Andhra Pradesh.
He first shot to fame as the strategist behind the BJP’s win in 2014. He was also credited with Punjab Chief Minister Amarinder Singh’s victory in the state assembly elections of 2017 after the party suffered two successive poll defeats.
It will be interesting to see the changes Kishor brings about in Mamata’s outreach and the TMC’s image now that he has come on board.
If the Lok Sabha elections were a referendum on Modi, the Bengal assembly election will be a referendum on Mamata. Many years ago, Mamata fought a tough battle to oust the Left from the state, she now faces a major challenge from the Saffron party that threatens her party’s very survival.
However, if there is anything that impresses even her detractors, it is Mamata’s ability to not just survive, but thrive in the face of challenges.