Mamata Banerjee's Many Avatars
Trinamool Congress chief is getting ready for 2024
A dark shadow seems to have fallen around the street-fighter aura of the feisty chief minister of Bengal, even while the heady magic of the drubbing she gave to the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), despite its hype and hyperbole, muscle and money power, seems to be fading in the shadowing labyrinth of a maze of corruption scandals.
Mamata Banerjee, the undisputable and formidable supremo of the Trinamool Congress, and perhaps the most popular politician in contemporary Bengal, with a complex, hypnotic and relentless hold over mass consciousness, especially rural women and those on the margins, seems to be walking tentatively in the uncertain twilight zones that has come to mark the Enforcement Directorate (ED) raids. Some of her top aides, including a 'Bahubali from Birbhum', are cooling their heels in prison, accused in huge corruption cases, or, getting trapped in a host of shady allegations.
Witness her double entendre recently in the Assembly even as a resolution was passed against the ED raids. Her statement has opened up multiple speculations in the light of the fact that she took on Narendra Modi with her highly popular 'Khela Hobe' slogan head on, on a wheel chair with a fractured foot. Modi's jibe of 'Didi-o-Didi' in a rally boomeranged so badly that not only rural and urban women in Bengal, reportedly, even families backing the BJP had their women voting for Mamata Bannerjee. So it was quite an interesting pattern in many areas where the men were voting for the BJP, but the women voted for 'Didi'.
This reporter witnessed her mesmerising hold over hundreds of rural women, many from the scheduled and backward castes, during the campaign in Nandigram. Didi would suddenly pick up the microphone and chant: "Cool, cool.. Trinamool…" This would be followed by a long spell of slogan-shouting led by her, with the women joining her in chorus with full-throated unison.
A Deeper Game Afoot?
Indeed, Bannerjee's statement has opened up multiple speculations, including within a highly surprised state leadership of the BJP, and among Trinamool leaders and supporters in Bengal. Is there a deeper game being played out, behind the curtains?
She said categorically that she is not of the opinion that Modi has unleashed the agencies like the ED, CBI, "this is being done by (other) BJP leaders," she said, surprisingly, shifting the focus elsewhere. "Many don't know that the CBI no longer reports to the PMO (Prime Minister's Office), but to the Union Home Ministry. The agency is not controlled by the PMO," she said in the Assembly. She repeated that the "the main objective of the resolution is not to condemn anybody but to uphold neutrality (of the agencies), not partiality."
"Businessmen are leaving from all over the country, running away, out of fear of misuse of the ED and the CBI," she said, adding, "I do not believe Narendra Modi has done this. This is being done by (other) BJP leaders."
Her remarks surprised the BJP MLAs. It also prompted a jibe from leader of the Opposition, Suvendu Adhikari, that her taking Modi's name won't be enough to save "the nephew" — a reference to Abhishek Bannerjee — from the central agencies probing alleged corruption in Bengal. "This party, TMC, won't last even six months. December is the deadline," Adhikari had said in August in Purba Medinipur, again sparking speculations.
"It was his birthday (on September 17), so I will only say this much — do not turn the government and the party into one and the same thing. The government should function like a government. A party should function like a party. You have blurred the lines between them. A cheetah and a tomcat are not one and the same thing," she said in the Assembly, referring to Modi.
The Congress, with whom Mamata has been having a 'blow hot and blow cold' relationship in the recent past, responded soon after. "I would say this: In this government, not even a bird flutters without Modi's approval," said spokesperson Supriya Shrinate. "I don't know why she wants to blame Shah and spare Modi. I don't know on what basis she has decided that Modi is good… Unlike the rest of the Opposition, we don't play hide and seek… If you play such games, there are bound to be questions about your intention," she added.
According to Calcutta-based Shahnawaz Akhtar, editor of enewsroom.in, "It seems, she is trying to break into the BJP ranks. She is constantly testing ground. For instance, when she put up Babul Supriyo as a candidate in the prestigious Balligunge constituency in Kolkata, with a majority Muslim population as in Park Circus, Eliot Road etc. She was testing her own constituency, knowing that the minority vote against the BJP is intact.
