Cover Story

Mamata Banerjee: What, Me Worry?

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Mamata Banerjee is unfazed by the advantage the CPM-Congress combine has in terms of electoral math

AT 1:15 pm on 8 April, Mamata Banerjee arrived in her Hyundai Santro at the Directorate of Land Records & Surveys in South Kolkata’s Alipore area. She would have been pleased, it appeared, if the car had been even smaller, like a Nano, the cheapest Indian car. After all, the West Bengal Chief Minister’s efforts to sustain an image of austerity are legion. She emerged from the car in an inexpensive white sari and bathroom slippers, as adoring crowds craned their necks to get a glimpse of the diminutive leader, and police and senior Trinamool Congress (TMC) colleagues struggled to keep pace with the 61-year-old who darted into the government office to file her nomination papers to contest South Kolkata’s Bhabanipur Assembly seat, from where she had won a bypoll by a landslide five years ago.

Wait. Has she lost the spring in her step? Has her aggression mellowed a bit? Does her smile have a perfunctory air? Has she let herself be swayed by talk that she would win but with a reduced margin? Or that the CPM-Congress tie-up could give her a tough fight for Muslim votes, her core constituency? Or is she rattled by a swift change in perception in the past five months about her invincibility? Is she losing sleep over allegations of graft, links of party leaders with mafia groups and the media outcry? Or is she upset about not meeting numerous promises, including the return of land to Singur’s farmers who had backed her in a massive agitation in 2008 to get Tata Motors to shift its Nano car factory out of West Bengal?

“No comment,” she replied, to a question whether corruption would be a major factor in this election, as she walked back to her silver-coloured, unadorned car with the number plate ‘WB02 AD 5555’, after filing the papers. Her government has been hurtling from one scam to another. The Trinamool Congress’ widely publicised poll catchphrase, ‘Shototar protik’ (symbol of honesty), has a touch of irony to it: several of its leaders are reportedly involved in the Rs 2,460 crore Saradha ponzi scheme, run by a conglomeration of 200 companies, which offered lucrative schemes to raise hundreds of crores from 1.7 million depositors before it collapsed in April 2013. Saradha’s annual collections had risen rapidly when Mamata Banerjee was Chief Minister. The group had also spent crores of rupees on cycles and ambulances that she distributed in rural Bengal, especially in tribal areas such as Jangalmahal and Muslim-dominated pockets like Birbhum and Malda. To add to the anguish, a recent sting operation by news website Narada caught 11 TMC leaders on camera accepting bribes in return for favours to a fictitious company. “From Saradha to Narada, their record is pathetic and shameful,” says an enthusiastic Mohammed Salim, a Politburo member of the CPM, adding that Mamata “is a deeply worried person”.

A senior TMC leader, however, tells me that ‘Didi’, as she is popularly known, is only ‘fatigued’ by the long-drawn election campaign. “It is mere physical exhaustion,” he insists, “See, anti- incumbency sentiment is not strong enough to unseat her, and the rivals are opportunists; the CPM and the Congress had no reason to come together other than out of sheer desperation.” He asks not to be named because he is not authorised to speak to the media ever since a flyover on Vivekananda Road in Kolkata’s Girish Park area collapsed on 31 March, killing several people; it emerged later that the kingpins of so-called ‘supply syndicates’, which provide raw materials of dodgy quality to builders, ‘report’ to Trinamool men.

Members of the state cabinet express confidence in the party’s re-election chances too. Amit Mitra, the amiable finance minister of West Bengal, asks me to see for myself the development his party has brought about in the state.

LONDON SCHOOL OF Economics Professor Sumantra Bose, who has for decades followed elections closely in the state, agrees with the TMC leader’s view that people have no compelling reasons to elect the CPM alliance. Bose, author of Transforming India: Challenges to the World’s Largest Democracy, explains, “The people of West Bengal are—to state an obvious but important point—electing a government, and a chief minister. This is where the CPM-Congress alliance has a basic credibility deficit. The alliance is based on sheer negativity, and on antipathy to one person—Mamata Banerjee. This kind of negative gang-up can work if the incumbent is overwhelmingly unpopular, and that is not the case with Mamata and the Trinamool Congress regime.”

