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Interview: Mamata Banerjee is Reaping the Political Dividends of Her Populist Policies

In conversation with political scientist Ranabir Sammadar on the strategies deployed by Banerjee to enhance TMC’s electoral base, her big victory in the bypolls, and the reasons for BJP’s sudden popularity.

West Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee is reaping political dividends of populist policies, ‘60% of which are being implemented on the ground’. Credit: Reuters

Led by Mamata Banerjee, the Trinamool Congress (TMC) rode to power in Bengal in 2011. Seven years on, the ruling party has not only retained its core support base but is also in the process of expanding its electoral base. The latest results of the Uluberia Lok Sabha and Noapara assembly polls corroborate this trend.

Equally significant has been the electoral emergence of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in Bengal – a state where prior to 2014, the party did not have any electoral presence. In the changed political context, however, dislodging the Communist Party of India-Marxist (CPI-M), the BJP is fast emerging as the TMC’s principal adversary. A trend borne out by the Uluberia and Noapara results.

Two important questions arise in Bengal’s rapidly shifting political scenario: What are the strategies deployed by Banerjee to enhance her party’s electoral strength? And what explains the sudden electoral popularity of BJP?

Speaking to The Wire, political scientist Ranabir Samaddar, who is currently a distinguished professor at the Calcutta Research Group, explains some of the political shifts and strategies that are being deployed by both TMC and BJP.

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How do you explain the BJP’s sudden electoral presence in a state like Bengal?

It is indeed clear that the BJP is rising in Bengal’s electoral politics. But I am not ready to give it the importance media is attaching to this phenomenon. The BJP does not have hegemony over the people. The party, at present, is building its support constituencies.

Admittedly, Bengal is witnessing religious polarisation. The BJP is playing its politics of harping on hindutva, talking about migration from Bangladesh. In addition, the party is also creating a wedge between OBCs, Scheduled Castes and Muslims. This is paying the party electoral dividends.

How is it impacting politics on ground?

Earlier Bengal practised a different kind of politics  in the Muslim-majority border states – let’s say in Malda and Murshidabad, for instance. Today, the BJP is repeatedly raising the “Muslim question” – casting doubts and creating anxieties about people coming to these districts from Bangladesh. The BJP is trying to turn these into exceptional political issues. This is what I mean when I say there has been a crystallisation of religious votes.

But Bengal with a 25% Muslim and 19% Dalit population, is still willing to accept these as normal realities. What the BJP is holding up as exceptional is nothing but normal in the mosaic of Bengal politics.


Also read: Is Mamata Banerjee Willing to Do What It Takes to Keep BJP Out of Bengal?


What are the other factors that are contributing to the BJP’s rise in Bengal politics?

One of the factors is the complete vacuousness of CPI-M politics. They have no organisation left to build up class politics. And the party finds it difficult to protest the TMC’s politics given that Mamata Banerjee has projected herself as a left of centre leader. Votes are shifting from the CPI-M to BJP. These maybe anti-government votes but not necessarily votes in favour of the BJP’s Hindutva politics.

How is the TMC still expanding its electoral support base?

That is the real question. It is truly remarkable that the TMC is not just holding on to its base but increasing its electoral space. How do we explain this phenomenon?

First of all, the TMC is reaping the political dividends of its populist policies. Had these been just empty promises like the BJP’s, then the party would have hit an impasse. But the fact is that people can see that 60% of these policies are being implemented.

Interestingly, like in Tamil Nadu and Kerala, we are witnessing in Bengal the emergence of a developmental bureaucracy whose role has never been examined by political theorists or academics. Thirty-four years of Left-Front rule had politicised the bureaucracy. What we now find is a development-oriented bureaucracy, focussed on delivering services.

BJP presence is growing in Bengal’s electoral politics mainly due to religious polarisation. Credit: PTI

Earlier you said that democracy is working differently in Bengal. Could you please elaborate?

Mamata Banerjee’s vote base is a lower class vote base. The TMC has usurped or absorbed much of the CPI-M’s rural and semi-rural base. The party has replaced the CPM’s committee style of functioning with a personalised style.

In every district, there is an Anubrata Mondal (though this is an extreme example), which represents not just muscle power but also represents a party which is delivering on the ground. Under the CPI-M, people were bound by ideology and to party committees.

Democracy is now working in a different way. Each and every district has powerful individual TMC leaders who are content to be local leaders wielding power. The TMC does have committees but these are not iron-clad committees like the CPI-M’s. Intra-TMC factional struggles will continue but Mamata will step in to intervene. And there will be a temporary solution.

You have earlier said that Mamata Banerjee is redefining secularism. Could you please explain?

Mamata’s cadres are playing to all religious constituencies. Priests – they are holding Matua, Vaidik, Brahmin sammelans. Mamata is not practising CPI-M’s secularism. She is redefining secularism – let all religions co-exist. The state will be respectful to all religions. She advocates tolerance.

There is a difference between saying that a government is secular and a government is tolerant. I am not going into the question of whether this is good or bad. The TMC has absorbed Left’s secularism and redefined it. Mamata claims that she is the Left.

After her party’s victory in Uluberia and Noapara, Mamata Banerjee has once again asked the Left and Congress to work unitedly with her party to defeat the BJP.

Mamata has said today that all anti-BJP forces should decide on the strongest anti-BJP candidate in each constituency in the 2019 general elections. Basically, such a tactic would prevent anti-BJP votes from being splintered. For instance, a combined strength of Left, TMC and Congress votes will immediately arrest the BJP’s march in Bengal.

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