Trinamool (TMC) won the state elections of West Bengal and on May 5, three days after the results were declared, Mamata Banerjee was sworn in as chief minister for the third time in a row.
That was exactly a week ago and that’s enough time to try to gauge the priorities of the state government during this time when the Covid-19 pandemic rages through the country.
It comes as a relief that Didi, as Banerjee is affectionately called by the people of India, decided to dive headlong into dealing with the crisis, which is, inarguably one of the worst health disasters that the country has faced in recorded history. With hundreds of thousands of people infected with the deadly virus during this, the “second wave” of the pandemic, hospitals and other health facilities are so overburdened that citizens have died without treatment in their houses or even out on the roads. People have died in ambulances on the way to hospitals. People have died outside hospitals waiting for a vacant bed. Family and friends, often themselves stricken, have been pleading in vain with doctors to find a space for their relatives, as they lay gasping for breath. Doctors, helpless, harassed, exhausted and exasperated from working around the clock, have often thrown up their hands and even, in some cases, fled or hidden, though in most cases they have been braving the onslaught tirelessly. This, compounded by the severe shortage of ventilators and other life support gear including oxygen cylinders and crucial medicines for the treatment of critical patients (and reports of black marketeers encashing the situation) would have completed the picture of the sheer horror that is playing out had it not been for a piece of news that trickled in a couple of days ago and that is that dead bodies of suspected Covid victims have been found floating down the Ganges river near the states of Uttar Pradesh and Bihar. Whether or not this poses threats of water contamination (doctors of World Health Organisation have not yet decisively ruled out the possibility that Covid could spread through water), there is something inexplicably hellish about the idea that the people of this great democracy, which is supposed to be on its way to becoming a leading economic power globally, are having to resort to barbaric forms of disposal of the dead.
In this scenario, Didi’s announcement that management of the pandemic is going to be her sole focus until it is brought under control comes as a breath of fresh air.
By way of execution of this plan, steps have been taken to increase healthcare facilities throughout the state. This includes conversion of large numbers of government and other public buildings into temporary clinics for the treatment of Covid patients. Towards this end, Banerjee has held a round of meetings with heads of businesses, leaders of religious establishments and her own administrators and bureaucrats to finalize decisions for their implementation. Plans have been made to deal with the possibility of dead bodies flowing into West Bengal, with Banerjee announcing that her government is going to cremate these if found in West Bengal’s waters.
In the coming weeks will we witness whether the third Trinamool term delivers on its promises.
As far as the political implications of the Trinamool victory is concerned, while the grassroots party, represented by two tiny flowers growing out of the grass, bagged 213 of the 294 Assembly seats, making it one of the highest tallies ever achieved by any single political party in the history of the state’s polls, its chief rival, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) managed to grab 77 seats. Compared to the earlier three seats which BJP won in the Assembly elections of 2016 five years ago, that is indeed a huge gain even though the party’s hopes of snatching power in the state has been dashed.
In fact, the surge in Covid cases as the eight-phase elections were underway in West Bengal, according to a section of political analysts, went against the BJP. People sided with Didi, who had insisted, before the elections, that given that a pandemic was raging, it would not be advisable to prolong the polling process by stretching it out over nearly two months. She had pointed out that the large gatherings that campaigning entailed would cause the virus to spread. However, her apprehensions were not paid heed to. This proved disastrous as Covid cases shot up.
Having established that, however, one needs to see the BJP’s performance in perspective. Once the euphoria of victory settles down for TMC, it would be wise for it to take stock of the reasons why the BJP, regarded as a political party which is unabashedly sectarian, has been able to make so much of an inroad into Bengal, a state whose people pride themselves on their progressive ideals, their lack of interest in divisive issues such as caste and religion, known to make and break elections in many other states, namely Uttar Pradesh and Bihar.
The liberal and secular people of West Bengal may be breathing a sigh of relief that the reins of power have not gone into BJP’s hands currently, but they cannot deny that with 77 MLAs controlling the Opposition, BJP is breathing down its neck.
Question is why did they, who today decry the advent of communal forces, do nothing to stop them in their tracks? In fact, if anything, didn’t they actually allow their entry? Are they themselves not responsible? For decades, did not subsequent governments with pretension of being “progressive, democratic, liberal and secular” let the people down with governance that was mired in complacence, corruption, rhetoric, red-tape, high-handedness and a host of other vices forcing people to keep looking for alternatives?