Notwithstanding audacious forecasts by the likes of CPM’s Salim that TMC won’t secure more than 140 seats in the 294-member West Bengal Assembly, Bose could be right about the logic that people have against voting the CPM to power. True, the ruling party is disliked for its ‘Syndicate Raj’, but memories of the CPM’s arm-twisting, intrusive ways persist.

As I tour key constituencies of the state, striking up conversations with voters, they appear a tad confused about re-electing a government seen as corrupt, one which connives in the activities of gangsters who call the shots in many parts. At the same time, they are perhaps more concerned about giving another chance to a party that ruled the state for 34 years straight until 2011 (first 23 years under Chief Minister Jyoti Basu and 11 years under Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee), patronising corrupt elements and remote-controlling criminal gangs, especially through the 1990s. While some CPM leaders hope that voters will switch allegiance this time too, having got used to the idea five years ago, the TMC expects the electorate to appreciate its populist policies.

In Frasergunj, the scenic spot in the Sundarbans named after Sir Andrew Fraser (who was Lieutenant Governor of Bengal from 1903 to 1908), Nonch Doloi, a thin, gawky fisherman, tells me that his life hasn’t changed even a bit after voting for change in 2011. His answers are mostly in monosyllables, and he isn’t sure if he should vote against the party in power. “Sometimes I think the CPM was better than Trinamool,” he says. Yet, he isn’t absolutely sure whom to back this time. “I will definitely vote, maybe for the CPM. Maybe for Trinamool,” he looks away. Anil Das, another fisherman at the fishing harbour nearby, not far from the windmills that dot the landscape, says that the ruling party may return to power, but he will vote for the CPM this time. Not far away in Kakdwip, Chand Rai, a resident who makes a living lending small movie projectors for people to watch films in a place where migrant workers come and go, says he hopes Didi will do well if she is given another term. “But I will look at local factors before I vote,” adds this 32-year-old. Ramaprasad, a tea seller in Kulpi, says he has been a traditional Trinamool voter. “There are many problems with the current government, but that doesn’t mean I will vote for change,” he offers. He acknowledges that the de facto alliance between the CPM and the Congress is largely a people’s alliance because it was at the grassroots level that they both came together to fight the ‘excesses’ of TMC cadres. “TMC was doing what the CPM had done for long,” he says. Such frankness about one’s favourite is unusual in West Bengal, where political polarisation is extreme. Besides, the ambivalence over their party of choice—irrespective of a belief that TMC may return to power thanks to its welfare policies—underscores the key challenge for Mamata Banerjee if she is returned to power.

Mamata Banerjee expects populist welfare schemes targeted at the poor in the state to see her party through to a second term

The factors that could help her win now would turn into challenges later. Professor Bose argues that West Bengal is an 80 per cent rural state, and the TMC government’s implementation of local development projects since 2011 in rural areas and its populist state-wide welfare schemes aimed at the poorer sections of society are likely to see the TMC through to a second term. “However, during that second term, the expectations of the people of West Bengal will focus on creation of in-state job opportunities. This will require major investments by Indian and also foreign capital in the industrial sector, as well as the IT sector. The potential is there, but it has to be acted upon and realised.”

The tepid response of voters who are otherwise politically well aware serves to highlight public resentment over slow job-creation. Industrial sector growth has been decent since Mamata Banerjee became Chief Minister. She also claims to have created 6.8 million new jobs in four years of her rule amid unprecedented rural distress. But expectations from a leader who had trounced the Marxists in their bastion, a state that had been buffeted by trade unionism and poor industrial growth, were high. She had made many promises to put West Bengal on the fast track of growth that would have generated enough jobs for young people who continue to migrate to other states and overseas for employment. Leaders of the Congress, the CPM’s arch-rival in Kerala (a state which offers far higher daily wages), often poke fun at the Marxists, saying if the latter were to rule Kerala for consecutive terms, then Kerala would go the way of jobs-starved West Bengal.

