Thanda thanda, cool cool,
abar jitbey Trinamul!
(Thanda thanda, cool cool
This win too is Trinamul’s!”)
The West Bengal elections started on April 4. And this slogan of the Trinamul Congress (TMC) may very well turn out to be true when the elections are finally over in May. Especially since right from the morning there have been accusations of booth capturing and rigging against the ruling TMC. Local police, who have been strictly prohibited by the Election Commission from entering poll booths, have been caught on camera in poll booths, supervising, assisting and openly ushering voters into the booth and helping them cast their ballot at the electronic voting machine (EVM).
At some booths, EVMs have been placed in front of a window or two, making it easier for party workers to oversee and assist voters from outside. Opposition party workers have been chased away from many booths, TMC’s polling agents have been seen guiding voters inside booths, and entire poll booths have been taken over by the ruling party in many places. In West Medinipur’s Salboni, for example, a part of Jangalmahal that was thick with Maoists when Mamata Banerjee came to power, there were reports of eight poll booths being captured by the TMC.
This, even though the districts that are going to the polls in this first phase — Medinipur, Purulia and Bankura — are teeming with Central Reserved Police Force jawans. There are yelps at the CRPF’s inability to stop the local cops from flouting EC norms, until the media gets on their case and broadcasts gross violations. It reminds you of chief minister Mamata Banerjee’s comment some days ago: “The Central forces are here for just three days, after which the state would again be in charge of security”. But this “veiled threat”, as the Opposition has seen it, is far from true. The CRPF is going to be in West Bengal till May, and even now they do not seem to be in charge of security near polling stations. As I write this, the EC has already received about 500 complaints of electoral irregularities. The Opposition is distraught that the EC has not taken action except in a handful of cases.
The turnout in this first phase has been enormous. Just Jangalmahal, the most backward region of Bengal and den of Maoists, has seen a turnout of more than 75 per cent. West Medinipur, part of Jangalmahal, has seen a turnout of 79 per cent. This probably signals a TMC win in these booths, especially since it is alleged that the CRPF have been sidelined in many of these areas by TMC workers and the state police. And, as Ms Banerjee said, the CRPF is here only for a few days, then it would be back to the local cops and — what the chief minister did not say — local goons.
Of course there are many who would vote for the TMC on the strength of their work over these five years. Schemes like Kanyashree for girls and rice at `2 a kilo will certainly have an impact. But not enough to carry the TMC past the winning post. Because the dream that Ms Banerjee stood for five years ago lies shattered. Today the TMC stands for bottomless corruption, sky-rocketing hauteur, goonda-ism, violence and a shameless impunity.
The party that was supposed to usher in change — the paribartan party — is now defined by the absurd arbitrariness of its queen. Instead of a government that would change the culture of violence and bad governance that Bengal saw in the last years of the Left Front rule, the state has got an equally if not more violent and badly governed, whimsical dictatorship. It has seen a steady muzzling of free speech, fierce crackdowns on dissent and a hamfisted manufacturing of consent, much before the rest of India got a taste of all this thanks to the Bharatiya Janata Party sarkar in Delhi.
The people of Bengal are deeply disappointed with the lack of the promised paribartan. They see cosmetic changes like trident-shaped street lights and a fake Big Ben to make Kolkata resemble London, never mind the squalour of overcrowded, dingy streets and the homeless, jobless, futureless poor that squat amidst the smoky traffic on the blue-and-white flyovers and street railings that need to be painted perpetually to keep certain people in business. No real jobs, no new industries, no transparency, no social security, no financial security, no safety for women that the state was earlier so proud of.
The leader who shot to power by vigorously flaunting farmers’ rights at Singur dropped farmers’ interests shortly after ascending the throne. Now Bengal sees suicides of debt-ridden farmers. People have lost faith, especially because this government is so deeply embroiled in corruption.
“Thanda thanda, cool cool, ghoosh niyeche Trinamul! (Thanda thanda, cool cool
It took bribes, this Trinamul!”)
The Communist Party of India (Marxist)’s response to TMC’s slogan finds resonance with the masses. People were shocked and badly hurt by the Sarada ponzy scam that involved many TMC leaders, and are now disgusted with the Narada sting that establishes TMC, in the eyes of the masses, as a party of festering corruption. And a curious impunity makes Ms Banerjee shrug off responsibility for even the under-construction flyover that collapsed last week killing 26, because the flyover was commissioned by the Left Front government in 2009.
So the people of Bengal are as exasperated with the TMC sarkar as they were with the Left Front sarkar. They are ready for another paribartan. But for that, the Opposition parties need to take themselves more seriously. The BJP, though gaining ground, is a non-starter. The Left-Congress alliance can actually give the TMC a run for its money, but only if they play it right. People need to have faith in this sudden marriage of arch enemies. Besides, it is not even an issue-based alliance. It is not easy for a dedicated Left voter to vote for the Congress or vice versa, he needs to have faith in this marriage of convenience. For this, the alliance partners need to furiously emphasise the importance of democratic freedoms and secularism — to which both parties are committed, at least in principle.
This sudden unlikely alliance may not win the Bengal elections this time. But it will probably slash the TMC’s seat share. And if they manage to sufficiently bring it down, even if TMC forms the government the already fractious party will have a hard time staying together. So if not now, in another couple of years the Left-Congress alliance could be ready for a bright future in Bengal.