Sunday, January 31, 2016

Another Assembly Election in Bengal

Bengal is going to go through an assembly election very shortly. Before the last assembly election in Bengal, I had visited Calcutta. On my way home from the Netaji Subhas Airport I had talked to two people about the imminent assembly election - the man standing before me in the taxi queue and the taxi driver - trying to catch the mood of the city on the election eve.

It was almost a foregone conclusion that Trinomool Congress (TMC) would come to power, that the days of the Left were over.
From my questions the taxi driver probably guessed I had come to Calcutta after a long time (which wasn’t true) – and may or mayn’t be very familiar with the city’s roads (which is true although I have grown up in the city) – and therefore could be taken for a ride. To confirm it, he asked me which route I preferred taking – and I said any road which would take me home sooner.

After 10 days, while returning to Bangalore, I was driven to the airport by a taxi driver I and my family have known for a long time. When I told him the fare I paid from airport to home, he looked back with dilated eyes: “The bugger fleeced you by a long shot.”

During the 10 day stay, from my discussions with people, I felt the cross currents of opinions and emotions about the political change to come. Everyone I had small talks with was sure that the Left (led by CPM) was on its way out and TMC was coming in, like that man in the taxi queue and the driver (the bugger who fleeced me). But those were the only two things those I spoke to were unanimous about; everything else differed from person to person.

The anticipation abut a new party coming in was natural given two things: (a) the Left had ruled Bengal without any beak since 1977, so many, in Bengal, were going to see a new party in power for the first time in their lives or the first time since acquiring political consciousness; (b) it was the first time TMC would make the transition from a feisty opposition to a ruling party.

Four years later, many would say that they did that transition without an accompanying transformation in their attitude towards politics: which continues to be one of wild belligerence we associate with oppositions and not one of collectiveness and maturity we expect from a ruling party.
The differing parts were truly varied. 

Some said TMC would only bring more hooliganism as the party was nothing but a group of rag tag elements. Some had decided TMC wouldn’t be able to deliver on the changes they were promising. “How can you give jobs to everyone?” They thundered. Some said: “Let them come; things can’t get worse than this.” 

Some I spoke to were unambiguously unhappy about the Left’s departure. They were equally uncomfortable with the possibility of TMC coming in. This group needs taking a closer look at.
Most of them (except one) are not hard core Left supporters in that they don’t have any ideological leaning towards the Left. Their support for the Left chiefly comes from one concern: the belief that only Left is culturally refined enough to represent them – and also that the TMC is a party by and for the uncouth. 

Even after the TMC’s stay in power for close to five years now, these concerns have remained. The economy has not improved substantially (Bengal continues to be a place with very few job opportunities). Maturity and mellowness have continued to be elusive for TMC and Mamta Banerjee (its leader). 

There are many instances where the party cadre and the leader reacted violently to provocations more mature political outfits would have ignored (like a Jadavpur University professor who had drawn a cartoon lampooning a recent political situation being beaten by party goons and arrested). The law and order situation has deteriorated. The government often interferes with the police doing its duty. Recently, in Malda, the government asked the police to go soft on rioters. Communalism has received encouragement in many ways.

But is this reason enough to yearn for a return of the Left? No.

Partly the perception that the TMC hasn’t done anything in the four plus years comes from the bad press the party and Mamta Banerjee have earned due to what were mostly political and administrative indiscretions (at least the law and order situations could have been avoided). And people tend lose patience with any party which comes to power on very high expectations too soon. The Modi Sarkar is a point in case.

A closer look may reveal a streak or two of hope. Calcutta has a better transport system now. The connectivity is much better than before through new infrastructural projects TMC has carried out. The TMC has been shopping for investments for some time now and although nothing much has changed on ground, one needs remember that signed MOUs take time to convert into reality. 

Additionally the Left had left the economy in a shambles and a complete recovery will take its time.
Although the TMC looks like to win, they will surely lose some political ground to other contenders (BJP and of course the Left) due to the mistakes they have made – and that may have a sobering effect on them. And maybe in the second term we will have a better TMC trying to avoid repeating the first-term goofups and working towards taking its unfinished tasks to conclusion.

One of the Left sympathizers I mentioned above asked me a few months ago why they wouldn’t be able to come if they learned from their mistakes. At that time for a passing moment I had felt he had a point. If voted to power, what if a new Left resumed the industrialization agenda of Buddhadeb Bhattacharya sans the mistakes he made?

But the more I thought about it the less plausible it seemed.

The Left can but it won't for a few reasons. Probably it will be able to bring some industrial houses but for a healthy economy you require multiple players in each area. For this to happen, given where things stand today, there needs to be a lot of government policies... labour laws, tax structure etc. Tweaking them to help business houses will run into heavy opposition from within and outside the Left...a pursuit of market friendly policies will further dilute the credibility of the national anti-NDA front of which the Left is a major player.

 So if we agree that economic revival is the only thing Bengal needs, the TMC, being a less-ideologically constrained party which hardly requires any internal consensus being a one-man show, stands on a stronger ground to deliver.

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