The Calcutta High Court’s decision to suspend the panchayat poll process in West Bengal is a major blow to Mamata Banerjee, for it shows that her government has not been able to ensure even a routine administrative procedure like the peaceful conduct of an election campaign.
The failure is a blot on a government which is not only in power with a comfortable majority but also claims to be highly popular. What the judicial verdict has indicated, therefore, is that the government has been either unable or unwilling to act against the Trinamool Congress cadres who have been accused by the opposition parties of preventing them from filing the nomination papers.
To make matters worse, the State Election Commission has apparently been coerced by the government to withdraw an earlier decision to extend the time for filing nominations. From both the aspects of the rampaging cadres and the arm-twisting of a constitutional body, the government has emerged in extremely poor light.
By allowing the situation to deteriorate to such a level, Mamata Banerjee has done a disservice to her professed mission of leading the charge against the Narendra Modi government. Instead, the well-known street-fighting capabilities of the Trinamool Congress have again come to the fore.
Yet, given the general perception of the Chief Minister’s hold over the state, it can seem odd that the ruling party should have been so intent on cowing down its opponents. The party performed satisfactorily in the 2013 panchayat elections, winning 13 of the 17 zilla parishads and faring equally well in the gram panchayats, although there were also complaints about intimidation and rigging against the Trinamool Congress in that year, with 24 people dying in poll-related violence.
There is little doubt that the Trinamool Congress will have little difficulty in winning a majority of the seats this year as well. But its fear apparently is the extent of the gains which its latest adversary, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), may make.
As is known, the BJP has been steadily improving its position in West Bengal at the expense of the Left and the Congress. In the recent by-elections to the Uluberia Lok Sabha and Noapara assembly seats, the BJP came second to the Trinamool Congress, pushing the communists to the third position. The Congress was nowhere in the picture.
The general belief is that the BJP has been cashing in on Mamata Banerjee’s pro-Muslim image and has also been unabashedly displaying its aggressive Hindutva policies as during the Ram Navami celebrations when the saffron activists took to the streets carrying arms.
Although it is widely conceded that the BJP has a long way to go before it can pose a serious challenge to the Trinamool Congress, the latter is scared that a noticeable improvement in the BJP’s position in the panchayat elections will enable it to build a base which will prove handy to the party in 2019 when it hopes to add substantially to its tally of two Lok Sabha seats (out of 42) which it won in 2014.
For Mamata Banerjee, even a marginal setback is unacceptable because she belongs to a generation of Bengali politicians to whom the BJP is an outlier although its founder when the party was known as the Jan Sangh, Syama Prasad Mookerjee, was a Bengali.
However, the way in which her party cadres went about trying to stop the BJP in its tracks is damaging to her reputation because a leader who is thinking of putting together an alternative to the ruling dispensation at the Centre cannot afford, first, to appear unsure on her home turf and, secondly, of resorting to brawling tactics.
Such ploys make her stand out as a provincial immersed in local politics with its “tradition” of violence with which the communists were associated both when they were in the opposition and when they were in power. The Trinamool Congress appears to be continuing in that mode, presumably because it has coopted many of those who were earlier in the Communist Party of India-Marxist.
What the BJP’s opponents will have to remember is that one reason why the saffron outfit is believed to be losing ground in northern and western India is the lawlessness of some of its followers like the gau rakshaks or those who target courting couples belonging to different religions or threaten to bury alive filmmakers and actresses whose artistic works they do not like.
As Hamid Ansari said in his last interview as the Vice President, Muslims are among those who have been feeling insecure in the last few years because of the unruly conditions. The reason is the atmosphere of communal animosity for which the Hindutva storm-troopers are responsible.
Any party which wants to project itself as the core around which an opposition to the government at the Centre is expected to coalesce, as Mamata Banerjee wants to do, cannot go down the same path of intimidation and anarchy.
By Amulya Ganguli
(Amulya Ganguli is a political analyst. The views expressed are personal. He can be reached at [email protected] )