A groundswell of anti-incumbency in Mamata’s Bengal

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“Ekhane chain system e churi hoy,” she screamed standing in the middle of the road—radical in a place where most are scared to open their mouths. She’s complaining about the “pilferage chain” that begins with panchayat (elected local body) members and local party workers and ends higher up in the political ladder. And it was no different when the Amphan super cyclone wrecked heavy damage in May last year.

Office bearers of the ruling Trinamool Congress (TMC) government and local panchayat members usurped the cash relief leaving out the deserving, Bibi and others alleged. Parts of Bibi’s house still looked as if the disaster had struck last night. In the upcoming elections in West Bengal, where polling begins on 27 March in eight phases, Bibi might end up voting for the third front—an alliance of Congress, left parties and the Indian Secular front led by the young, influential cleric Abbas Siddiqui. By shunning Mamata Banerjee. who counts Muslims and women among her core supporters, voters like Bibi could pave the way for the Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) long cherished dream of winning Bengal.

Bengal elections are crucial for BJP since it considers the state to be the birthplace of its nationalist Hindutva ideology. The party is also looking at Bengal to recover potential political losses in northern Indian states due to the ongoing farmer protests. Further, a good performance of BJP—it won just 3 out of 294 seats in the 2016 state polls—will improve its tally in the upper house of the Parliament.

For the feisty chief minister Mamata Banerjee who has ruled West Bengal for a decade, the 2021 elections are a watershed. She cannot afford to cede ground to BJP in her home turf of southern Bengal as the saffron party already made heavy inroads into the tribal and scheduled caste dominated regions in the 2019 general elections.

Bengal wants its own daughter, say hoardings put up by the Trinamool Congress in Kolkata

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Bengal wants its own daughter, say hoardings put up by the Trinamool Congress in Kolkata

From just two seats in 2014, BJP catapulted to 18 Parliament seats in the state in 2019. As per the 2019 results, BJP was ahead in 121 legislative assembly seats; to wrest the state and cross the halfway mark (147), it needs to breach southern Bengal where it was ahead of TMC in only 29 out of 124 seats.

And it is here that Mamata Banerjee is battling severe anti-incumbency due to a bunch of factors: mismanagement of relief work following the Amphan super cyclone, rampant corruption in welfare schemes, and the arrogance of local leaders who are accused of unleashing a reign of terror.

Bicycle to Scorpio

Earlier this month, Mint travelled to three districts in south Bengal—South 24 Parganas, Howrah and East Midnapore, where the BJP fared poorly in 2019 (it was ahead in just 3 out of 63 seats) —to gauge the mood of rural voters.

In this erstwhile TMC bastion, this reporter was witness to a range of emotions—from silence borne out of fear of speaking out to sudden bursts of anger. People often spoke between the lines and with unusual gestures—such as a fisherman agitatedly sucking his thumb to show he received little from welfare schemes since he did not work for the ruling party. Most did not want to reveal their names and explicitly asked not to be named when they did, forcing several name changes in this piece.

The signs are ominous for Mamata Banerjee who recently said at a public meeting that she is campaigning despite a severe leg injury to preserve democracy in Bengal. The truth is slightly different. People in south Bengal are still seething about the fact that the panchayat elections held in 2018 were rigged. Some said they were unable to vote even during the 2019 general elections.

“I have never felt so ashamed in my career for not being able to do my duty,” said a civil servant who did not want to be named, referring to the 2018 local body elections when opposition candidates were not allowed to file nominations in a third of the seats. “TMC party workers surrounded my office… I had to switch off my phone since I had no answer for candidates seeking help; my block development officers went into a depression,” the officer said.

At Khejuri in East Midnapore, a young TMC worker Subhasish Das argued that some ordinary people are moving away from the party because their “stomachs are full”. “We provided them way too much. What is wrong with sharing a fraction of the welfare grants when we are running around to help them?” On the charge of some not being able to vote in the 2019 elections, Das said, “We don’t stop anyone from voting. But where we doubted the votes may go against TMC, we requested people not to step out.”

Most residents in these villages spoke about TMC office holders and panchayat members amassing massive amounts of wealth. They complained about the standard practice of paying a bribe of up to 20,000 to get a house under the Prime Minister’s housing scheme (grant of 1,38,000) and rampant fudging of muster rolls under the rural jobs scheme to embezzle central funds. Mint could not independently verify these claims.

“Party workers who could not afford a bicycle are moving around in Scorpios (an SUV). Those who lived under thatched roofs have built palatial homes,” a villager from South 24 Parganas said.

The climate of fear and repression has led people to overlook the well-functioning welfare schemes run by the state government—generous funds for girls after they clear their board exams and during marriage ( 25,000 each), bicycle for school goers, pensions for the elderly and a universal health insurance scheme.

A rude shock for residents of south Bengal was the mismanagement following the Amphan super cyclone, which could prove to be a turning point for the states’ political future.

