The chief minister is likely to escape the full impact of anti-incumbency because of the inadequate substance and stature of her political challengers – the Left, Congress and the BJP.
After over a month of election fever in West Bengal it is clear that an increasingly beleaguered state Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee is no longer the immovable force she appeared to be even six months ago. In the capital Kolkata both the Bengali Bhadralok intelligentsia and the business and trading establishment have turned their back on her. Even in the countryside the sheer weight of the combined Left and Congress vote, at least on the face of it, does put the Trinamul Congress in a spot of bother.
Yet, despite this seeming vulnerability, there is good reason to believe that come May 19 when the votes are counted Mamata Banerjee will emerge ahead of her Left-Congress rivals. One reason for this, no doubt, is that even when cornered the stormy petrel of West Bengal politics remains a formidable mass leader with a direct emotive connect as ‘Didi’ to a sizeable section of the rural poor. But a far more important reason why the chief minister is likely to escape the full impact of anti-incumbency is the woefully inadequate substance and stature of her political challengers.
It is perhaps unfair to expect much from the state unit of the Congress which has been thoroughly cannibalised by the Trinamul Congress over the past few decades. In fact hapless Congressmen in the state actually stood in danger of being sold lock, stock and barrel to the ruling party not so long ago when Congress president Sonia Gandhi and Mamata Bannerjee were considering reviving their alliance. Fortunately for the local Congress it was the Trinamul Congress supremo who backed out reportedly after signals from the central government that if she moved too close to the Congress, New Delhi may once again tighten the screws on the Saradha scam.
Local Congressmen are openly grateful for the far more dignified arrangement with the Left which has been generous in gifting them as many as 90 seats, perhaps thrice the number it would have got in alliance with the Trinamul Congress. The Congress is expected to do very well in its strongholds of Malda and Murshidabad, where it has retained local support over the years even as senior party leaders defected or became irrelevant. However, the very prospect of the Congress providing leadership or vision for an alternative to Mamata Bannerjee is a laughable proposition.
So it is the Marxists with their 34 year uninterrupted reign of the state and elaborate party organisation that has to do the heavy lifting if the Left-Congress alliance is to project a credible option. Unfortunately, the current leadership – with the aged party chief Biman Bose and the nondescript Suryakanta Mishra as the chief ministerial face of the alliance – hardly provides any energy or dynamism to the campaign. Veteran leaders like Buddhadev Bhattacharya and Nirupam Sen or the flamboyant Gautam Deb, who once wielded political clout. appear to have faded away.
“CPM budda lok ka party ban gaya, na hai josh na hai jaan (CPM has become a party of old men who have no energy or life),” lamented a Muslim private cab driver in Kolkata whose family has been voting for the Left for several decades.
Biman Bose who used to be some years ago an amiable intellectual, if not a mass leader, has become a cantankerous old leader. When a couple of senior women journalists walked into his office at the Alimuddin Street party headquarters last week he looked visibly annoyed and after a brief altercation started shrieking at them to get out.
Similarly Mishra, who lacks both personal charisma and political skills, was singularly unimpressive while addressing a public meeting in a largely Muslim dominated locality near a clutch of mosques in Entally, Park Circus. Left leaders at the rally strangely decided to dwell at length on the suicide by Dalit research scholar Rohith Vemulla and the harassment of students like Kanhaiya which are all palpably extraneous to the burning issues of the state assembly polls.
The absence of leadership in the Left is compounded by the shallowness of it campaign. Marxists who have all along boasted of ideological heft have been reduced to merely chanting the chorus of “Chor Chor” against the Mamata regime. This may have scored some brownie points with those already hostile to the state government but completely failed to communicate a positive agenda of change. Having ruled the state for so long the Left also suffers from being perceived as the ancient régime and the original perpetrators of West Bengal’s downfall.
The Left is particularly handicapped by the fact that its textbook Marxist support base of the poor and exploited masses, particularly in the countryside, have crossed over in vast numbers to the Mamata camp and it is support of the rural poor that could help her survive her disastrous administrative record. Marxists are paying the price for not wooing the landless and small peasantry more aggressively, having done little for them since the land redistribution programs by Harekrishna Konar and Benoy Choudhury several decades ago. The fact of the matter is that Mamata Banerjee, with her democratic populism propelled by a myriad welfare schemes, has comprehensively trumped the Left’s class struggle.
There is more than touch of irony to the Left-led alliance’s most vociferous supporters in the current elections being entirely bourgeois in composition – the Bengali Bhadralok intelligentsia, the business and trader establishment and last, but not the least local newspaper magnate Abheek Sarkar of the Ananda Bazar Patrika group which has been the in the forefront of left bashing over the past many decades. It goes without saying that in the unlikely event of the Left-Congress alliance coming to power, the Marxists would not only have to contend with managing contradictions with the Congress but also satisfying the demands of its new bourgeois base.
The only consolation for the Left is that its bitter ideological foe, the BJP, is the biggest loser in these elections considering it’s high hopes not so long ago to become at least the principal opposition force after bagging 17 percent vote in the 2014 Lok Sabha polls. With the no-holds-barred fight between Mamata Banerjee dominating the entire electoral battlefield the Sangh Parivar’s dreams of acquiring political stature in the land of its only Bengali icon Shyamaprasad Mukherjee appear to have collapsed for the moment.
Note: This article has been edited to replace the name of Promode Dasgupta with Benoy Choudhury