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Beyond the Tangled Mess: Bengal Elections

“Khela Hobe, Bhoyonkar Khela Hobe '' was the outcry by the political parties in the state of Bengal, as the Election Commission announced dates for the assembly elections on the 26th February. What does it mean? It means that the game is on, and with full rigor. Indeed it is, as we see rallies, allegations, and promises each passing day. It is not just the 294 seats at stake. One party eyes a win to stomp the east and mark their presence for the first time, while one does so to consolidate its position and possibly go for a bigger piece of cake in the next. The stage is set for the West Bengal assembly elections, and soon we will know who would be responsible for making it ‘Sonar Bangla’ once again. As tempers flare and the paradigm shifts, time and again, it is the right time to have a little glance; first at the leftist political history of Bengal, and then at what factors will decide which side the scale tips this time.

Jyoti Basu and the CPI(M)

A person who was neither an economic nor a financial giant, an individual who neither possessed eloquence or charm, there was nothing out of the ordinary when it came to Jyoti Basu, and yet he stormed to power in 1977 becoming the Chief Minister of West Bengal. His tenure as Chief Minister lasted 23 years, earning him the tag of the second longest-serving CM in the country. The Communist Party of India (Marxist) went to govern for another 11 years. There has been a lot of furor and controversy about this stint over these 34 years of the CPI-M, often remembered as the last true bastion of communism.

To start, Basu brought in major land and farm reforms. He earned the farmers’ support by handing over plots to over a million small farmers, along with minimum wages for agricultural laborers. His time as Chief Minister is also defined by the establishment of separate departments for the youth, and revitalized roles for widows and the unemployed in the state. CPI-M, boastfully claims that during their reign the state ranked 4th in industrial development, as a result of 2531 industrial units. Furthermore, there is the claim that their governance brought in a humongous amount of investment, nearing close to 65686 cr, which consequently led to the creation of 2.98 lakh jobs. However, despite the socio-economic changes introduced by the government, one particular policy that reformed governance at the grassroots level was the panchayat system and the strength it gained under the CPI- M. The political importance of this restructured system of grass-root governance is evident through the often chanted slogan, “yaha panchayat hi chalti hai, MLA vagera nah”.

On the flip side, not all was good with the state, as an array of socio-economic problems overshadowed the much-acclaimed good deeds. Poverty and backwardness were the norms, with 11% of the population facing starvation. Critics accuse the state of promoting militant trade unionism, leading to the closure of thousands of industrial units. Elaka Dhokol, meaning territorial control, was the left’s tactic, as loyalists were given powers and privileges, and their relatives offered government jobs. In contemporary India’s political discourse, Bengal is often seen as a state marked with a brutal political past. The following claim has been substantiated by the numbers that claim between 1977 and 1997, 28000 political murders took place.

Rise of Trinamool Congress

Jyoti Basu, who had created a name for himself in Bengal politics, now saw a golden opportunity for himself to clinch power at the center. However, his ambitious journal to the helm of political power in the country was cut short by the party, when it decided not to join hands with the United Front. A decision that would soon be labeled as a ‘historic blunder’, by Basu himself.

He stepped down in 2000 citing health reasons and was ascended by Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee, who was a member of the Politburo of the Communist Party of India. Dark clouds loomed over Bengal, when the government in 2006, allocated land to the Indian industrial giant Tata Motors in Singur to set up their plant. Landholders were infuriated with this decision and massive protests followed, led by Mamata Banerjee. Tata had to bow to the wishes of natives and shut shop in 2008. 14 villagers died and 70 got injured in Nandigram in 2007, again over a similar issue of land allotment to a chemical company. The TMC sympathized with the protestors. Mamata’s plain white saree and rubber flip-flops guaranteed simplicity. With the Poriborton slogan in 2011, the TMC roared to power.

The Throne; 2021

Fast forward to 2021, the Bengal assembly election is getting as exciting and unpredictable as it can get. With the left and the Congress completely eroded, the BJP and the TMC lock horns as they go all-in for the title. At the macro level, the wave is saffron, and the media projects a BJP favorable outcome. But at the micro-level, the TMC seems to be the automatic answer for the natives.

