Every government is periodically confronted with problems created by the swagger and reckless behaviour of its functionaries. However, when such events escalate into a full-blown crisis, it is often symptomatic of a larger erosion of credibility. West Bengal is in the throes of such an experience.
Despite the saturation TV coverage in the Bengali channels and the heady middle-class outrage, it may be more accurate to view the agitation centred on Kolkata’s Jadavpur University as a convulsion rather than a full-blown political crisis. With the Durga Puja holidays round the corner, it is likely that passions will subside the street marches will be replaced by street revelry. Yet the impression of an unresponsive and insensitive administration is likely to persist.
It is astonishing that an incident that began with students demanding action against the molestation of a fellow student quickly escalated into a full-blown movement against the high-handedness of the ruling Trinamool Congress. What could have been handled with tact and sensitivity became, instead, yet another civil society-State confrontation. On a smaller scale, the battlelines were reminiscent of the kerfuffle over Singur and Nandigram that destroyed the mighty Left Front in 2011.
Chief minister Mamata Banerjee’s political vulnerability may well be overstated by those caught up in the immediacy of the latest turbulence to hit Bengal. However, even for a society where every facet of life is over-politicised, the mood in Kolkata is a curious mixture of conspiracy, disgust and expectancy. Coupled with the CM’s temperamental volatility and the reckless intemperate utterances of her colleagues, Bengal appears to have hit a political air-pocket yet again. The optimistic anticipation of ‘poriborton’ that saw Didi win a landslide victory three summers ago has dissipated and been replaced by anger and resignation.
The impact of the CBI investigations into the Saradha scandal has contributed immeasurably towards eroding the credibility of the TMC dispensation. The overall impression of a bunch of scamsters throwing money extracted from gullible small investors to buy political and media protection has dented the reputation of Mamata as a leader who stood above Mammon. Individuals the CM had rewarded with Rajya Sabha seats are now hurling grave accusations at the entire TMC establishment. During this month’s by-election campaign, a BJP national office-bearer even attributed unwholesome motives to the CM’s five-day Singapore junket. Earlier, critics of Mamata would have questioned her political judgment, maybe even dubbed her ‘mad’, but no one doubted her integrity. With the Saradha scam and her less than forthright reaction to it, she appears to have lost her halo as a selfless, doughty crusader.
What should concern the CM is that tales of the apparent venality of the TMC have spilled over from the drawing rooms of Ballygunge and Alipore to the suburbs. From big businessmen to small-time entrepreneurs, the perennial complaint is one of extortion by the umpteen ‘syndicates’ run by TMC dadas, often in competition with each other. The complaint made by the authorities in Dhaka to New Delhi about Saradha money being used to fund the Jamaat-e-Islami in Bangladesh and the questionable links of a TMC Rajya Sabha MP to radical Islamist groups have even highlighted the apparent disregard for national security. The CM may be unaware but the impression of a political dispensation operating as an extortion racket — with Robin Hood features — is slowly permeating downwards.
On its part, the TMC leadership believes that the talk of a downward slide in its fortunes is media-inspired alarmism. This belief isn’t without basis. The two by-elections in Kolkata’s Chowringhee and Dakshin Basirhat in North 24 Parganas district demonstrated three clear trends.
First, there is now evidence to suggest that following its resounding win in the Lok Sabha poll of May 2014, the TMC hold over the state has increased exponentially. In the Chowringhee seat it wrested from the Congress, the TMC vote increased by a staggering 9.7% between May and September 2014. In the border constituency of Basirhat Dakshin (held by the CPI(M) in 2011), the TMC vote rose by 12.1% — a great performance that fell just short of the BJP. The disaggregated picture suggests that the TMC has made further inroads in rural Bengal and among Muslims.
Second, the bypoll results clearly reveal that the decline of the Left so evident in the general election is continuing at a very rapid pace. The CPI(M) lost its deposit in Chowringhee, polling 1,906 votes less than it did in May. However, in Basirhat Dakshin — a constituency evenly divided between the rural and the small town — its vote fell dramatically by 17,454 (8.4%). Most important, the erstwhile CPI(M) vote transferred to the TMC and helped it reduce the BJP’s margin.
Finally, by just about holding on to the votes gained in the course of the Narendra Modi surge, overtaking the Congress in Chowringhee and winning the Basirhat Dakshin seat, the BJP has positioned itself as the principal opposition to the TMC. Yet, it has a very long way to go before it can emerge as an alternative. Its support still lacks social depth, is extremely patchy in rural Bengal and lacks a robust leadership to counter Mamata’s charisma. The BJP is over-dependent on spontaneity. Its most noticeable gain is in the inroads it has made in the urban clusters that could stand it in good stead in the municipal polls next year.
There is a political vacuum in West Bengal caused by the decimation of the Left. For the moment, the TMC is filling the void — which may explain Mamata’s apparent unconcern with the vocal opposition to her erratic governance. West Bengal politics is in a state of transition and may be marked by increased tensions on the ground.
Swapan Dasgupta is a political commentator
The views expressed by the author are personal