By Snehashish Mitra:
The Election Commission (EC) has announced an unprecedented seven phase poll exercise in West Bengal for the Legislative Assembly Election in 294 Assembly seats. The decision is in contrast with that to hold elections in Kerala (134 seats) and Tamil Nadu (234 seats) in one single phase. Even Assam with 126 seats, which has a significant number of anti-state insurgent activities, would be rounding up the elections in two phases. Needless to say that the law and administration of West Bengal pose multiple challenges to hold free and fair polls as seen by the citizens of West Bengal since the 2013 panchayat elections in the state.
The highlight, however, would be the municipal elections held in 2015 wherein the residents of the newly formed Bidhannagar Corporation were heckled and manhandled by anti-democratic goons who trampled on the voting rights of citizens. The one-sided election results in favour of the ruling Trinamool Congress were suggestive of the sponsors of rampant terror. During the regime of Left Front (LF) electoral manipulations were heard of from the rural hinterlands. It was unimaginable in a posh locality such as Kolkata adjoining Bidhannagar, popularly known as Salt Lake.
A normative analysis of the West Bengal government under the chief ministership of Mamata Banerjee would come up with very few positives. The collection of tax has been made easy through online submissions which have increased the tax revenues as claimed by the state government. Projects like ‘Kanyashree’ have taken a step towards empowering girls from humble backgrounds by conditional cash transfers. The focus of the government on cleanliness and beautification would be evident if one takes a stroll in some parts of Kolkata and, more significantly, if one happens to visit the Nimtala and Keoratala crematoriums of Kolkata. Self-help groups have been promoted on a large scale with the government providing enhanced opportunities to connect them with potential customers. Relative peace has been ensured in the hills of Darjeeling and the forests of Jangalmahal.
Apart from the small list of achievements, however, it seems that apart from the already dismal state of industry, the existing industries have had to endure the pressure of extortion. The primary sectors such as agriculture and tea plantations are in no better state either. A series of deaths have taken place in the tea gardens of north Bengal over the last five years.
A large number of clubs have received donations of one to two lakhs over the years for the purpose of sports development. But given the unaccountability of the money allocated to the clubs, the futility of such allocation is hard to ignore. The health sector in the early days of the present regime caught the imagination of West Bengal’s citizens as Mamata Banerjee, who holds the portfolio of health as well, used to pay surprise visits to hospitals. Over time, however, transfers of medical personnel seem to be based on the whims of the ruling party and the likes of the ill-famed Dr. Nirmal Maji seemed to hold unparalleled sway in the health department.
The ‘Saradha Scam’ is a big blot on the present government. However, the CBI investigation has surreptitiously slowed down after subtle bonhomie between TMC and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) on several issues, especially with regard to Rajya Sabha. The BJP seemed to have gained strength in the state after the 2014 Lok Sabha elections after they managed to win two Lok Sabha seats and an assembly by-poll shortly after. However, national considerations for the BJP have coerced the state unit of BJP to mellow down its opposition to TMC and the following election was a no-show for the party.
Apparently it’s the national-state dichotomy of the Congress which forced Mamata to break away and form TMC. Shrewdly, she has reaped dividends by exploiting the similar situation faced by BJP. Apart from inter-party violence, the opposition had to face continuous breakaways of cadres and elected representatives, almost all of them joining the TMC camp. Such a situation brought the Congress and the CPI(M) close to each other and an alliance has been declared officially despite the ideological differences and acrimonious relationship in the past. The other constituencies of the Left Front (LF), such as RSP, CPI and Forward Bloc, have more or less followed suit. The alliance possesses the potential to thwart the TMC juggernaut. Some vital questions, however, remain unanswered.
An impending crisis of existence has brought CPI(M) and Congress together in Bengal, however, in Kerala and Tripura the parties are at loggerheads and Kerala goes to poll simultaneously with Bengal. Ideology being an important thing for the LF, it would be interesting to see how the LF deals with the national issues with respect to Congress’ standpoint. In case the alliance is successful in forming the government in Bengal, the stability of the alliance would be uncertain in case the parties find themselves on opposite poles on national or state issues, which is very much likely. In Tripura, repercussions are already being felt by the Congress. In the recent Amarpur bypoll election, Congress was demoted to the fourth position with BJP bagging the second spot. CPI(M) as usual was the winner.
Leftist economist and former finance minister of Bengal, Ashok Mitra has openly opposed the alliance, criticising the LF for their eagerness to return to power without rectifying the earlier misdoings and failing to remove the faces from within the party, who’s activities were not well received by the people. It is to be noted that the CPI(M) is yet to apologise for the state-sponsored violence in Singur and Nandigram. Nor do they seem to have tried to come out with alternative development models where industry can prosper without taking up fertile agricultural lands. The Newtown-Rajarhat township, adjoining Kolkata lays half utilised with empty flats across housing complexes after a near decade of functioning. It was built with massive acquisition of farm lands and water bodies. Such blatant imitation of the Western neoliberal model poses a serious question on the leftist credentials of the left parties.
The recent Narada sting operation, wherein multiple leaders of the Trinamool Congress are seen to be taking money as bribes are just a sorry reminder of West Bengal’s current political atmosphere. It barely surprised the Bengal citizens as even without the sting operation, the naked truth has been unfolding for over the last few years. Expectedly, Mamata Banerjee has moved into a state of denial about the issue and the party is busy sniffing out the conspiracy behind the incident. None, however, has claimed that ‘money was not taken’. In all probability, some of the ‘stung’ leaders are likely to win as legislators in the upcoming elections.
On a different note, the political debates now focus on the sting operation rather than any sincere debates on West Bengal’s development. To make matters worse for the citizens, the half-constructed Vivekananda bridge collapsed and claimed dozens of lives. It could be considered as a culmination of the rampant party-centric governance which has been a signature of West Bengal nearly four decades.
It is unfortunate that the political debate of West Bengal has stooped to personal attacks and over the top development claims. Provocations of violence are aplenty in the political speeches delivered by the leaders with every party being the culprit. More than economic development and reforms, the state yearns for peaceful existence amidst a decent society. The abysmal scenario of education and the job sector is creating a steady flow of migrant Bengalis into other parts of India.
A conflict-prone state like Assam is able to complete assembly election within two phases but Bengal needs seven. Gone are the days when Bengal boasted of luminaries and leaders and thinkers like Rabindranath Tagore, Chittaranjan Das, Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose, Bipin Chandra Pal and many more. Today, we have to be content with the likes of their inferior counterparts, whose thoughts are limited to their own welfare at the state’s expense.