Poll warm-up in West Bengal

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Old 21-Sep-2015
Post Poll warm-up in West Bengal

AN early warm-up has begun for the May 2016 Assembly polls in West Bengal. Taking a lead, the Trinamool Congress (TMC) has geared into election mode ever since its April 2015 spectacular results in the elections to the local government bodies. The Saradha scam notwithstanding, sections of people were impressed how Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee converted adversities into opportunities by holding out an olive branch of selective support to the BJP for the passage of Bills of mutual interest. A clear fallout was a perceptible ‘slow down’ in the intensity of the CBI probe into the scam.

Next to take a plunge in the warm-up game is the Marxist-led Left. It embarked upon a big mobilisation programme for ‘abhiyan to Nabanna’, the Secretariat, on August 27, in support of flood victims and farmers. The police, using lathis and teargas, stopped the activists armed with brickbats and stones, from converging on the Secretariat. The ‘abhiyan’ has set in motion a series of agitations on issues like the hike in the power tariff.

In this context, it is relevant to recall the recent interview to the press by CPM general secretary Sitaram Yechury, indicating that the resurrection of the party would begin from the state. The strategy, chalked out in collaboration with the Left, has stressed the need for a reconnect with those who have either defected from the party or gone dormant in the aftermath of its defeat in the 2011 Assembly polls. The strategy would focus on ‘aggressive mobilisation sans destruction’.
The CPM would not remain a mere spectator to the highhandedness of the TMC. The objective would be to restore the confidence among those alienated from the party, which would like to regain its stature and clout.

Among other parties, the BJP, riven by internal bickerings over state leadership and tardy organisational growth, has gone through its ‘chintan shivir’ (September 10), chalking out a road map for the 2016 polls, under the leadership of state party chief Rahul Sinha. Post September 20, a series of agitations and programmes have been pencilled for the mobilisation of support.

The Congress, with dwindling fortunes, organised a tame show, taking out processions in Howrah and Kolkata on September 8, in protest against the worsening law and order situation. Important state leaders shared the same platform for the first time in many years. The Congress faces an uphill task of rejuvenating the party after it was shaken by its massive defeat in the 2014 elections, with a historic low of 44 seats in the Lok Sabha. It is now grappling with the idea of either going it alone or aligning with the Left.

In this backdrop, the TMC appears to be enjoying an edge over other parties in terms of resources and poll preparations. It has maintained its winning streak, romping home with comfortable margins from one election to another, since 2006. Its lowest share of votes (21 per cent) in the 2004 parliamentary polls shot up to over 39 per cent in the 2014 parliamentary elections. In contrast, the vote share of all other parties, except BJP (4 per cent in 2011 to 17 per cent in 2014), declined during this period. The CPM’s vote share dropped from over 38 per cent in 2004 to 23 per cent in 2014. A recovery from this huge deficit would be a challenge.

So far as the leadership of these four parties is concerned, there is no denying the fact that Mamata’s stature remains unmatched, working like a magnet to attract people across the socio-economic and political spectrum. The victories of TMC candidates, without any political credentials, in successive elections are a testimony. Mamata continues to remain a major voice, albeit with an authoritarian streak.

Hectic electioneering is going to be seen in the next three weeks for the two corporation elections in Asansol and Bidhannagar (Salt Lake) on October 3, after the reorganisation of the jurisdictions of the two erstwhile municipalities. The combative BJP, representing the Asansol parliamentary constituency (Union minister of state Babul Supriyo), has already launched its campaign. The CPM, on the other hand, is gearing up with full gusto in Bidhannagar to avenge its defeat in the Kolkata corporation election in April last. It would be crucial for the TMC to win both.

However, somewhat worrisome for the TMC is the undercurrent of resentment among a section of the Muslims (27 per cent of the electorate). As many as 15 Muslim organisations have planned to speak in one voice against the government for not taking minority issues seriously. What occupies the centre stage of the minority narrative is its unhappiness over lack of job opportunities. The Majlis-e-Ittehadul Musalmeen leader, Assauddin Owaissi of Hyderabad, has announced that his party will contest 50 seats. In the event of a shift in minority votes, the worst-hit will be the TMC, which, in alliance with the Congress in 2011, had reportedly enjoyed an edge over other contestants in 95 out of the 125 Assembly constituencies with Muslim votes as a deciding factor.

There is also disillusionment among a section of the intelligentsia towards the TMC. It is particularly perturbed over acts of lawlessness against teachers, media, women, etc. Of particular concern is campus violence, which has become a regular feature, with an urgency seen on the part of the TMC Chatra Parishad to bring all college students’ unions — over 475 — under its control before the 2016 elections. Attacks on police stations by anti-social elements with political affiliations have also dented the efficacy of the system. Uncertainty has discouraged investments required for the industrialisation of the state. Unfortunately, this would leave a legacy bereft of much hope for restoration anytime soon.

The evolving political scenario points towards ground realities that favour the TMC. A likely four-cornered contest would help it because of a split in the vote share of the Opposition. The BJP may find it difficult to retain its 2014 vote share of 17 per cent. The TMC appears to be better placed in rural areas following improved road connectivity, communication, development, water and health services. Peace and stability that has been restored in Jangalmahal and Darjeeling and flow of central funds for the rehabilitation and development of backward regions, etc. are expected to benefit the ruling party. The undercurrent of dissent and anger is yet to be visible. In 2011, it was felt against the Left at the beginning of 2010.

The return of the TMC for a second term, with fewer seats, looms. Will it chastise the party leadership to draw lessons? Will good sense prevail to usher in the dawn of a better tomorrow?

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