Bitter Battle for a “Sweet State”

“Trinamool”, as the political party currently ruling the state is called, means “grassroots”.
Photograph by Dola Mitra

West Bengal has been described by ruling Trinamool as “the sweetest part of India”. The sobriquet could have been conferred on the eastern state not just because it boasts some of the best desserts in the entire country (including the delectable “roshogolla”, that spongy ball of cottage cheese marinated in sugar syrup which have often inspired rhymes and poems), but its people, language, culture, etc. are supposed to exude a kind of sophisticated, well, “sweetness”. But currently the region is gripped in the throes of a fiercely-fought election which is turning out to be anything but sweet, far less sophisticated. Indeed the battle is nothing less than bitter. Being held in eight phases over a period of a month and a few days with results scheduled to be declared on May 2, it started on March 27 and its reaching the half-way mark was no cakewalk. During the first four phases, violence ripped through various parts of the state, with goons allegedly patronized by different political parties physically assaulting rivals, causing bloodshed and death. News cameras recorded scenes from polling booths which resembled primitive war zones not reflective of an election being conducted in a modern democratic country. Political parties did not own up, blaming each other.

Please stop the blame game. More importantly, please stop the violence. It does not have to be this way. The polls can be peaceful. This appeal is to all political parties in the fray.

Now to brief those who are not in the know (or have just returned from the depths of oblivion), in these Assembly elections, there are three main contenders. One is trying to hold onto power, one is trying to grab it and one is trying to return to it. These are, respectively, the Trinamool (literally “grassroots” party), the Bharatiya Janata Party (literally Indian People’s party) or BJP and the Communist Party of India (Marxists) or CPIM. Other contenders include the Congress which has joined hands with CPIM and a few regional and national political parties.

A Trinamool graffiti painted on a Kolkata wall. Photograph by Dola Mitra

During elections in West Bengal, creative, often comic wall writing with cartoons and caricatures is ubiquitous and has always been popular .This graffiti, painted on a wall in Kolkata, is a Trinamool rhyme which claims that Mamata Banerjee who is affectionately called “Didi” or elder sister is a storm who will blow away her rivals. With its symbol of grassroots, Trinamool has always stood for the downtrodden and its election campaign has highlighted the various populist schemes which the Trinmaool government has rolled out for the poor. In the last decade since it came to power the Trinamool government has earned both bouquets and brickbats. While Mamata Banerjee as chief minister has been praised by the people in the districts and villages for a plethora of public distribution packages for the poor such as providing subsidized ration, allegations against her party and top leaders that they were involved in a financial scandal, known as the “chit fund scam” has been damaging. Trinamool’s biggest strength in these elections is the inability of rivals to project, prior to the elections, an alternative chief ministerial candidate who would be a match for the charismatic Didi.

A BJP graffiti painted on a Kolkata wall urges voters to put their stamps on the symbol of the lotus. Photograph by Dola Mitra

The lotus is the symbol of the BJP which rules India at the Centre. Since it came to power in the general elections of 2014, it has been on an aggressive mission of capturing power in the states too. West Bengal has been elusive for it for a number of reasons including the perception that the BJP is a Right-wing, “communal” party which has often highlighted the country’s religious divides. West Bengal has a history of Left-wing, secular politics. Included in the list of BJP’s strengths in the current elections are anti-incumbency sentiments against the party ruling the state and the idea that people could vote for the BJP in order that the same party that rules at the Centre will rule at the state too (and thereby achieve better Centre-State coordination). Furthermore, the BJP has never ruled West Bengal and therefore people could want to give it a chance to prove itself in terms of governance. All the other major contending political parties, namely Trinamool, CPIM and the Congress Party have had their turns in ruling the state. .

A CPIM graffiti painted on a Kolkata wall. Photograph by Dola Mitra

The hammer and sickle is the symbol of the CPIM. Along with three other communist parties the CPIM had formed an alliance known as the Left Front, which held power in West Bengal for 34 consecutive years from 1977 to 2011. Trinamool, a fledgling, 13-year-old political party in 2011, which was founded in 1998 by the firebrand former Congress Party member, Mamata Banerjee, toppled the Left Front government with its promise of “poriborton” or “change”, a word which connoted an overhaul of the entire system. During the three and a half decades that the CPIM-led government ruled, West Bengal was considered to have become economically stagnant, with allegations of corruption and complacency. By 2011, anti-incumbency was so strong against the CPIM that in the decade after Trinamool came to power, the once mighty communists were reduced to a minor force. Continuing to face defeat in every subsequent election, the CPIM could retain only a handful of seats in the state assembly, not even managing to do that in Parliament, where the West Bengal CPIM could not send a single representative in a recent general election. In the current state elections, however, the CPIM is putting its best foot forward with a list of fresh young candidates (to counter allegations that the CPIM is a party of old patriarchs who are too set in their ways to adapt to the changing times ). The CPIM is joining hands with the Congress Party. The CPIM’s strength in these elections is anti-incumbency against Trinamool at the state and anti-incumbency against BJP at the centre. This graffiti, painted on a Kolkata wall, urges people to vote for the Left parties once again so that “things can get back in order”.

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