After the BJP stormed the bastions of the ruling Mamata Banerjee led-Trinamool Congress (TMC) in General Election 2019 — winning 18 of the state’s 42 Lok Sabha seats, only four less than TMC’s 22 — the electoral prospects of TMC, which ended 34 years of uninterrupted rule over West Bengal (pop. 91 million) by the CPM (Communist Party of India-Marxist)-led Left Front government in the legislative assembly election of 2011 and again in 2016, have dimmed. Enthused by its wholly unexpected performance of winning 18 Lok Sabha seats, the BJP leadership is strengthening its grassroot structures to win “at least 250 seats” (out of a total 294) in the next assembly elections scheduled for 2021.
But even as the saffron party surges ahead in West Bengal, Banerjee has done little to investigate grave charges of violence, extortion and corruption levelled against TMC leaders in several districts of the state. Instead, she is resorting to strong-arm tactics by trying to stop BJP victory rallies and arresting people for chanting Jai Shri Ram, a response interpreted as petty and dictatorial. Meanwhile, there’s simmering discontent among state government employees including teachers, who are peeved that their dearness allowance is not on a par with their Central government peers.
Recently, even as the state is recovering from the impact of the 14-day long primary teachers’ pay hike agitation in July which ended after the government conceded a grade pay increase, on August 16, nearly 50,000 para-teachers (i.e, classroom assistants, but not full-time teachers) began a mass agitation including hunger strikes, demanding a similar pay increase and upgradation to the status of permanent teachers. With the Parsasikshak Aikya Mancha (PAM), a non-political confederation of para-teachers being backed by the CPI-M-affiliated All Bengal Para Teachers Association and BJP-affiliated Para-teachers Coordination Committee, on August 17, the state police resorted to baton-charge to disperse protesting para-teachers who assembled in the Nadia district, injuring several para-teachers and some journalists.
Currently, 50,305 para-teachers recruited in 2004-2005 by the Left Front government are employed in West Bengal’s 92,000 government schools. The police baton charge on protesting para-teachers on August 17 has aroused the indignation of Left liberals in the state. On August 19, Citizenspeakindia — a forum of artists and activists including well-known filmmaker Aparna Sen (one of Mamata Banerjee’s earliest supporters)— wrote to the chief minister condemning the violence. “We have been noticing with a great deal of anxiety that, instead of trying to resolve the peaceful democratic protests of teachers of this state through sane dialogue and debate, the administration has been resorting to undemocratic means of quashing these protests by the use of police brutality,” said the letter signed by ten artistes and intellectuals.
In West Bengal, which suffered continuous de-industrialisation during 34 years of Communist Party of India-Marxist rule before TMC was voted to power in 2011, employment options are very limited. Not only has the TMC not been able to promote industry in West Bengal, Banerjee has made a bad situation worse by failing to implement the promised poribartan (change) in the education sector. Consequently, Kolkata’s influential bhadralok (cultured middle class) is fast becoming disenchanted with Banerjee and the TMC. “Banerjee is losing her political touch and is playing right into the hands of Narendra Modi-Amit Shah duo with her knee-jerk reactions to prevalent issues and developments,” says a prominent but disgruntled member of TMC.
Liberal academics in West Bengal, who are perhaps even more inimical to the BJP’s Hindu majoritarian and religious polarisation politics than they are to communists, advise that Banerjee needs to step back and reflect on how and why within the space of five years the BJP, which won a mere two Lok Sabha seats in West Bengal in 2014, has increased its tally to 18 earlier this year. They believe that with the assembly elections still two years away,
Banerjee should focus on cracking down on TMC party cadres who are ruining the party’s reputation by demanding ‘cut money’ and commissions on government contracts. “If she adopts the dictatorial CPM style of governance, TMC will go the CPM way,” says the senior TMC member quoted earlier.
Baishali Mukherjee (Kolkata)