The high level of violence in West Bengal during the election campaign – far more than in Assam, Kerala, Tamil Nadu and Puduchery which are also going to the polls – can be interpreted as a sign of Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee’s nervousness about her party’s prospects.
Normally, there shouldn’t have been any reason for uncertainty. Her challengers are the hastily-formed Left-Congress combine and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which can hardly be said to have a stable base in the state. Therefore, it should really be a cakewalk for the Trinamool Congress.
However, if it still feels uneasy, the reason is no different from the factors which let down its predecessor, the Left, five years ago – an atmosphere of lawlessness spread by the rampaging Trinamool cadres and the fact that there has been no development worth the name in agriculture and industry.
It is the uncontrollable cadres, which once even made policemen cower in fear inside a police station, which has given Trinamool a bad name, especially in urban areas, where the party chief’s slogan of “ma, mati, manush” has been mockingly changed in public parlance to “ma, mati, mafia”.
After the collapse of a flyover in the heart of Kolkata, claiming 21 lives, Narendra Modi added the word, “maut” (death), to the “ma, mati” slogan.
To those familiar with West Bengal, the disturbances attributed to Trinamool near polling stations are easily recognized as part of an incendiary political culture which began in the state with the rise of the communists in the 1960s when they organized violence-prone two-day bandhs against P.C. Sen’s government and the gherao of businessmen when the Left itself came to occupy Writers Building in 1977.
To the hapless people of West Bengal, there has been virtually no respite since then. The quiescence during the three decades of Left rule from 1977 to 2011 was the stillness of a graveyard as there was no dissent or development.
It has been the same under Mamata Banerjee where even humour on the Internet with a tangential reference to her has brought policemen to the door of the “culprit” while her attempts to attract investment have fallen flat since the fear aroused among industrialists by her ousting of the Tatas from Singur hasn’t died out.
It is the realization that her promise of poriborton (change) has been seen as being for the worse by the urbanites which has made the chief minister speak in defiance of the Election Commission and her followers to run amok.
The belief that she has lost much of her earlier popularity has induced the two former adversaries – the communists and the Congress – to come together. They have nothing to lose, for both have been politically weakened by Mamata Banerjee’s combative brand of politics and their own inadequacies. But if they can now make some headway by exploiting the urban disillusionment with her, it can mark a process of revival for them.
But the possibility of gains does not hide the fact that neither the Left nor the Congress has a capable, let alone inspirational, leader. The former chief minister, Buddhadev Bhattacharjee, continues to live in “dushsamay” or bad times, to quote the name of a play he wrote when in power. It is evident that he hasn’t yet recovered from either the drubbing of 2011 or the internal fights against party hardliners which he carried out in support of his pro-private sector initiatives before they were scuppered by Mamata Banerjee.
The Congress, on the other hand, has been left with second-rankers after nearly all the senior leaders migrated to the Trinamool. Although the two allies still hope to gain from the anti-incumbency factor working against the Trinamool, they cannot expect to unseat her.
For all practical purposes, therefore, Mamata Banerjee may still win, but it will be a pyrrhic victory, for the euphoria she had generated five years ago as an honest, hard-working “David” who had wrested power by sheer grit and determination from an insolent and powerful “Goliath” has been dissipated.
Her victory or defeat will make no difference, therefore, to a state which is expected to remain mired in economic stagnation with unemployment making the youth cannon fodder in the hands of crafty politicians.
West Bengal will continue to produce fine poets, painters and films – Satyajit Ray would have been proud of some of the recent productions – but these are expressions of individual talent where the dismal political scene and middle class angst provide the artistes with the relevant material.
There has also been a revival of sorts in the restaurant scene, recalling the Calcutta of the 1950s and 1960s, as the city was known then. But that, again, is the result of individual enterprise.
The political class remains, as a whole, a burden and a curse.
By Amulya Ganguli