Things have not improved under Mamata Banerjee, and she has incurred the wrath of a section of farmers even in places like Singur. While TMC leaders argue five years is a short period to fix problems, many voters are disenchanted with the job scenario. In Singur, Akbar Ali Mandal, who says he had sold 22 bighas of land for Tata’s proposed Nano factory at Rs 2 lakh per bigha (against a market price of Rs 30 lakh per bigha), is angry that the Chief Minister hasn’t been able to transfer his land back to him as promised. “I wouldn’t have bothered if the project had come up here and our young people, both boys and girls, had jobs here. This is a nightmarish situation. Even educated young people end up being farmers—otherwise they have to leave the state for lucrative jobs,” says Mandal. He vows that he will vote for the CPM this time, unlike in 2011. Interestingly, Rabin Deb, the CPM candidate from Singur, campaigns in a yellow Nano and has called it “a symbolic act” to drive home the message that his party is pro-industry.

The campaign of CPM-Congress focuses on TMC’s alleged corruption charges; Marxists also hope to use the polls to
revive their organisational strength

Similarly, Anarbhanu Begum, who had sold six bighas for the Tata project, is piqued that Mamata Banerjee is trying to ‘fool’ people with handouts like bicycles and a slight increase in the ration quota. Other farmers in Singur, like Phukir Bhakeeran and Saudagar, also share her views. “TMC has committed a lot of mistakes. And that includes letting criminal gangs run the show even in the countryside,” Bhakeeran charges. The Singur agitation played a pivotal role in Mamata Banerjee’s political fortunes, catapulting her to the state’s leadership in 2011. Her slogans such as ‘Ma Mati Manush ’ (Mother, Motherland and People) and ‘Chup chap, phule chhaap’ (Vote silently for the flower symbol) had struck a chord with voters. Now, as the six-phase elections in the state progress, several residents who Open spoke to—those who had silently voted to oust the CPM in 2011—say Mamata has disappointed them.

The mood in Singur mirrors those in districts such as Murshidabad, West Midnapore, Birbhum and Bankura where it is apparent that the CPM has made a comeback—from not being able to hoist its flags to campaigning aggressively—over the past five years. With Maoists, Mamata’s former pals, upset about what they call her ‘double standards’, the CPM has made a presence in the Jangalmahal area, too, which went to the polls in the first phase on 4 April. Maoists contend that Mamata did not “pay them back” for helping her with agitations in Singur and Nandigram and has also begun targeting them for elimination. “We have moved away from mainstream politics here. Mamata can’t expect us to help her ever again,” says a Maoist leader in Lalgarh, West Midnapore.

Bardhaman, India’s seventh most populous district which was once a CPM stronghold, offers a slightly different picture. TMC has made deep inroads here in a short time, and is a hit with a good chunk of the traditional Congress vote base. TK Chaudhary, a small trader, is convinced that Mamata Banerjee would be able to complete “the work” she has initiated only if she wins a second term. In his constituency, Bardhaman Dakshin, there were “rebel issues” for TMC, but all that has been settled now, he says. Sameer Rai, a TMC leader who had turned a rebel after he was denied a ticket to contest the polls, didn’t turn up to file his nominations to enter the election fray. According to Chaudhary, Mamata deserves to win because she has built new roads and bridges. Sheikh Hafiz, an auto rickshaw driver in Bardhaman town, can’t agree more: “She has not met all expectations, but has done good work,” he says.

Over the past five months though, pollsters have moved away from forecasting a landslide for Mamata to a narrow win. The latest opinion poll by Times Now gives the TMC 160 seats, just 12 more than required to form the next government. A TMC leader who spoke on condition of anonymity says that is a worst-case scenario, considering the gains his party will reap thanks to programmes meant for economically backward girls and the poor. Kanyashree Prakalpa, which incentivised education for the girl child, and Sabooj Sathi, under which bicycles are given away to 40 lakh school students, are some of them.

