Challenged by Right, Left and Centre but Mamata may hold in Bengal | assembly-elections$westbengal-2016 | Hindustan Times
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Challenged by Right, Left and Centre but Mamata may hold in Bengal

If the exit polls on Monday evening are anything to go by, West Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee has probably tackled her biggest political challenge so far – the unprecedented Left-Congress alliance – with a measure of success that nobody expected.

assembly elections Updated: May 17, 2016 16:16 IST
Avijit Ghosal
West Bengal
Though the Narada sting video and the flyover collapse gave Opposition parties the ammunition they needed, it seems like the people of West Bengal – especially its rural folk – were taken in by chief minister Mamata Banerjee’s pitch.(File photo/ PTI)

If exit polls are anything to go by, West Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee has probably tackled her biggest political challenge so far – the unprecedented Left-Congress alliance – with a measure of success that nobody expected.

However, the predictions also sounded a warning bell for the Trinamool Congress chief. According to the surveys, she will have to contend with the strongest Opposition since 1977. If the Trinamool gets 160-170 seats and the opposition 120-130, it might give rise to many forces in the Opposition as well as her own party that will ultimately work to Banerjee’s detriment.

However, for the moment, it is worth looking at how the 62-year-old politician is poised to pull off a feat many thought was almost beyond her.

Exit polls: West Bengal

Party/AllianceABP AnandaTimes Now-CVoterIndia Today-AxisChanakyaNews Nation
Trinamool Congress163167233-253210 (±14)153
Left+Congress12612038-5170 (±9)136
BJP010401-0514 (±5)00
Others040302-050 (±2)03
Total seats294294294294294

Banerjee wanted to fight the 2016 assembly elections on the development plank, and though the Narada sting video and the flyover collapse gave Opposition parties the ammunition they needed, it seems the people of West Bengal – especially in rural areas – were convinced by her pitch.

The chief minister’s focus on keeping the rural masses happy by establishing welfare projects, giving away cycles to students and building better roads might have paid off during the polls. This, incidentally, was also how the Left pulled off its record-breaking 34-year rule in the state, before the Trinamool Congress trounced it in the 2011 assembly elections.

“It is proved that Mamata Banerjee’s development initiatives across Bengal have triumphed over the canards that were spread by Opposition parties and a section of the media. The people of Bengal were – and are – with Mamata Banerjee. However, I think we will do better than what the exit polls have predicted,” said Subrata Mukherjee, vice president of Trinamool Congress and the senior-most member of the cabinet.

Prominent Opposition leaders such as CPI(M) veteran Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee (R) and Congress vice-president Rahul Gandhi did appear in a high-voltage meet at Kolkata’s Park Circus, but the spirit of the Congress-Left alliance may have failed to make an impact on voters. (File photo/ AFP)

The exit polls have foretold that the vote share of the Trinamool Congress – which did not cross 40% either in the 2011 assembly polls or the 2014 Lok Sabha elections – will climb to about 44%, followed closely by the Congress-Left alliance at 42%. If the predictions come true, Banerjee can pat herself on the back for breaking the 40% ceiling and thank the rural belt for coming to her rescue.

There is also a possibility of the BJP helping the Trinamool Congress retain power in the state. Though its vote share is predicted to drop from a 16.8% high in the 2014 Lok Sabha figures to 7%, the party might have easily fragmented the Opposition votes – thereby helping the Trinamool Congress in quite a few seats.

In the opposing camp, the CPI(M) and Congress now have reason enough to look back and kick themselves for taking their time on striking an alliance.

Read: Polls: Will Mamata survive scams, united Opposition to win Bengal again?

The idea was initially opposed by many Left Front leaders such as Biman Bose, who said at a press conference that “the hand is the hand and the hammer-and-sickle is the hammer-and-sickle, and the two will never meet”. Though prominent figures such as CPI(M) veteran Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee and Congress vice-president Rahul Gandhi appeared in a high-voltage meet on the same platform at Kolkata’s Park Circus, the spirit of the alliance might have failed to make an impact on voters due to the delay in joining hands.

Nevertheless, the alliance leaders have shrugged off the exit poll predictions. “The alliance will come to power, just wait for a few hours more. The exit polls are bunkum. When terror reigns over the state, it is foolish to think that rural people will give a truthful answer to somebody who approaches them outside the polling booth,” state Congress president Adhir Choudhury told HT.

Md Salim, CPI(M) politburo member and Lok Sabha MP, voiced a similar opinion. “I can say that everyone is sceptical of exit poll surveys in Bengal, where the Trinamool Congress enjoys a reign of terror,” he said.

The exit polls did not hold out hope for the BJP, despite novel attempts by the party to garner some votes in the state. Here, party president Amit Shah can be seen canvassing for Chandra Bose, BJP candidate from Bhabanipur and grandnephew of freedom fighter Subhash Chandra Bose, in Kolkata. (Ashok Nath Dey/ HT Photo)

Om Prakash Mishra, senior Congress leader, seemed convinced that the Congress-Left alliance would emerge victorious with 170 seats on May 19. “There is so much variance in the exit polls by different media houses. For instance, Times Now is indicating a 12% vote share for the BJP, while the ABP Ananda has settled for 7%,” he said.

The Opposition parties have good reason to hold on to the hope of defeating the Trinamool Congress. Just before the elections, the ruling party was hit by a string of scandals and a flyover collapse that seemed likely to discourage voter support.

The Narada sting operation aired by a television channel on March 14 showed 13 party leaders accepting money from the representative of a fictitious company. It came on the back of the Rs 2,500-crore Saradha financial scam, which put one of the party’s most prominent faces behind bars in December 2014. To add insult to injury, only Trinamool Congress leaders were summoned by the CBI for questioning in connection with the controversy.

Read: BJP takes Assam, Jaya slips, Mamata stays, Kerala turns Left: Exit polls

On March 31, just four days before the first phase of the polls on April 4, a section of a flyover under construction in North Kolkata collapsed – killing 27 people. Trinamool-backed building material suppliers were accused of supplying substandard raw material to the project. Also, the Kolkata Metropolitan Development Authority – controlled by the urban development minister – was reportedly seen doing a poor job of monitoring the project.

Adding to the party leadership’s discomfort was a history of deep factional feuds, which often resulted in influential Trinamool politicians campaigning actively against the chosen candidates in seats such as Bhangar in South 24 Parganas and Singur.

But, then, all these factors may not work to the Opposition’s advantage if the exit poll predictions find adequate reflection in the May 19 results.