Criticism about her economic policy, or the lack of one, does not worry Mamata. She has her eyes set on rural votes.
When Mamata Banerjee launched her campaign for the 2011 assembly polls, she had the support of several political parties and an army of intellectuals who opposed the Left Front government’s plan to acquire farmland in Singur and Nandigram. Five years since, the West Bengal chief minister and her Trinamool Congress have chosen to go it alone in the polls. Former allies such as the Congress, the Socialist Unity Centre of India (SUCI) and the Party of Democratic Socialism (PDS) have deserted her. Also diminished is the support of intellectuals, some of whom have become her fiercest critics.
The political scene in West Bengal has changed drastically. Mamata’s party has grown several times in size and influence, much like the net worth of some Trinamool legislators, since coming to power. The Congress has joined hands with the Left Front, and so have small parties like the PDS. SUCI is going it alone.
Mamata is campaigning alone this time, unaccompanied by intellectuals and leaders of her own party. Travelling across the state, she allows only the candidate and local leaders on the dais. Recently, she made an emotional appeal to voters. “Please don’t withdraw your blessings,” she said. “Otherwise, it will be difficult for me to move ahead.”
Her party has been under a cloud after the Saradha chit fund scandal broke in 2013. It received another blow this March, when a news portal called Narada News showed Trinamool leaders allegedly taking bribes. In April, the Calcutta High Court formed a three-member committee—a CBI officer, a High Court officer and a police inspector general—to examine the footage of the sting operation by the portal.
Mamata, who at first tried to ignore the sting, is now on the back foot. She has asked Partha Chatterjee, cabinet minister and Trinamool secretary-general, to carry out an internal inquiry. Said Trinamool spokesperson Derek O’Brien: “Let the truth about dirty tricks, political blackmailing and vendetta be uncovered.”
By campaigning alone, Mamata is apparently trying to distance herself from the allegations. Unlike in 2011, she has spent less on advertisement and more on flying. She is crisscrossing the state on choppers and airplanes to reach out to as many people as possible. “She is giving all her time for campaigning,” said Partha Chatterjee. “She does not even sleep now.”
A reason for her lack of sleep could well be the alliance between the Congress and Left parties. Their combined attack on Trinamool has forced Mamata to urge people to think of her as the candidate in all 294 seats. “She is a person of unimpeachable integrity,” O’Brien told THE WEEK. “It is reassuring for the voter.”
TO COUNTER THE allegations against Trinamool leaders, Mamata is highlighting her social welfare schemes and development initiatives. Thanks to an increase in the growth of small-scale enterprises and good monsoons for three consecutive years boosting crop production, Mamata has been able to present a rosy picture of the economy. But the fact is that the government is banking mostly on an expanded tax base and is facing serious cash crunch and static growth of around 7 per cent. Also, it has failed to attract investments to boost industrial growth.
O’Brien, however, said the state was in a bad situation when Trinamool came to power in 2011. “In 2011, we inherited a state which was in such a bad condition that no one would have bought it even if it was put up for auction,” he said. “The CPI(M) bled Bengal in three and a half decades. In the past four and a half years, we have really turned things around. We have changed people’s lives irrespective of whom they worship and where they come from. We have launched a number of schemes, which have been internationally acclaimed. We have to build on these successes.”
Criticism about her economic policy, or the lack of one, does not worry Mamata. She has her eyes set on rural votes. Months before the elections were declared, she launched a scheme to supply rice and wheat at Rs 2 per kilo. She has spent around Rs 250 crore for bicycles for youth and more than Rs 200 crore for funding youth clubs across the state. To ensure the support of Muslim voters, who make up about 27 per cent of the electorate in Kolkata, Mamata has spent Wakf board funds to pay stipends to clerics.
Such initiatives have ensured that the cadre base of the Trinamool remains intact, despite the steady slide in the popularity of Mamata and her party. “We are being taken care of by didi. Why should we desert her?” asked Biplab Tarafdar, a Trinamool worker at Shyampukur area in Kolkata.
Though they were given funds to encourage sports activities, many clubs have used the money to refurbish their offices, buy televisions and organise health care camps. The clubs have been promised more such doles if Trinamool returns to power. Municipalities have been asked to light up roads and to organise more festivals and fairs.
“Mamata understood the mind of Bengalis,” said Abhijit Sarkar, who works at a software company in Kolkata. “They love celebrations and having smooth roads and lanes. And they got it. For urban people, the definition of development is good roads, eateries, malls…. The chief minster understood it. But the irony is that… rural areas are as dark as ever.”
With her populist schemes, Mamata has been able to satisfy a significant percentage of the electorate. But she may have overlooked a section whose votes would be crucial in this election. About 50 per cent of voters are under 35, and 14 per cent have just turned 18. The young voters are largely unaware of the misrule of the Left and the history of violent clashes between the Congress and the CPI(M), and may not appreciate Mamata’s brand of politics.
“This group will decide the election,” said Congress MP Pradip Bhattacharya. “Mark my words: this generation will not support Mamata because she has failed to show them how to get a job after getting a good education.”
PERHAPS, what might help Mamata win is the strong presence of the BJP. In her own constituency, she is locked in a three-corner fight with Deepa Dasmunsi of the Congress and Chandra Bose of the BJP. Many people say Bhawanipore would have become Mamata’s Waterloo if Chandra Bose had not entered the fray.
In the run-up to the 2014 Lok Sabha elections, Mamata called Modi danga babu (riot man). A few days ago, Modi hit back. “The TMC is a party of Terror, Maut (death) and Corruption,” he said. Mamata desisted from making a retort and was content saying “the PM should respect his chair”.
CPI(M) central committee member Gautam Deb said there was an understanding between Modi and Mamata. “In fact, Mamata is helping the BJP gain ground in the state so that the fight becomes triangular,” he said. “But we will ensure that the votes against Mamata are cast in favour of us.”
O’Brien denied Deb’s allegation. “Our political rivals are the BJP, the CPI(M) and the Congress,” he said. “Everything else is just speculation.”