Kolkata/Asansol: In a constituency in south Bengal, this reporter met a Trinamool Congress (TMC) worker. Over tea at a roadside stall, the man, who is pretty low in the TMC organizational hierarchy, confessed that he was actually a volunteer for the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), the Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP’s) non-political parent. He, and some of his other fellow travellers, had decided to campaign for the TMC to ward off the Communist Party of India (Marxist), or CPM.
Former British prime minister Winston Churchill’s observation about Russia—a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma—is freely used to describe India. If that be so, then West Bengal is a conundrum, an amalgam of contradictions.
Nothing brings out the contrasts sharper than in election time. The general elections to the 17th Lok Sabha have converted Bengal into a battleground state: with 42 seats up for grabs, pitched battles are being fought, personal insults traded on a daily basis and display of money and muscle power thrust in your face. Gopal Krishna Gokhale’s famous pre-Independence quote about the state—what Bengal thinks today, India thinks tomorrow—is perhaps primed for a tweak.
The 2014 round of elections saw the TMC surge ahead with 34 seats, the Congress bagging four seats and the balance four being divided equally between the BJP and the CPM.
For a state that had voted decisively for the CPM for over three decades, the cast of characters has changed overnight: it is now a battle between the TMC and the BJP, with the Congress and the CPM being reduced to side players. The CPM’s slide is illustrative of the shift in voter preferences: from 176 seats in 2007 state assembly elections to 40 in 2011 to 26 in 2016.
The battle lines in the current elections got drawn as soon as it became clear that the Narendra Modi-led BJP was unlikely to reprise its 2014 act , in which it had single-handedly won 282 seats. The portents were evident when the Congress managed to wrest three battleground states—Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh—during the 2018 winter assembly elections.
In Uttar Pradesh, two long-time political rivals with claims on a favourable caste arithmetic—the Samajwadi Party and the Bahujan Samaj Party—have joined hands to take on the BJP’s electoral machinery and reclaim some seats from its 71-seat haul last time.
Some more seat losses are expected elsewhere, though how much and from which state is up in the air. This makes West Bengal and the seven north-eastern states, with a total of 66 seats in the mix, critical for the saffron party, if it wishes to retain its position as the single largest party, which then the President can legitimately call upon to form the government.
Perception about economy
The sharpest contrasts are in the sphere of economic policy. West Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee came to power on the back of protests against the previous CPM government’s forcible land acquisition from farmers on behalf of private investors and large corporates. This seemed to create an impression that she was anti-industry.
Jitendra Tiwari, Asansol mayor and a senior TMC functionary, defends the decision: “Look what happened to the Nano project after it shifted production to Gujarat. Its fortunes seem to vindicate Mamata Banerjee’s stand. She was not against giving land to industry; she was against forcible acquisition from farmers."
After she became chief minister in 2011, Mamata Banerjee has been assiduously courting large corporates, both domestic as well as from overseas. She has been organizing investment summits featuring some of the largest Indian industrialists, including Mukesh Ambani.
So, here’s the confounding data point: the ministry of micro, small and medium enterprises’ (MSMEs’) 2017-18 annual report shows that Bengal has the second largest number of MSME units in the country, with an estimated 8.86 million units accounting for 14% of the national share. Uttar Pradesh holds the top slot, with a marginally higher 8.99 million units. Tamil Nadu (4.94 million units) and Maharashtra (4.77 million units) are at third and fourth spots, respectively.
Evidently, there has been a profusion of MSME in the state, even though large corporates are yet to commit capital for large manufacturing projects (with the exception of IT majors Infosys, Wipro and Tata Consultancy Services).
It also defies the commonly-held principle that small-scale units usually thrive under the benign shadow of large industry.
According to a Kolkata-based entrepreneur, there is a definite strategy at play here: Mamata Banerjee deliberately showcases large industry at investment summits in the full knowledge that they will take time to loosen their purse strings but that their high-profile presence and likelihood of a future investment motivates and emboldens small-scale entrepreneurs.
There is, of course, a lot of support from the state government in the form of incentives and concessions. In addition, many young graduates are being encouraged to put up tiny units. A young motorcycle-borne graduate, participating in the road-show organized for former railway minister and the TMC’s Barrackpore candidate Dinesh Trivedi’s campaign, makes paper cups and seems to be satisfied with the business prospects; another has acquired a few buses which run on commercial passenger routes (Kolkata allows private operators to run city bus services, alongside the government-owned service).
Incidentally, Dinesh Trivedi’s constituency—the Barrackpore-Titagarh-Khardaha belt—was once the jute bowl of India, with numerous jute mills lining the banks of Hooghly river. In addition, this belt also housed many engineering factories. Many of these have shut down, leading to loss of jobs and livelihoods. Dinesh Trivedi told Mint that many closed jute mills had re-opened with the promoters happy to resume production. “I had written a report on jute mills, detailed their problems, outlined the solution and provided a sense of the way forward. I even submitted it to the Prime Minister but I am yet to even receive an acknowledgement. And, then he talks of ‘Make In India’."
Typically, in the past, the BJP has tried to pin down the TMC on economic issues like jobs, industrial development (or the lack of it), and fiscal mismanagement. But, here’s the thing: despite a lack of visible development or a pervasive negative perception about the state, West Bengal is on par with most states on almost all critical parameters. The state for one has created some job opportunities; for example, close to 0.5 million people have found employment in the police force, as teachers and civil volunteers.