Sahiruddhin Khan of Dubrajpur strokes his grey beard as I reel out various welfare schemes of the current state government. Then he looks to the skies before he says, “Young man, there are always two aspects to a situation, good and bad. You are focusing too much on the good side. The bad side, too, has to be looked at.” He says this with a philosophical flourish, as if he is suggesting there is a Janus- faced nature to any ruling party. “They have given away cycles and entitlements. What young men in this poor locality need are jobs. Where are they? Entitlements aren’t enough,” says he, adding that the place has earned a bad name over communal skirmishes. “This is because young people are idle and restless,” he says.

Khan’s statement sets the tone, and the people who crowd around me in Dubrajpur, where violence had broken out over an objectionable Facebook post in early March, signal their agreement with the old man. Akash Khan, a student overhearing the conversation, butts in: “As students, we don’t want a slum-like, violent culture here. We want wrongdoers to go to jail. Nobody should protect them. We don’t want syndicates. We want law and order.”

Many who voted for TMC say it has failed to honour its promises. Pollsters forecast a narrow victory rather than a
landslide win for Banerjee

Elsewhere, the Chief Minister has come under sharp attack for ‘Muslim appeasement’ and for refusing to address issues concerning national security by letting gangsters, especially those belonging to the Muslim community, off the hook. “Patronising such elements is the root cause of all problems in West Bengal. That has tainted the image of our party,” concedes a state TMC leader. He goes on to reveal what is more or less common knowledge: that party leaders fight each other for nabbing the “licence” to operate “supply syndicates” in various jurisdictions of the state. It is true, says Professor Bose, that the TMC has developed the reputation of being a den of scamsters. “This morbid development needs urgent attention and repair,” he states.

Sudipta Bhattacharya, head, department of economics and politics at Visva-Bharati University, says that when the CPM was in power, local party leaders used to wield control over gangsters. “Now in many areas of the state, it is the mafia that controls TMC,” he says. Mamata Banerjee has invited criticism from several parties and leaders, including Prime Minister Narendra Modi, for “sheltering” criminals in the state. With an eye on pulling in Muslim votes, she had downplayed the terror angle in the Bardhaman blasts of 2014 and initially refused to cooperate with Central teams in the inquiry. Early this year, she dismissed reports that the Malda violence was communal, and said it was a clash between the BSF and locals in the border district. The BJP and the Left had attacked her for protecting criminals involved in the smuggling of fake currency and drugs in Malda. A police officer told me, “Syndicates have a far greater vice-like grip over people’s lives outside of Kolkata. In the villages, they are out in the open, for all to see.”

I MAKE A TRIP TO Kochpukur, a favela adjoining the fast- growing satellite city of Rajarhat in Kolkata, in search of the kingpin of the syndicate which controls supplies to builders. For a powerful operator of 11 syndicates, Zahiruddin Fakir lives in a slum where you have to walk and ask for directions every two minutes so that you don’t take a wrong turn. A motorist accompanies me to his home after enquiring if he would be in trouble for showing me the residence. Fakir is no ordinary 34-year-old supplier of building raw materials. He provides materials only to high-end housing schemes and infrastructure projects. According to various reports, he is a functionary of TMC’s youth wing, and has several murder and extortion cases against him. He acts at the behest of former TMC legislator Arabul Islam.

Both Banerjee and the CPM-Congress combine are trying to woo Muslim voters through imams and opinion leaders within the community

When I reach his home, I am denied permission to meet him by a menacing-looking Sharaffudin Fakir, who identifies himself as his brother, saying ‘dada’ is in a meeting. Suddenly, bike-bound toughies arrive as if on cue. I am given Zahiruddin’s number and the permission to call him ‘later’. “We Fakirs are into property business,” Sharaffudin says rudely as they watch me leave. Wading my way back through the narrow alleys, I make a call to the phone number given to me. “Meeting.” That was the laconic response. I call again after a few hours. Zahiruddin is still in a ‘meeting’ and promises to call back. He never does.

