– Baishali Mukherjee (Kolkata)
With the state legislative assembly election a mere four months away, political jousting in West Bengal (pop.91 million) is getting more fierce by the day. The ruling Trinamool Congress party led by stormy petrel chief minister Mamata Banerjee contesting for a third term in office, is confronted by the BJP, which rules at the Centre and in 12 states countrywide. In General Election 2014, BJP won a mere two of West Bengal’s 42 seats in the Lok Sabha. In General Election 2019, it won 18 with a vote share of 40.64 percent cf. TMC’s 43.3 percent. Quite clearly, already facing normative anti-incumbency fatigue, two-term chief minister Banerjee has a fight on her hands.
Responding to defections from her party and high-profile campaigning in the state by top BJP leaders, Banerjee has gone into overdrive, announcing new employment-generating schemes and recruitment drives. Major announcements include conduct of final interviews to appoint 16,500 primary teachers in the state’s 92,000 government schools between January 10-17; hold a fresh, statewide Teacher Eligibility Test (TET) on January 31 and appoint 80 principals in state-funded colleges, where top posts are vacant, by February. These announcements have particular significance as thousands of teachers who have passed previous TETs are on the warpath, protesting the state government’s policy of complete freeze on teacher recruitment. During the year past, numerous protests have been staged across the state.
Against this backdrop, Banerjee’s announcement on November 11 that the West Bengal Board of Primary Education will conduct final interviews of 16,500 graduates who passed TET way back in 2014, during January 10-17, has raised her credibility. Formal notice has also been given that the third TET will be held in offline mode on January 31 and 2.5 lakh graduates will write it. Simultaneously, the West Bengal Central School Service Commission (WBCSSC) has issued a notification for conducting a selection test for recruitment of assistant teachers for Santhali-medium schools, inviting online applications which closed on January 6.
However just as the sky was beginning to look brighter for TMC and Banerjee, on December 11 the Calcutta high court cancelled the recruitment process for upper primary assistant teachers conducted by the WBCSSC and directed the commission to commence it afresh from January 4. Justice Moushumi Bhattacharya set aside the panel as well as the merit list of upper primary teachers and directed the commission to complete fresh appointments by July 31, 2021, when a new government will have been sworn-in.
The issue of recruiting teachers for government schools which pay relatively high salaries prescribed by Pay Commissions appointed by the Central government, has been a contentious issue in West Bengal for several decades.
During its prolonged and unlamented rule over the state for 34 uninterrupted years (1977-2011), the CPM (Communist Party of India-Marxist)-led Left Front government almost totally de-industrialised Bengal through officially sponsored labour militancy and hostility to private enterprise and provoked continuous flight of capital out of the state. Therefore, government employment — including government school teachers’ jobs — is highly prized.
Consequently immediately after TET exams are written by over 500,000 graduates and less than 10 percent clear the exam, disaffected aspirants flood the courts with writ petitions alleging exam malpractices, adjudication, favouritism and non-merit appointments and obtain stay orders. Between October 5-25 2019, 12,000 complaints were submitted before WBCSSC alleging fraud and favouritism in the merit list and payment of bribes to examiners and board members. On December 11, the Calcutta high court directed the commission to ensure that deserving candidates aren’t left out of the merit list and the entire process is conducted in a transparent manner.
At a time when senior TMC leaders are jumping ship and hopping aboard the rolling BJP bandwagon, the December 11 high court order to review the teachers’ appointments has come as a great setback for chief minister Mamata Banerjee.
Her response is to project herself as the prime TMC candidate for the assembly election, now a mere four months away. But with Banerjee appealing to the electorate for a third term as chief minister despite not being able to make much headway in solving the state’s chronic unemployment problem, the odds are stacked against her.