With West Bengal’s legislative assembly elections scheduled for the summer of 2021, the municipal elections to be held next month (April) — the exact dates are yet to be finalised — in 110 cities and towns including Kolkata, will be an acid test for the ruling Trinamool Congress (TMC) government of the state. In 2011 and again in 2016, TMC famously routed the CPM (Communist Party of India-Marxist), that (mis) ruled the state (pop.91 million) continuously for 34 years (1977-2011).
The municipal elections are crucial for the TMC as the party needs to prove it has recovered ground lost to the BJP in General Election 2019 when BJP won 18 of Bengal’s 42 Lok Sabha seats, giving a big jolt to the TMC whose representation in the Lok Sabha in Delhi dropped from 34 to 22. According to Mukul Roy, a BJP strategist and one of the architects of the party’s rise in Bengal (earlier a TMC member), the municipal polls are a “mini general election”, and the next stage of the party’s Mission Bengal is to overthrow chief minister Mamata Banerjee’s government in the 2021 assembly election.
But, the party’s job in West Bengal has been made more difficult by the BJP leadership in Delhi. Chief minister Mamata Banerjee and TMC workers have organised massive protest rallies against the Citizenship Amendment Act, 2019 (CAA) which is widely perceived as discriminatory against India’s 200 million Muslim community. Although municipal elections are usually fought over local issues, this time the CAA and the proposed National Register of Citizens (NRC) may be a big issue in the forthcoming municipal elections.
Statewide protests against the CAA which grants fast-track citizenship to religiously persecuted Hindus of Afghanistan, Pakistan and Bangladesh but excludes persecuted Muslim sects, have struck a resonant chord in college and university campuses in West Bengal which has a long tradition of students politics and activism.
There are several other good auguries for TMC. The state’s Budget 2020-21 presented to the legislative assembly by finance minister Amit Mitra on February 4, has pleased West Bengal’s small but influential middle class. The allocation of Rs.37,059 crore for education is 12.3 percent higher than in 2019-20, and includes Rs.4,566 crore (15 percent increase) for higher education. Also after a series of spats since he was appointed governor of West Bengal by the BJP/NDA government at the Centre in July last year, Jagdeep Dhankar has had several cordial meetings with TMC leaders.
However, recent developments in Presidency and Jadavpur universities — Bengal’s showpiece nationally ranked varsities funded by the state government — have blighted the TMC horizon. On February 3, students of Presidency University (estb.1817) who have been protesting snail-paced completion of work in the Hindu Hostel since last year, gheraoed vice chancellor Anuradha Lohia and 40 heads of departments and other officials for 31 hours. The Hindu Hostel building, sited adjacent to the university, was shut down for repairs in July 2015 with students shifted to rented accommodation at New Town as a makeshift arrangement.
The other cloud on TMC’s horizon is that on February 19, the pro-CPM Democratic Students’ Federation (DSF) won all five seats in the engineering faculty, the We The Independents (WTI), another ultra-Left student outfit, retained control of the science faculty, and the Students’ Federation of India (SFI), student wing of the CPM, won all four arts faculty seats in the students union elections of Jadavpur University (JU). Moreover, in a significant development, the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP) — the pan-India students union affiliated with BJP — which contested for the first time in the union election, secured the second spot in the engineering faculty relegating SFI to third position in JU, which is a bastion of CPM and Left Front parties.
That said, with anti-CAA and NRC protests spreading like wildfire and BJP at the receiving end of violent clashes across the state, the green shoots witnessed in the two universities are unlikely to revive the electoral fortunes of Bengal’s red parties in the municipal elections. The chances are that the state’s pro-CPM and Left students unions will throw in their lot with TMC which is widely regarded as the lesser evil compared with BJP.
Baishali Mukherjee (Kolkata)