There was massive resentment within the Trinamool on the choice of Supriyo, who was with the BJP till recently, but, finally, the Trinamool vote, including the majority vote, went against the BJP, though the CPM candidate, Saira Shah Halim got huge popular vote, giving a scare to the Trinamool. Mamata Bannerjee is looking at 2024. For all you know, she is wading into the pro-Modi vote bank in Bengal and elsewhere."
Within the BJP there have been rumours about what is being called a 'setting'. A former governor has reportedly tweeted it. However, the nature of this alleged 'setting' remains in a zone of mystery.
There are also fears within the Trinamool camp about the BJP trying to do an Eknath Shinde kind of 'coup'. Perhaps, using the ED raids and corruption cases hanging like a Damocles sword on its leaders, including on her nephew, Abhishek Bannerjee and his wife, who have been accused for alleged dealings in a coal scam.
Said old Bengal-observer and Working President of the All India Forest Working People Union, Ashok Choudhury, "She might be having some inside information which you or I can't decipher. She has had links with the RSS too in the past. There might be certain political undercurrents happening in Delhi and Kolkata of which she is aware.
"The corruption scams might have created a negative narrative, but, in the final analysis, the question remains, will it impact her electorally on the ground? The fact is that she has fought like a street-fighter against an almost unbeatable CPM party apparatus, and she is the only mass leader in Bengal now.
"This image is embedded in the ordinary people's consciousness, especially in rural and small town Bengal. That will not be easy to erase. Besides, she has no worthwhile and effective opposition in Bengal, even while a big chunk of the BJP, with many of her protégés having shifted there, restless and looking for an opening."
According to Saira Shah Halim, wife of CPM leader Dr Faud Halim, "the corruption scams have certainly dented the image of the chief minister. After all, such huge scams just can't be autonomous activities. There has to be accountability and she should take responsibility. Among the educated sections, and the intelligentsia, there is a tangible resentment on the scams and the way huge amounts of cash and gold etc were found in a top minister's house, who was close to the CM."
Indeed, undoubtedly, the corruption scandals have had a negative impact on her image. "Her national image has suffered, including in the several party units she has opened up in various states like Goa, Tripura, even UP and Punjab, while looking for a national presence in 2024," said Shahnawaz Akhtar. "Certainly, with her apparent prime ministerial ambitions and the political and moral high after her incredible victory in the assembly elections, her image seems to have suffered. Despite this, she might do much better than last time in the next Lok Sabha elections in 2024 in Bengal."
The speculations regarding her tactical shift was first witnessed during the vice-presidential elections, in which her party refrained from voting for the Opposition candidate, Margaret Alva. This despite Alva's fervent appeals to her old friend in Bengal, since they go a long way when Mamata Bannejee was a firebrand Youth Congress leader.
A meeting was held at the Raj Bhawan in Darjeeling on July 13 this year, with her, then governor of Bengal, Jagdeep Dhankar, and Assam Chief Minister Himanta Biswa Sarma, also a former Congress leader and a key player for the BJP in the Northeast. The meeting, and her withdrawal of support to Alva, led to the speculation of a back-room deal with the BJP, though no direct evidence has emerged since then.
The Partha Chatterjee Factor
Education Minister, Partha Chatterjee, a senior leader in Trinamool and close aide of the CM, is in prison. He has been removed from all party posts and the cabinet. Shockingly, the central agency raids had led to the seizure of Rs 49.80 crore in cash, gold, etc, allegedly estimated at Rs 55 crore from his properties.
The school education recruitment scam is now a sore which is refusing to heal. Besides, there are allegations of multiple shell companies and properties owned by Chatterjee.
Anubrata Mandal, with an unsavoury history, has been, literally, the 'King of Birbhum', holding sway in several constituencies in the region with his money and muscle power, orchestrating a series of victories for the Trinamool. He has been arrested on various charges, including cattle smuggling, which is a raging controversy in the border areas of Bangladesh bordering Bangladesh.
According to Kirity Roy, based in Serampore and secretary of the Banglar Manabadhikar Suraksha Maancha (MASUM), who has spent a life-time fighting for the human rights of the villagers in the border of Bangladesh, cattle smuggling might have slowed down, but it is an organised and flourishing business with a national network, across various states and through multiple hierarchies of the political and administrative apparatus.