It is materials supplied by the likes of Fakir, with powerful connections, that led to the fall of the Girish Park flyover on 31 March in which atleast 25 people were killed. It is something of a miracle that Somnath Rai’s medical shop didn’t go under the rubble when the structure collapsed that afternoon. “I was sitting here, and all was over in a matter of a few seconds. People and vehicles got crushed underneath. It was like an end-of-the-world feeling,” says Rai, whose father Radha Benod Rai started this pharmacy, Mahatma Co. (He flaunts a book which has a receipt issued by the shop for medicines bought by Rabindranath Tagore.) Rai expects the flyover to be an election issue that goes in favour of opposition parties, especially in Kolkata.

Like Rai, Chandra Bali Tiwari, caretaker at a century-old, six- storey building adjacent to the flyover that crashed, says it was God alone that saved him and his neighbours. “I don’t want to talk politics, but the suppliers of raw material and engineers are as guilty as the builder,” he says. The government has singled out the builder for attack while dismissing any talk of the role of ‘supply syndicates’ that reportedly enjoy the blessings of TMC leaders. Deepa Dasmunshi, the Left Front-Congress candidate against Mamata, says that she expects the Girish Park accident, which has once again put the spotlight again on the extent of corruption under TMC rule, to have a major impact on the poll outcome. “Her brothers, her party workers and several others close to her are involved in running of ‘syndicates’,” claims Mohammed Salim.

Mamata Banerjee, for her part, has denied any wrongdoing and has dared Modi, who lashed out at her over corruption and the politics of murder, to arrest her and order an inquiry into her party’s alleged acts of violence and corruption.

On social media and on platforms such as TV and radio, the TMC campaign is a high-wattage one, much ahead of its rivals. In line with the tradition of catchy slogans, it has come out with the jingle, ‘Thanda thanda cool-cool, abar jitbe Trinamool (TMC will win again). “We have gone large-scale. We have placed commercial ads across platforms to take the message of Didi to the masses. We are also routinely sending across voice messages through phones,” says a member of the TMC ‘war room’.

On the other side, the Left Front-Congress alliance has been using slogans such as ‘Nijer vote nije din (cast your vote yourself) and ‘Trinamool Hatao, Raj Bachao’, which echoes TMC’s earlier slogan, ‘CPM Hatao, Raj Bachao’. Avik Dutta, a member of the CPM war room (he dislikes this term and prefers to identify it as a ‘team of CPM volunteers’), says the CPM wanted to highlight the “biggest fear” in the ongoing polls: that of booth capturing and ghost voting by TMC cadres.

While TMC has denied attempts to cheat, the Election Commission (EC) has taken cognisance of the surge in final figures compared with the preliminary voting percentage reported by poll officers in the first two phases of the polls. The spike in turnout figures between provisional data and the final count has led to questions about ghost voting. This was observed in places such as Midnapore, Bankura and Purulia. “In a few booths, 100 per cent polling was shown. These are doubtful cases. Let [the EC] examine it,” Biman Basu, CPM Politburo member tells Open, referring to booths such as Booth 18 in Laljal Primary School in Binpur, West Midnapore. In Narayangarh constituency in West Midnapore, where Surjya Kanta Mishra is in the poll fray, the EC received 140 complaints between 7 to 8 am on the polling day of 11 April, forcing the poll panel to change booth officers in some places. Meanwhile, TMC leaders tell me that there is nothing unusual about percentage differences between provisional and final count in this poll.

