By Ashis Biswas
For the coming civic polls in Bengal, both the ruling Trinamool Congress (TMC) and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) have focused on reconstructing their strategies post 2019 Lok Sabha elections.
Leaders and activists in both parties have been busier than their counterparts in the Left Front (LF) and Congress (INC). Pushed by an increasingly assertive BJP, the TMC has been forced to go unannounced into an early campaigning mode.
In recent months, the TMC has made some deep-going changes in its internal functioning, resetting its organisational structure and working style. Mamata Banerjee’s total and inalienable political authority, of course, remains unchanged. This has been the TMC’s instinctive response to a situation that has turned strongly negative for it since May 2019. In a few months, the party will engage in an even more decisive battle for its very survival approaching the 2021 State Assembly elections. All indications suggest that it will fight to the bitter end, from a defensive position.
In contrast, its main challenger the BJP has been active with less fanfare and visibility. Being the better organised party, it has effectively utilised the post LS poll period in building and expanding its ground level mass organisation. During the LS polls, it could man only about 50% of the 78,000 polling stations in Bengal. Currently, the BJP has set up booth committees for over 70,000 and by year-end, should cover the lot.
Further, its presence has been bolstered at the second level. Fearing that there may still be pockets of weakness for their party men to function, BJP-affiliated mass organisations have their independent plans to put their people in the booths, in the name of other outfits. This second line of defence now stands ready in around 36,000 booths. Work is onto cover more booths. In other words, the 2021 Assembly polls will be fought with no quarters to be given or asked for. The other major contenders, the Congress and the Left Front parties led by the CPI(M), seem foredoomed play a side role, in common perception.
However, there is no denying that both the INC and the LF have been trying hard for some time to regain lost relevance, being creative with new tactical ideas. They have fought recent elections singly or in tandem, and organised joint rallies etc. While these won a measure of support, it was still not clear whether fighting in a combo or going separate ways, the LF/INC will be posing a major challenge to the ruling TMC . Worse even if there is any increase in their vote share, it will help the ruling TMC. The civic polls may re-position the ruling TMC emerging as the leading force, given its obvious advantage as the authority incumbent. Yet, there is a mixed perception about the TMC in urban areas of Bengal. While peoples’ attitudes towards its civic performance may not be wholly negative, there is a genuine anger among new young voters over the colossal failure of the TMC to generate new jobs or economic opportunities to meet their rising aspirations. Also, the ubiquitous cut-money culture where hardly any work gets done in Bengal without people having to shell out huge bribes to some TMC councilors, MLAs or MPs, is also strongly resented. A scholar working at Indian Statistical Institute estimated that such massive bribery in Bengal which was surprisingly allowed to continue virtually unchallenged, spawned a parallel black money economy involving nearly Rs 34,000 crore annually! Significantly, neither Finance Minister Amit Mitra nor any other economist of note chose to contest such assertions publicly.
This is not to suggest that all TMC leaders are corrupt. Unfortunately, there are doubts about some of them. Aware that she was losing her popularity and following, the Chief Minister lost no time to delegate organisational responsibility to the new millennial magic man Prashant Kishor. Such a thing has happened for the first time in Banerjee’s spectacular political run since 2007. Whether announcing a film festival programme, the opening of a college, or a new sewerage facility, there was -- and is -- only Banerjee’s smiling face in every Bengal Government ad, with its mandatory message that the work had been on her ‘inspiration’! TMC Insiders say that Kishor reporting only to Banerjee and Abhishek (not often seen in public nowadays) has recommended giving boot to 25% of the present sitting councilors in Kolkata Corporation. Reason: people do not think well of them. This has naturally set the proverbial cat rampaging among TMC loyal pigeons. Few know who is for the chop, as suspicion rules supreme. There is much frantic texting and lobbying as existing alignments get reshaped, and reset. Party leaders Subrata Bakshi and the heir apparent Abhishek have declared that ‘no lobbying will be tolerated and the CM alone will have the last word, in finalising tickets for Councillors. The question arises, will this inner party purge -- a poor man’s Kamaraj plan within the TMC -- to give it a much needed sanitised, more respectable look, will work? Observers remain sceptical. The party had been always run by Banerjee and her close coterie, its composition changing from time to time.
The moment somebody was sidelined, he/she sank without a trace, because none of the other parties -- the much weakened INC, the Left etc -- could ensure their survival.
This narrative changed irrevocably, 2019 LS polls. The BJP turned out to be not only a growing peril. It is actually challenging the TMC on its home turf, winning 40% of the Bengal vote as against the TMC’s 43% in 2019, winning in 18 as against 22 LS seats! Dissidents in all parties now have a go- to destination, which brings a new dimension to the single party domination of political culture in Bengal.
In case some TMC men are denied tickets in the civic polls, their exodus to BJP with their followers is a certainty. The BJP has emerged as an alternate power centre to the TMC in its home base, a magnet for all who feel alienated by the TMC’s cut money culture, its nepotism and corruption. They feel that such evils can be challenged. Mamata’s words need not be the last in Bengal, nor her leadership unquestionably absolute. No wonder she and her cronies are concerned,’ explains Charubrata Ray, Kolkata-based analyst.