“Of course they did,” agrees Paranjoy Guha Thakurta, journalist and political analyst who had delineated, in a series of articles before the elections, the perils of a possible pro-right-wing verdict in West Bengal, in his digital news portal, paranjoy.in. “That goes without saying,” he adds. “However, the choice for voters during elections is not about good versus evil but evil versus lesser evil.”
Indeed, no sooner had the TMC won, the debate started about whether the victory was a pro-Trinamool verdict or an out and out anti-BJP one. In other words was Trinamool, the “lesser evil”?
“Not at all,” says Dola Sen, Trinamool member of Rajya Sabha, the upper house of Parliament. “It was a pro-Didi verdict. People did reject the BJP for their polarized, divisive polices but they also voted in favour of Didi for the many schemes she rolled out for the people of the state, especially for the poor, downtrodden and grassroots multitudes.”
That brings us back to the question, what about the huge numbers of votes to BJP, which has virtually wiped out the other Opposition parties?
According to Sen, the culpability for a lack of a more varied representation of political parties in the Opposition lies with the Congress and the Communist parties, which, though earlier occupied the chief Opposition space in the state in the last decade since Trinamool came to power in 2011, have been reduced to complete non-entities these elections, with neither party winning a seat.
“The Congress and the Communist parties did this to themselves because they let the BJP walk away with the votes that they would have got,” she says. “They considered Trinamool to be a bigger enemy than the BJP.”
In fact, Professor Om Prakash Mishra, head of the department of international relations at Jadavpur University, Kolkata and member of Trinamool core committee, who was earlier with the Congress had resigned from the Congress over differences about this issue. He says, “In 2019, I had advocated that the Congress and the Communists join hands for the Parliamentary elections that year. My party did not pay heed and this helped the BJP which pulled in the divided votes. BJP’s seats did not just shoot up from only two to eighteen but their voteshare shot up exponentially. Even after that, I had advocated that the two parties don’t make it easier for the BJP by opposing Trinamool but they did and in the process they got decimated. It didn’t matter to the Trinamool because the people were with Mamata Banerjee but they are responsible for BJP’s gaining ground in West Bengal.”
It is, however, not merely a question of the arithmetic. Anti-incumbency against subsequent regimes in the state paved the way for the creation of an “alternative” space for different political parties. If the excesses of the Emergency and the brutal crushing of insurgencies in the 1970s which saw many young men and women of Kolkata killed by state police, turned people against ruling Congress, the Communists provided the alternative. Then for 34 years the Left Front government ruled, but with such a weak Opposition comprising mainly Congress MLAS that gradually it gave rise to complacence and corruption. When the stagnant state of affairs was finally challenged by the arrival of Mamata Banerjee, people descended on the streets to cheer her on and voted out the earlier regime in the 2011 Assembly elections. In ten years the Congress and the Communists could not put up a strong enough Opposition to challenge Didi. However since 2014, when the BJP came to power in Delhi and went on an aggressive expansion of its base capturing state after state, including in the eastern region, the Northeastern states, where it had virtually no presence earlier (Assam, Manipur, Tripura), the possibility of an alternative began to emerge even in Bengal.
“As the 2019 Parliamentary elections proved, with its dramatic rise, definitely the BJP was already being considered a viable alternative for the people of the state,” says Professor Biswanath Chakraborty, psephologist and political scientist. “Even the result of the just-concluded Assembly elections and the BJP’s increase in voteshare and seats are indicators that a large number of people did vote for this party.”
“There is no denying people did want to give BJP a chance,” says BJP leader, Chandra Kumar Bose. “BJP, unlike Congress, the Left and Trinamool, had not ruled the state earlier and therefore had an edge.” But Bengal BJP insiders claim that the party squandered the opportunity by not adapting. “There was a need to focus on ‘inclusiveness’ in a state like West Bengal where caste and religious polarization does not work. Furthermore, there was need to nurture local leaders who would inspire confidence,” says Bose. “Bengalis at some level felt that there was a threat to Bengali culture and language and the focus on Bengali icons, whether Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose or Kabiguru Rabindranath Tagore was superficial without any attempt at following their ideals.”
As for Trinamool, it does not see the BJP’s numbers in the Opposition as anything to lose sleep over. “The verdict is clearly in favor of Mamata Banerjee and whatever the BJP’s numbers, there is no leader who can stand up to Didi in terms of charisma,” says Sen.
Interestingly, the BJP has chosen a former protege of Didi, Suvendu Adhikari, who had joined the BJP in a high-profile defection before the elections, as leader of the Opposition in the state Assembly.