Didi replaced the class politics of the Left, but the identity politics that she helped emerge threatens to devour her
Any political chatter in West Bengal quickly veers into grassroots corruption by the functionaries of the ruling Trinamool Congress (TMC), who themselves do not deny its ubiquity. “Yes, our people have taken money,” says Prasun Sarangi, sitting on a sidewalk in a dimly lit market in Jhargram, a town surrounded by vast forests and tribal hamlets in Jangalmahal. “But it is Didi [Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee] who has admitted to this fact, and has promised action…and she is herself the candidate in all 294 constituencies of West Bengal…these local leaders do not matter,” said the district vice president of the TMC.
Even opponents of the TMC appear to concede a certain moral high ground for the two-term CM, who is fiercely fighting for a third, in the face of strong anti-incumbency. “Didi cannot be blamed. It is the local leaders who have fleeced us. They made so much money and live lavish lives,” said Furqan Ali, a garment shop owner in Haroa in North 24 Parganas. He has switched his loyalty to the Indian Secular Front (ISF), a new party launched by Islamic cleric Abbas Siddiqui, which is in alliance with the Left Front and the Congress.
The paradox of anti-incumbency in West Bengal is that a universal condemnation of the TMC is combined with a willingness to make allowances for Didi.
Ms. Banerjee called for the complete wiping out of the opposition, and ended with a party of lawless cadres, points out Subhanil Chowdhury, political analyst. The Communist Party of India-Marxist (CPI-M) says nearly 200 of its workers have been killed during the TMC’s rule; Home Minister Amit Shah said in December that 300 Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) had been killed. “The panchayat elections of 2018 was the turning point. There was no election. A third of the members were unopposed and where there was voting, it was fraud,” Dr. Chowdhury says.
“These local body leaders tightly control NREGA (National Rural Employment Guarantee Act), pensions and all other government schemes. They keep up to 30-40% of the money…They act with the nonchalance that they don’t need votes to be in power,” an official at a Block Development Office in South 24 Parganas, who did not want to be named, said.
Cyclone Amphan in 2020 exposed their greed further, recalls Amartyo Roy, an activist of Young Bengal that carried out relief work: “It was open loot.”
Didi is largely absolved in the public perception of corruption, but her endless pandering to identity politics is stuck on her, says Dr. Chowdhury. Muslims have been a particular focus, but the targets of her special attention are not limited to them. Dalits groups, Other Backward Classes (OBC) and subsections of Gorkhas — she has catalogued it all.
The BJP accuses her of Muslim appeasement, and she is trying to shake off that tag by displaying her Hindu devotion this year. But a Hindu who is also a Bengali. Ms. Banerjee now patronises Durga puja celebrations, with State support at unseen levels. Her call this time is to elect “the daughter of Bengal” as CM.
“The only thing predictable about Mamata’s politics is that she is against the CPI(M). This time, Bengali nationalism is the only toolkit she is left with. But there are limits to this. Kolkata is a city that had a fall in population in absolute terms — the only city,” says Prasenjit Bose, economist and activist based in the city. The State has a considerable non-Bengali population, which feels alienated from the plank of Bengali exceptionalism.
Ms. Banerjee replaced the class politics of the Left, but the identity politics that she helped emerge threatens to devour her. “The BJP has been successful in convincing a good section of Dalits that they are victims of Muslim appeasement,” says Dr. Chowdhury. And the ISF is offering a new platform for segments of Muslim who are unhappy with Ms. Banerjee, also for the way they fit in her politics. “We are seen as recipients of some largesse, for no good reason,” said Mujibur Rahman, in Bhangore. He says the Dalit in his own locality have shifted from the TMC to the BJP — a trend noted in Jangalmahal too.
The BJP meanwhile is playing down its religious nationalism and focusing on development rhetoric to pin Ms. Banerjee down. “It has been Bengal versus Delhi for a long time. This time, people want to be in alignment with the Delhi…the twin engines of development is our campaign focus,” said Mrinal Kanti Bhuniya, party spokesperson in Jhargram. Didi wants to be seen as the incorruptible daughter of Bengal; the BJP portrays her as the author of chaos and barrier to the State’s progress. This election is about Didi.