A hut in Diamond Harbour, damaged by the Amphan super cyclone last May, is yet to be repaired

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A hut in Diamond Harbour, damaged by the Amphan super cyclone last May, is yet to be repaired

“People who watched the cyclone from their balconies were the ones who got 20,000 for house reconstruction due to their affiliation with the party,” locals from a fishing village in coastal East Midnapore said. An elderly woman from Diamond Harbour narrated how she held the hands of the panchayat president and cried for help to rebuild her home. “I will come in the night to take care of your problems,” was the sexual innuendo thrown back at her.

Amphan was devastating for the poor in southern Bengal who were already struggling due to the lockdown and the (covid-19) pandemic, said Subhanil Chowdhury, assistant professor of economics at the Institute of Development Studies, Kolkata. “This could help BJP increase its tally in the region, but not having a face like Mamata Banerjee remains its greatest disadvantage,” Chowdhury added.

During my travels, I did not find anyone who blamed Didi, as chief minister Banerjee is fondly referred to. But outrage directed at party functionaries were common. “When a dog gets mad, it can end up biting the owner,” a soft-spoken bearded man from South 24 Parganas explained.

In Bhangar, barely an hour’s ride away from Kolkata, a landless Muslim agricultural worker was uncontrollably angry. Apparently, he found out from a publicly available list in the panchayat office that he had received a housing grant to construct a two-storey building, while, in reality, he continues to live in a ramshackle dwelling. The TMC government did little for Muslims but we are living with the blame that it is appeasing minorities, the villagers from Bhangar argued.

But do they want the BJP to come to power with a portion of the Muslim votes moving away from TMC? “Let us kill the lice first, we will deal with the bedbugs later,” came the pat reply.

“How can you use the phrase ‘severe’ anti-incumbency?” asked Derek O’Brien, TMC’s parliamentary leader in the Rajya Sabha, responding to queries from Mint. “Even BJP’s internal surveys say the chief minister’s approval rating is over 50%. Term three for Mamata Banerjee is just a few weeks away from happening.” “Trinamool is not an arrogant political party. That’s why we launched Duare Sarkar, the world’s largest initiative for doorstep delivery of government services. This has achieved great success for health, education, jobs and other social sector projects,” he added.

Communal Polarisation

The anger among Muslim voters, who comprise a sizeable 30% of Bengal’s population, may not translate into votes against the TMC since they will be compelled to vote for the incumbent (to stop the BJP in its tracks), said political analyst Sajjan Kumar. Following his field work in Bengal, Kumar estimates BJP will win at least 160 seats, taking it past the halfway mark.

“BJP is the default beneficiary of the anti-incumbency wave and the intense desire among voters to remove TMC from power,” Kumar said. He added that the Hindutva agenda of the saffron party is a tactical move to mobilise anti-TMC votes. “The pro-Muslim image of Mamata Banerjee coupled with anti-incumbency created the space for BJP to enter Bengal. The party provided a voice to lower caste and economically deprived Hindus who were feeling left out.”

Compared to the outburst of anger on display at Amina Bibi’s village in Diamond Harbour, the Hindu hamlet of Raipada, a short distance away, was replete with silence. A middle-aged man walked away briskly after I introduced myself. “It is best not to talk,” said the former panchayat member from the Communist Party of India (Marxist). He opened up after some cajoling and admitted that he was compelled to join the TMC after receiving threats that his wife could be abducted.

His friend Krishna Kumar Mandal, also a TMC worker now, butted in saying, “We Hindus cannot raise our voice anymore. This vote will be an outlet of our anger.” The sheer complexity of political affiliations were on display when Mandal said his heart is with the left, he works for TMC out of compulsion, but will vote for BJP.

The saffron party, which is often accused of weakening democratic institutions at the national level, has emerged in a unique avatar here. Bengal is looking for a new boss, asserted Prasenjit Das from South 24 Parganas. “We are looking up to the BJP to restore our democratic right to vote and end corruption.” Residents of his village, including Muslims, said they were able to move around freely only after the remarkable performance of the BJP in the 2019 elections.

“In 2011, Mamata came to power on a negative vote against the Left because of its arrogance,” said a retired primary school teacher from Khejuri in East Midnapore. “The same may happen to her… this is not a battle of ideologies.”

But for Jyotsna Bor, a young mother and fisherwoman from Contai in East Midnapore, the polls are about the future of her young daughters. A vivacious woman in her late twenties, Jyotsna laughed heartily while describing the morning hours before the super cyclone struck. She cooked an early lunch of home-bred chickens and rice that morning. “We thought the cyclone will destroy everything and the chickens may be blown away. So, why not have a feast?”

The cyclone damaged her boat, which is yet to be fixed. She did not receive the 20,000 assistance for boat repair but knows of party workers who received the cash relief despite not owning a boat. Yet, Jyotsna remains an ardent supporter of Didi.

“It worries me when I hear Jai Shree Ram chants and when neighbours say BJP may come to power.” Because Didi is her only hope to get her daughters past school and get them married.

Some names have been changed to protect identities.

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