It is hardly surprising that West Bengal under Mamata Banerjee and her Trinamool Congress is not only continuing on the free fall since it first came under leftists’ rule in 1967, but the descent has gathered pace of late. The Trinamool succession has come like a barbarian invasion, shoving the state down the tube with the recklessness typical of a party not sure about a long haul in politics, and therefore, without a modicum of long-term thinking.
Its big problem is of course its leader, Mamata Banerjee, a gender-morphed Tughlaq, sans the medieval sultan’s fabled scholarship. From being showcased as a hero after her 2011 poll victory, Mamata is now a comic figure; her public tantrums feature regularly as YouTube numbers, and her unconventional vocabulary is a perennial fountain of entertainment. Many suspect she’s a Laloo Yadav in the making.
Like Yadav’s, her party too is a motley crowd of opportunists and petty thugs. In Trinamool’s case, the latter frequently turn violent — beating up teachers at the slightest provocation, and demanding hefty cuts from every conceivable economic activity, including construction projects. However, the more refined Trinamoolites curry favour with their leader by playing on her inability to accept criticism.
Still, it is not correct to hold Mamata, or any politician of today, singularly responsible for the state’s decline. Its demography is skewed, which is a birth defect. During the 1947 Partition, Mahatma Gandhi discarded a joint proposal by Sarat Bose, Netaji Subhas’ elder brother, and Muslim mass leader Fazlul Huq, to let Bengal remain undivided and become sovereign.
Gandhi thought, perhaps, that the Hindu majority in the province’s western part, or the future West Bengal, would get submerged over time in a nation with an overwhelming Muslim majority. But West Bengal’s demography has changed a lot since then.
The caste Hindu bhadralok class, whom Gandhi particularly wanted to save, has thinned out. Its diaspora has moved to many places along the long arc between Noida and Silicon Valley. Members of scheduled castes currently account for over 30% of the state’s population and Muslims are 27% (they were under 20% in 1951). Kolkata of today is a caricature of the Calcutta etched in the memory of its older citizens. Old landmarks have decayed. New features lack marks of association with the past.
One of West Bengal’s big recent worries is to find ways of successfully engaging with the growing Muslim population. Under Left rule, the community remained ghettoised; its level of marginalisation has been documented by the Sachar Committee, which found the condition of Muslims in West Bengal particularly miserable, with the incidence of Muslim poverty higher than the all-India level and lesser relative access to government jobs.
The fact that Muslims were pining for a change in government is evident from the 2011 assembly poll results, with CPI(M)’s tally skidding to a mere 40, from 176 five years earlier.
Post Trinamool’s victory, the community felt, more than any other segment of population, perhaps, that it is their “conquest”. But the victory brought them little practical gain from a bankrupt treasury that the new government had inherited.
Mamata is an old-fashioned vote bank politician who thought she could bypass Muslims’ burning issues, like unemployment and poverty, with mere tokenism, like promising honoraria to imams and muezzins (it has been challenged in court) and by wearing a hijab on days of Muslim religious observance.
There was little effort to comprehend the fine print of the Sachar Committee’s recommendations, which focused on equal opportunity, not bribes for mosque officials. Instead, Mamata swung to the precarious extreme of befriending figures from Kolkata and lower Bengal’s criminal fringes, dominated, as they are, by Muslim elements from Bihar and Uttar Pradesh.
The risk involved in this alliance came to a head a few weeks back, when a shoot-out in the port area cost a police officer his life, and the alleged “brain” behind this incident turned out to be a gangland boss, Iqbal, who is also a Trinamool municipal councillor.
Moreover, his buddy, Firhad Hakim, is a minister and a member of the chief minister’s inner circle. As Iqbal’s name came up on the FIR, Mamata flew off the handle. She sacked the commissioner of police straightaway, giving no excuse.
After weeks of playing hooky with the police — many believe it was a calculated Houdini act — Iqbal is now in custody but the state’s political leadership, be it the CPI(M) or Trinamool, are notorious for diluting prosecution cases against their ‘friends’.
The police in Bengal are noticeably demoralised. There is an impression that the thugs of the port, or of a certain community, cannot be challenged as they have got their man high up in the governmental hierarchy.
It has begun to trigger incidents of communal strife, something unknown in the state since the 1960s. The recent killing of Moulvi Rohul Kuddus, a religious leader in the coastal South 24 Parganas district, provoked truckloads of his co-religionists, again from the Kolkata Port area, to converge on the area and torch more than two hundred homes, mostly belonging to members of the scheduled castes.
The rising political unrest in the high Muslim-population states north of the Vindhyas — Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, West Bengal and Assam (J&K not counted) — appears to be resulting from a kind of minority triumphalism, which has dangerous consequences.
It is evident in Uttar Pradesh where a sudden deflection of Muslim votes resulted in Mayawati being dumped, and brought back into power the thoroughly inefficient Yadav clan. The state is now torn by riots in a number of districts. Something similar is going to happen in ‘Didi’s’ Bengal unless she tries to integrate the community into the mainstream, instead of pretending to be one of them, or pampering its rogue elements.
Sumit Mitra is a Kolkata-based writer
The views expressed by the author are personal