In this election, as Open has reported earlier in a cover story titled ‘Backlash or Backslap?’, both the main contenders, the Left Front-Congress combine and TMC, are looking to grab the Muslim vote to secure a win. Mamata Banerjee is clearly ahead on this score. In a state where more than 27 per cent are Muslims, she frequently uses the word ‘inshallah’ (God-willing) and addresses audiences as ‘Muslim bhai bon’ (brothers and sisters) in her speeches. That she chose to campaign extensively in Malda, which saw communal violence recently, speaks a lot about her intentions, pundits aver. Such posturing isn’t for nothing. According to data, 46 out of 294 Assembly constituencies of the state have a Muslim ‘concentration’ of more than 50 per cent. The figure is 40-50 per cent in about 16 seats and 30-40 per cent in 33 seats, which means that in at least one-third of the seats in the state, the Muslim vote is the single-most crucial factor for victory. Pundits have put down the drubbing the Left Front suffered in 2011 to Muslims veering away from its fold. Muslim votes are especially crucial in districts such as Malda, Murshidabad, North Dinajpur, Birbhum, Bardhaman, South and North 24 Parganas, Nadia and Cooch Behar. Accordingly, Mamata Banerjee has found friends in the right places. She has forged tie-ups with the Jamiat Ulama-i-Hind (JuH) and has managed to woo leaders such as Abdur Razzak Molla, former CPM veteran, into the TMC fold.

“Muslims have understood that she is with them only for their votes,” says Mohammed Salim, who expects Muslims to vote en masse for Left Front and Congress candidates. The CPM, too, is trying hard to woo Muslim voters by establishing contact with various imams and opinion leaders within the community. Its leaders also expect the alliance of sorts with the Congress to help attract Urdu-speaking Muslims who had traditionally voted for the Congress. The CPM-Congress poll arrangement is based on what is now called the ‘Siliguri Model’. Though CPM leaders hasten to repeat time and again that there is no ‘alliance’ but only an ‘understanding’ with the Congress, it was in last year’s local elections in Siliguri that the two political forces joined hands unofficially to post a win. CPM leader Ashok Bhattacharya became Siliguri mayor, trouncing the TMC candidate.

Professor Bose doesn’t see such an unofficial alliance making a big impact at the state level. The calculus of the CPM-Congress alliance has its limits, he argues. It is true that in the 2014 Lok Sabha election, the combined vote shares of the Left Front and the Congress (30 per cent and 9 per cent, respectively) equal the TMC’s 39 per cent, he says. “However, in about three-fourths of West Bengal’s 294 Assembly constituencies, the Congress vote is negligible—in the lower single-digits in percentage terms. Moreover, it is not clear whether even this paltry vote will be fully transferred to Left Front candidates. So while the CPM-Congress alliance can damage the TMC’s overall prospects, [the effect] is not likely to reach the level necessary to unseat the TMC government,” Bose points out. “Furthermore, since 2011 the Left Front’s vote has steadily declined, from 41 per cent even in the watershed defeat of 2011 to just 30 per cent three years later, in the 2014 Lok Sabha election. It seems that key sectors consisting of the poorer sections of society—Muslims, SC groups and STs—whose support was crucial to the CPM’s 34-year Raj—have been moving away from the Left Front and towards the TMC since 2011. The joker in the pack is the BJP,” he explains.

Bose goes on, “[The BJP] gained an unprecedented 17 per cent vote share in West Bengal in the 2014 Lok Sabha election, and would be lucky to reach half that level in this election. Where the other half or so of the 2014 BJP vote goes in this election could determine the results in several dozen constituencies—my best guess is that most of these constituencies will go in favour of TMC.” The leaders of the Left Front and the Congress don’t think so. “There is a wave or at least a sentiment against Mamata,” Salim says. Sure, this election is unlikely to be as easy as other elections held since 2011.

Seated on the second floor of CPM’s run-down-yet-iconic state headquarters, Muzaffar Ahmed Bhawan on 31 Alimuddin Street, party veteran Biman Bose doesn’t seem as excited as his comrades. “Let’s see,” he says matter-of-factly about his party’s poll prospects. “Six months ago, our people didn’t come out. Now they are coming out,” he states softly, before asking me to leave him alone and burying his head in a pamphlet.