With the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which had bagged a mere two of West Bengal’s 42 Lok Sabha seats in General Election 2014, increasing its haul to 18 in the recently concluded general election and the ruling Trinamool Congress Party’s dropping from 34 to 23, the star of the state’s feisty chief minister Mamata Banerjee is in the descendant. In the state legislative elections scheduled for 2021, BJP, which increased its vote share in the Lok Sabha election to 40.1 percent from a mere 17.02 percent five years ago, may well displace TMC. Meanwhile, the CPM (Communist Party of India-Marxist)-led Left Front which ruled West Bengal (pop. 91 million) uninterruptedly for 34 years (1977-2011) and ruined the state’s industry and education system, has been reduced to a mere cipher. In General Election 2019 it bagged a mere two seats.
Education reform was a major plank of TMC’s election campaign for the state legislative election of 2011 and again in 2016. In both the assembly campaigns, TMC promised to rejuvenate West Bengal’s once highly respected education system — especially the state’s once great universities which were respected nationwide. During the long rule of the Left Front governments they were heavily infiltrated by under-qualified CPM members and cadres and hollowed out from within.
After experiencing strong resistance from well-entrenched CPM-led students and faculty unions in her first term, after the TMC was re-elected in 2016, Banerjee initiated several overdue reforms in the education sector. During the past 12 months in particular, the TMC government has taken several initiatives to improve attendance of teachers and faculty in the state’s 92,000 government schools, 372 colleges and 32 universities. Moreover, she inaugurated 65 English-medium government primaries in the districts of Kolkata, North 24 Parganas, Nadia and Jalpaiguri, and more controversially repealed s.16 of the Right of Children to Free & Compulsory Education (RTE) Act, 2009, which prohibits schools from detaining non-performing class-I-VIII students. During the past seven years the state government has also sanctioned ten greenfield private and 12 public universities, raising the number of varsities in the state from a mere 12 to 34, and started 50 new colleges while another ten private universities are in the pipeline.
However, the malpractices which infested in the academy during the prolonged rule of the CPM-led Left Front government over the state, have struck deep roots difficult to eradicate. Worse in a populous state where youth unemployment is rife following continuous flight of capital and de-industrialisation during 34 years of Communist rule, the Trinamool Chhatra Parishad — the youth wing of TMC — cadres have adopted CPM tactics to run amok on the campuses of the state’s higher education institutions.
Last year, an extortion racket for facilitating admissions into colleges across West Bengal, allegedly run by students’ union members of the ruling TMC, made media headlines in the state. Moreover, the teacher recruitment process for government schools has been stymied since 2012 because of a series of scams in recruitment tests and pending court cases, marring the employment prospects of thousands of youth aspiring to become government school teachers.
Last February, 450 aspiring teachers staged a hunger strike in the heart of Kolkata demanding immediate filling of vacancies in the 92,000 government and aided schools of the state. Furthermore, during the past few months the top-ranked Jadavpur and Calcutta universities and Calcutta Medical College have experienced campus protests and strikes over issues varying from anomalies in college admission entrance tests to hostel accommodation.
Monitors of West Bengal’s chaotic education scene also recall TMC government’s May 2017 fiat mandating Bengali a compulsory subject in classes I-X of all 92,000 government and over 8,000 private schools — regardless of exam board affiliation — statewide. This out-of-the-blue proclamation of chief minister Banerjee prompted a general strike called by Gorkha Janmukti Morcha (GJM) in the Darjeeling district resulting in the shutdown of K-12 schools in the district for 104 days. Unsurprisingly, TMC lost its Darjeeling Lok Sabha seat in the recently concluded general election.
Eight years after the CPM-led Left Front government tyrannised the state for 34 long years, little has changed in Bengal except that now Trinamool Chhatra Parishad activists instead of CPM cadres are running amok on college and university campuses making desperate attempts to oust well-entrenched CPM-led faculty and student unions.
Although TMC supremo Mamata Banerjee still remains popular, with rising lawlessness in the state and her education rejuvenation plan running awry, in Kolkata’s clandestine betting shops the prediction is that TMC is set to follow the CPM into terminal decline.
Baishali Mukherjee (Kolkata)