West Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee has every reason in the world to be ecstatic over the results of the municipal polls in the state. The conclusive victory of the Trinamul Congress in all the major urban clusters, with the solitary exception of Siliguri that gave the Communist Party of India (Marxist) some reason to believe there is life after a paralytic stroke, establishes a few obvious home truths.
First, it is quite clear that Ms Banerjee has politically recovered from the adverse publicity and the political scare she got after the skeletons from the Saradha scam started tumbling out in rapid succession. From the victory podium, the chief minister may well proclaim that the entire controversy was contrived and owed entirely to her spat with a major media group. However, discounting the hyperbolic excesses of political propaganda, it would seem that Ms Banerjee played her cards rather well. In particular, while denouncing the Central Bureau of Investigation as a political arm of the Bharatiya Janata Party, she simultaneously managed to send a signal that the investigators wouldn’t go the whole hog — not least because the Narendra Modi government could do with the Trinamul Congress’ support or, at least, its token opposition to various pieces of economic legislation.
The point is not so much how much of this dual track approach was based on reality but that the nudge-nudge-wink-wink politics was successful in confusing the local BJP. Ms Banerjee, it would seem, took a leaf out of the Left book. Throughout its tenure in Writers’ Building, the Left Front combined the pretence of strident opposition to the Congress with expedient adjustments in day-to-day governance. The result was that the Congress rank-and-file was confused and often demoralised. Ms Banerjee’s political graph during the Left Front decades can be located in her attempts to reverse this pattern of opposition politics.
Earlier this year the local BJP made a great deal of fuss over Ms Banerjee’s growing political disorientation — particularly after the easing out of her close aide Mukul Roy — and a new set of damning revelations by the CBI. When neither turned out to be true, the BJP’s forward march in the state was abruptly halted. Like the Congress of yore, the BJP too is over-dependent on how the national party moves. Its ability to be locally autonomous is, as yet, limited.
Secondly, it would seem that the quantum of urban discontent against Ms Banerjee’s supposedly whimsical rule has been exaggerated. The spectacular advances made by the BJP in the general election of May 2014 in the urban areas was, in hindsight, the mirror image of the national mood. While there was certainly a local basis to this endorsement of Mr Modi, there was, for example, less of an urban tilt towards the BJP in neighbouring Orissa where too a regional party held sway. Its importance shouldn’t be over-read.
A study of elections invariably reveals that the importance of local issues diminishes according to the level: it is lowest in Lok Sabha battles and highest in contests over local bodies and panchayats. A fleeting visit to Kolkata a week before polling clearly revealed that while the BJP had acquired a great deal of visibility in the past year, it was still lacking in social depth. The Trinamul Congress, on the other hand, had positioned itself as the dominant party of West Bengal, easing out the Left that is in a desperate battle to stay relevant and intact. Whereas the ubiquitous local committee of the CPI(M) controlled mohalla affairs with an iron hand, the Trinamul Congress was dependent on the informal network of local clubs that busied themselves with a range of activities, from organising the Durga Puja celebration to extorting money from contractors at building sites. Often swearing allegiance to rival factions of the Trinamul Congress, these clubs have been assiduously cultivated by the Trinamul Congress and even bankrolled by the state government. The class politics of the CPI(M) has been eased out by the Trinamul Congress’ carom board politics.
This celebration of idleness as a political virtue doesn’t probably augur well for the work culture of West Bengal — a principal reason why Kolkata is a great place to retire to but less rewarding as a job or professional destination — but the political returns are handsome. Ever since the Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee government faltered in its attempt to try and restore some of West Bengal’s industrial glory, the political class as a whole has given up the challenging project of economic regeneration. The quest for gross domestic happiness appears to have replaced the arduous quest for notching up gains in the gross domestic product. No wonder Kolkata has become a city of unending carnivals that cut across the religious divide.
Finally, there is a simple arithmetical dimension to the Trinamul Congress’ clean sweep in the municipal polls. After 2014, the opposition to Ms Banerjee was split between the CPI(M) that has historical roots in the state and the BJP which is yet to acquire a definite social profile. The contest in the local polls wasn’t merely to determine the quantum of Trinamul Congress dominance; it also centred on the Opposition space. The BJP’s principal objective was to achieve as the principal Opposition force, overtaking the CPI(M). Consequently, the results will not be up to its level of expectations since the CPI(M) has ensured patches of red in a sea of green.
It is often felt that the BJP’s lack of progress owes to its inability to acquire a bhadralok profile. I would tend to disagree for the simple reason that the old-style patrician leadership that defined both the Left and the Congress is now a thing of the past. A prolonged spell of economic stagnation and decline has led to the marginalisation of the old-style bhadralok from public life. What has emerged instead is a breed of local activists who are able to connect and identify with a new culture of plebianism — and I don’t use the term in any pejorative sense. In her style and persona, Ms Banerjee combines traces of a genteel past with an overweight of street politics and all that is associated with it. As much as its politics, it is West Bengal’s shifting social map that demands dissection.
Asian Age, May 1, 2015