Roy asked, "How can cows or buffalos transported from UP, Haryana and Bihar reach the Bengal borders, and then be made to cross over despite the huge border-fencing and BSF check-posts, without a smooth smuggling machinery?
"We have evidence that at an average a cow in India would cost Rs 5,000, but is sold for Rs, 30,000 across the border, despite the fencing, and the speculation is that it can fetch much higher prices out there. Of the 4097 km India-Bangladesh border, 2217 km is in West Bengal.
"There are reports of highly modern slaughter houses across the border with world-class packaging facilities, from where the meat is sold off to not only the Gulf countries, but also across Europe, where the demand is high. So, blaming one individual is not the answer, the entire structure of cattle smuggling must be dismantled."
He added, "to combat this and other problems, like the smuggling of the cough syrup Phensedyl, we had suggested regular 'border haats' in the villages where people from both the countries can legitimately sell stuff. Even the Union ministry of home had accepted it. But no concrete action has been taken, and organised and unorganised cattle smuggling goes on
"So do atrocities on the economically marginalised locals for various reasons at the hands of the security forces. Indeed, why is this strong border fencing legitimised with BSF in the border villages, when Bangladesh is a friendly country?
"When you can have free borders with Nepal or Bhutan, why not with Bangladesh, since east and west Bengal are so deeply integrated culturally, socially and in terms of history. So many families have such close links across the border with deep, inherited ties."
In early September this year, TMC MP and Mamata Banerjee's chosen inheritor, Abhishek Bannerjee, was questioned for several hours by the ED on the investigations on coal smuggling. He retaliated later, "BJP is working against the people's mandate. They did not get the mandate in Jharkhand so tried to topple the government there. Thanks to Mamata Banerjee, they failed in their attempt…
"You can't fight me politically, so (you are) using agencies…I will continue to speak out. If I don't call a thief a thief, what else should I say? Where does cow smuggling money go? It goes directly to HM Amit Shah. What is the home minister doing? What is BSF doing? This is not a cattle scam, this is the home minister scam."
Political observers find a thread of unity between this outburst and the CM's position in the assembly recently. However, no one can point a finger on what is actually brewing.
As for the coal scam, like cattle smuggling, it is an organised network starting from big shots to the lowest in the rung, in the coal belt of Asansol-Raniganj, and under all regimes. Said a Asansol-based video journalist, "I have heard stories of coal smuggling since my childhood, only the players keep changing. There has never been any evidence to prove it, or a concerted effort to catch the criminals. It is an entrenched racket."
Last week, the police in Andal near Asansol discovered an innovative way to transport smuggled coal, apparently in the garb of dairy products. Several sacks of coal were discovered in the luggage section in a bus with passengers, though trucks have been used in the past.
"It has taken so many years and such a long struggle to build this party. Didi has been the main protagonist. She should not allow the party to degenerate," said a Trinamool supporter.
The Protest Rallies
Meanwhile, the BJP organised a failed and lopsided protest recently in Kolkata, with their leadership and cadre in disarray. The youth and students' wings of the CPM, the DYFI and SFI, organised a massive protest in the heart of Kolkata, creating a total road blockade in many areas.
Young supporters and students with red flags spilled over on the streets from small towns and Kolkata. Led by Meenakshi Mukherjee, the rising star of the CPM who contested in Nandigram, it was a huge red flag demonstration against the killing of SFI activist Anees Khan at the hands of the police.
Said Saira Shah Halim of the CPM, "There is intense anger against the killing. How can they do these atrocities and get away? The rally reflects the simmering unrest against the regime and the consolidation of the young within the Left in Bengal."
With the Trinamool supporters divided over the selection of Babul Supriyo, who shifted his allegiance from the BJP after the Assembly elections, Saira Halim's candidature in Ballygunge, took the TMC leadership by surprise. She said that a sinister campaign was undertaken against against her that she is an Urdu-speaking Muslim with no roots in Bengal, and that she is too modern, etc.
The popular campaign she led and the huge support she gained before the polls was seen to be unprecedented for a party which had scored a zero in the last polls. "There was rigging in certain wards. I myself caught a few fake voters. The TMC was shaken by the massive support in my favour, even while many of their own supporters did not vote for Supriyo. We emerged as number 2 in the final tally leaving the BJP far behind. It only proves that the CPM might be down, but it is not out," she said.