The BJP won only 4.1% votes in 2011, and the Modi wave contributed to 17% in the 2014 LS elections. They did not pay much heed in the 2016 assembly elections and won just 3 seats, but their vote share shot up to 40% in the 2019 LS elections with 18 out of the 42 seats, one of the major points of contention that depict a shift to the right. The party has worked hard over the years, with the RSS, the VHP, and the Bajrang Dal making inroads since 2011, selectively organizing Ram Navami celebrations. They have gone in with all guns blazing, as all national leaders campaign and take digs, targeting political violence and the death of BJP Karyakartas. They once again count on Modi, who has targeted Mamata and nationalism. The BJP IT Cell has delivered content quite astonishingly. They have also managed to lure one of the biggest TMC leaders, Suvendu Adhikari, the Nandigram mastermind. He goes head-to-head with Mamata in the constituency, in what promises to be a nail-biting battle. The Matua community, forming 17% of the electorate, is being influenced in their favor on the grounds of CAA. Aagey Ram, Porey Bam (First Ram, then left) slogan looks set to resurface.

As for Trinamool, it comes down to the question - “is Mamata popular enough?” After a landslide victory in 2016 with 211/294 seats, there have been numerous talks. Some influential leaders have left, including deputy chief Mukul Roy who is now the BJP national vice president. Another major aspect that has constantly been exploited by the BJP, is the strength of accusations against the TMC, in terms of corruption and scams. There seems to be mistrust and perplexity amongst the top leadership, as honest hardworking leaders are stripped of responsibilities. Allegations of low-level corruption spring up, as people feel local leaders possess too much money. The pandemic exposed the reeling healthcare sector, and cyclone Amphan added to the woes. The relief was slow, and funds were allegedly misappropriated, which the CAG will audit. On the sunny side, BJP leaders have also joined the TMC. The CAA-NRC narrative has angered many, and TMC is quick to point. They also won the by-election to 3 saffron-clad seats. Prashant Kishor, the renowned political strategist has claimed that he will leave Twitter if BJP does not struggle to cross double digits.

For the administration part, Mamata revolves around populist policies. From a funeral fund to free treatment for congenital diseases, she has it all. The Swasth Sathi plan, pitted against the Ayushmann Bharat Yojana, has reached 76 lakh beneficiaries already. The Sabooj Sathi scheme to provide cycles, Kanyashree for impoverished females, Paray Paray Samadhan (redressal at neighborhood) and Duare Sarkar (Government at the doorstep; 11 state welfare schemes) are some, while the cash transfer initiative to school going has won hearts internationally. There has been a marked improvement in rural roads and bridges. Debt has come down, and SMEs don the state. However, unemployment and per capita income are still problems that persist.

The left is in tatters. CPI-M has just 26 members in the assembly at present. Still bitter by their 2011 loss, the party does not know who to oppose. Sitaram Yechury, their main face, said that to defeat the BJP in Bengal, one has to first defeat the Trinamool, but that is nowhere near for the CPI-M, even with the Congress. There is no youth leader to inspire. The urge to detest BJP in the national arena continues. Adding the communal angle, the CPI-M Congress alliance may cut Hindu votes for the BJP and Muslim votes for the TMC. More than 25% are Muslims in over 50% of the developmental blocks, and may well align with the Indian Secular Front or Owaisi’s AIMIM after his wonders in Bihar. Polarisation is at its peak. Mamata had introduced a subsidy for imams and muezzins which did not go down well and had to announce an honorarium for Hindu priests.

Thus, interesting days await. With the BJP leaders fumbling while speaking Bengali, TMC is exploiting the ‘Bargi’ (outsider) tag for the party. But it is also the very first time that the right-wing smells glory. A win for Mamata, facing 10-year anti-incumbency, could act as a renewed launchpad for her political career and maybe monumental in an anti-BJP coalition for the 2024 LS polls, but a win for BJP, who eye 200+ seats in 2026, would assert their dominance in the east. Bangladesh and South China markets, Abhishek Banerjee, and convoy attacks are more talking points, but the mandate from Bengal will speak for itself.



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