The Reserve Bank of India data on states shows that the state’s number of factories, on an average, grew by only 2-3% every year; yet, the same data shows that state’s manufacturing output has been growing quite handsomely. In fact, manufacturing’s share in gross state domestic product (GSDP) has been going up every year.
Even in terms of expenditure, analysis of Bengal’s budget data by PRS Legislative shows that the state’s spending on education, health and rural development, as a percentage of GSDP, has been higher than the average of 27 other states.
Fear and loathing
The BJP’s overarching rhetoric and narrative dominating this election cycle, though, is off-point and betrays a sense of desperation. The BJP has focused on leveraging the fear of the unknown, of the stranger, to gain additional vote share this time around. The conversation focuses on infiltration of Muslim refugees from Bangladesh, giving citizenship to Hindu refugees from Bangladesh, on citizenship issues and personal sleights against Mamata Banerjee. But she’s not one to give up, having been weaned on a brand of street-fighting politics that believed in giving it back in good measure. Lost amongst all this is any discussion of farm distress, jobs, capital investment by the government (centre and state) and the private sector.
This urgency is now being articulated through the instrument of violence, with all sides indulging in wanton violence against cadres and leaders of other parties. West Bengal politics has been characterized by electoral violence for over 50 years now with gang killings, territory control and attempts to marginalize political rivals eclipsing all other forms of political action.
The Congress and the CPM exercised power through an army of street thugs and lumpen proletariat who, over time, graduated to leadership positions within the party; and now the TMC is following the same template, having successfully acquired the CPM’s foot soldiers and political playbook.
The panchayat elections of May 2018 set new standards in political violence during the nomination filing and polling phases. The expectation of violence during this election cycle can be gauged from the fact that the Election Commission of India has staggered voting across all the seven phases in only two states—West Bengal and Uttar Pradesh. This is purportedly to allow optimal deployment of central forces during each phase, which has been the BJP’s vocal demand for some time now.
One normally doesn’t associate the Bengali cultural ethos and sensitivity with violence; a state which gave birth to Raja Ram Mohan Roy, Bankim Chandra Chattopadhyay, Jagdish Chandra Bose, Rabindranath Tagore, Swami Vivekananda, Satyajit Ray and Amartya Sen is today a crucible for extreme political violence.
Shishir K. Bajoria, chairman of the SK Bajoria Group and one of the BJP’s Bengal leaders, claims that the reported violence is only 25% of reality, with counterclaims from the other side that some reports are grossly exaggerated. The BJP is using verbal, non-physical grammar to also stretch Mamata Banerjee’s political smarts to the limit. Nothing is beyond the pale of possible. In addition, the BJP has managed to get some key TMC members to cross the floor—former Lok Sabha member Mukul Roy and his strongman Arjun Singh (who is contesting against Trivedi) are a few examples.
There are strange calculations and ground-level alliances that defy explanation. A good example is Asansol, which has an interesting demographic profile. Asansol is part of Bengal’s famed industrial hub with coal mines and steel factories dotting the landscape. The population has many non-Bengali migrant workers employed in the various factories around the area. It also has close to 20% Muslim population. The electoral waters have been muddied by the shutdown of various factories in the area, including public sector units Burn Standard Co. Ltd (a railway wagon manufacturer) and Hindustan Cables Ltd.
Babul Supriyo, former junior minister in the ministry of heavy industry, had won the 2014 elections by over 70,000 votes and has been nominated by the BJP again. In contrast, Mamata has fielded former actor Moon Moon Sen, daughter of popular Bengali actor Suchitra Sen. Moon Moon had won from Bankura in 2014 but fielding her from Asansol has everybody mystified. A TMC party worker in Asansol commented in frustration: “She is like a 500-kg burden suddenly dropped on our backs."
Some political analysts see this as Mamata’s gift to Babul; her calculations probably show Babul winning again and she is perhaps loath to waste an asset from here. Moon Moon is a convenient candidate who has already spent a five-year term in Lok Sabha. Conversely, she might be fielding Moon Moon to force local heavyweights to unite and abandon their factionalism which is supposed to have cost the TMC the Asansol seat last time.
This is evident from Moon Moon’s sparse public meetings, or her aversion to the heat-and-dust, rough-and-tumble of political campaigning, forcing the local organization to unite in the campaigning. In contrast, the BJP doesn’t have a strong or deep organizational presence in the region which then forces Babul Supriyo to often hit the road.
Moloy Ghatak, West Bengal law minister and Asansol resident, claims that Moon Moon Sen’s style of campaigning is different and far more intimate than her political rival.
Bengal’s 42 seats, in some ways, will determine many fates. For one, it might turn out to be pivotal for the BJP which is trying to retain its leading position. BJP general secretary Amit Shah has set a target of 23 seats, up from the earlier halfway mark of 22 seats. Mamata has been claiming that the TMC will get all 42, but some of that is election rhetoric.
Political analysts and other observers are convinced that the BJP’s vote share will definitely jump from last time’s 17%, but how that translates into seats will depend a lot on the granular data, in particular the configuration of the assembly constituencies that vote for the saffron party.
The consensus is the TMC will perhaps retain its leadership position, but the BJP will watch the voting pattern closely for a renewed assault during the 2021 Bengal assembly elections.