Indeed, she and other Left leaders are insisting that before the crucial 2024 Lok Sabha polls, they will have to consolidate in the local and panchayat elections. "We are focusing on local elections with all our strength and mobilisation. Our new leader, Mohammad Salim, is highly respected, a full-timer and is always on the road.
"We know how dangerous and damaging it has become for the social fabric and all our democratic and secular institutions in India, under the current regime in Delhi. We are seriously working, on the ground, to replace the BJP, as the main opposition in Bengal," she said.
According to Shahnawaz, even the Opposition space seems to be determined by the Mamata factor. "For instance, Bengal witnessed an upsurge against the NRC and CAA. She immediately backed it and became a key protagonist of the anti-CAA movement. Hence, she can even shift the character of the opposition space."
Said veteran Delhi-based journalist, Ramsharan Joshi, who has known Salim since his younger days, "Salim is a progressive and open-minded leader. He can revive the party. He has respect and following in the country, including in the Hindi belt. He can enthuse new energy and hope in the party. It is crucial that the CPM and Left forces should resurrect in Bengal and take over the opposition space in the state.
According to social scientist Professor Avijit Pathak from JNU, himself from Malda, "I feel West Bengal is passing through a turning point. While it succeeded in resisting the aggression of Hindutva and toxic nationalism, a truly alternative political culture (a culture that resists the cult of narcissism, and promotes democratic ethos, civility and transparency in everyday life) has not yet fully emerged.
"Even though Mamata Bannerjee's appeal as a mass leader, organically connected with ordinary people, cannot be denied, the culture of the TMC (as the all-pervading corruption, and even the practice of brute force tend to characterise a significant section of local cadres as well as some 'big' leaders) does not seem to be very promising.
"At times, one experiences a sense of politico-cultural void in Bengal. The growing disappearance of non-reductionist, imaginative and morally integrated/inclusive Marxists and committed Gandhians, I feel, has further intensified this void."
Women Voters Love Mamata
Meanwhile, on the ground, the charisma of Mamata Bannerjee, remains undented. In Nandigram, for instance, women praise her social security schemes and seem totally committed to her. The Swastha Sathi health insurance scheme, with a health cover of Rs 5 lakh, is deeply appreciated because women are only entitled to this card, as head of the family. The insurance covers the entire family, including her own parents, even if she gets married and shifts to another household.
'Kanyashree' is a highly successful flagship programme which has got international recognition. Girls are helped financially over a long phase in their education from primary school to college. This scheme has significantly lifted the literacy figures among the girls, the drop-out rate has reduced, and they can choose to carve out an academic or professional career without any social or family bondage.
It is normal to see girls and women in the suburbs of Kolkata and rural areas cycling for work or education. The Sabooj Sathi scheme, with cycles distributed in thousands, has given women a certain freedom and mobility. The Lakshmi Bhandar scheme with Rs 1000 for SC/ST women, and Rs 500 per month for others, too has been appreciated.
Most significant has been the free public distribution system throughout the pandemic and lockdown with free food distributed to those in the margins. This continues till this day. After the elections, food is being distributed, door to door.
This reporter has witnessed this phenomenon , from rural areas to an urban settlement like Kumartuli in Kolkata, where traditional artists make the sculptures of Durga and other gods and goddesses before the pujas. The area also has very small scale industries, like undergarment factories.
Throughout the pandemic and lockdown, the local TMC MP, Dr Shashi Panja, herself distributed ration in the area, even while the humble factory-owners and sculptors suffered joblessness, deprivation and poverty. So much so, even the sex workers in Kolkata were given food and other assistance, with the police creating kitchens in the police station, and distributing food in their homes and work places.
Across Bengal, in rural areas and small towns, the social welfare measures undertaken by the Mamata Bannerjee government have endeared her to the masses, especially women.
Electorally, truly, this kind of sustained credibility on the ground, will not be easy to erase, despite the corruption scams making headlines. In that sense, Didi will continue to remain the biggest player in Bengal, today and in the days to come. Khela Hobe continues…