If the resounding victory of Mamata Banerjee’s Trinamool Congress in the West Bengal assembly election, and the spectacle of Tarun Gogoi’s geriatric Congress leadership being bundled out by the BJP in Assam, have anything in common, it is the swishy fall of the knife called Congress. In West Bengal, the Congress feared it could fare even worse than in 2014 when, in the Lok Sabha elections, it had led only in 28 (of 294) seats. So it used its friends, notably in the media, to trick the CPI(M)-led Left front into believing that it would be a great idea if they were to forge an alliance. It became a disaster for the Left. It is the Congress that has benefitted by the Left as its seats rose to 45, but it could not (or did not) transfer its own votes to the Left. Result: The Left’s tally is down to a mere 32, the lowest since 1972.
In Assam, the ‘falling knife’ came down even harder on the Congress itself. Its dynastic leadership, ever anxious to promote mansabdar dynasties elsewhere, was in no mood to lend an ear to the sane advice of getting Gogoi to hand over the baton to Himanta Biswa Sarma instead of Gogoi junior, Gaurav, who is known to be a favourite of Congress vice president Rahul Gandhi.
Sarma, regarded as the architect of Congress’ third successive win in 2011, soon became BJP’s prize catch. The saffron party’s astonishing performance in the state, with its 85 seats (of 126) of the alliance led by it spread across both upper and lower Assam, is largely credited to Sarma’s skill at cobbling a wide spectrum of communities and groups, including the Bodo Popular Front and the Asom Gana Parishad together. The Congress is down to 23 seats, with its leaders possibly happy that there is at least no threat left to the Gogoi line of succession.
In Bengal, however, the TMC’s victory rests on five years of consistent performance, which may not be dazzling but is better by any reckoning than the Left Front’s 34 years of stagnation. Between 2011-12 and 2015-16, the state’s economy grew at a much faster clip than not only India but the average of the Left Front’s last five years ending in 2011. In retrospect, what seems Mamata Banerjee’s masterstroke was the selection of Amit Mitra, a Right-wing economist educated in the US, as her finance minister. Under his charge, the state’s tax revenue doubled by 2014-15. This, in its turn, led to an eye-popping quadrupling of its spend on social welfare. Instead of wasting public money in meeting wage bills of unionised public sector employees, the TMC government’s welfare expenditure went to schemes that every villager in the state recognises as ‘Didi’s gift’. Like Kanyashree, a programme to prevent girl students from dropping out of schools before attaining the age of 18, and Khadya Sathee, an immensely popular scheme that provides rice at Rs 2 a kilogramme to the poor.
Though Kanyashree has been lauded by Unicef and the Department for International Development of the UK, and the ‘two-rupee rice’ has made TMC a big draw among village womenfolk, critics have called them mere sops. What is still undeniable is the bonding these schemes have forged between the government and rural people. Its tangible symbol is the smart bicycle handed over to each girl students crossing standard eight and staying enrolled. There are half a million such bikes, and the numbers are growing. In the past years, Bengal’s record in checking women trafficking has hugely improved due to Kanyashree.
The CPI(M), on the other hand, seems unable to come up with a new development narrative. It is ironic that Asim Dasgupta, the MIT-educated former finance minister, fought the election against Mitra for the second time, and lost. Mamata rubbed salt into the Left’s wound when she mentioned that her government achieved a stellar performance in social welfare despite repaying Rs 140,000 crore of debt that her predecessor had left behind.
However, her popularity does not seem to be confined to the rural poor. In Kolkata, her candidates won in all of its eleven constituencies, including Jorasanko, where a flyover under construction recently crumbled, killing many and causing rumour mills to swirl about poor quality material supplied by a TMC insider. At Jorasanko, it was the BJP’s former state president who got clobbered by the TMC. Nor were voters much swayed by some leaders of the TMC being on the radar of Saradha chit fund scam investigation, except that a former minister who contested the poll from judicial detention has lost it. But the well-timed leak of a sting operation involving Mamata’s ministers was a flop; all of them have won.
It shows a subtle change in the way the business of politics is conducted. Rather than being stirred by every ‘breaking news’ of 24x7 news TV, the voter today is a shrewder judge of politicians. While newspapers blamed Mamata for making all public buildings ‘go blue’ with a uniform blue-and-white colour scheme, and lighting up roads with fancy ‘trident’ lamps, the people actually appreciated that Kolkata and other cities in the state were looking a lot brighter than before. Complete with more and more people living better, and dreaming big, the urban Bengali, like his rural counterpart, has personal reasons for his electoral preference.
And that has changed the rules of the game, not only in Bengal, but in Assam, and everywhere. People are jabbing the EVM button for change, not status quo. If Muslims in Assam, comprising over 34% of the population, had voted only for their “trusted” parties — AIUDF and Congress — how did both of them suffer such a defeat? Or is it that the community is no longer shy to vote for the BJP ? If so, it’s quite a surprise!
Sumit Mitra is a senior journalist. The views expressed are personal