In early January, the Trinamool Congress (TMC) seemed headed for an emphatic two-thirds victory in the 2016 West Bengal assembly elections. The opposition was hopelessly divided and the unverifiable claims of chief minister, Mamata Banerjee, of having executed “more development work in five years than in the last 400 years in West Bengal”, were resonating with some sections, especially the rural poor.
By January, the Left openly asked the Congress party to join a people’s alliance to oust the TMC. The opposition votes were unlikely to be divided then, and the disintegration of the BJP votes were expected to benefit the party/alliance best placed to defeat the TMC. The Modi wave has considerably ebbed since the summer of 2014 and this being a state election, the BJP is not seen as a principal player in West Bengal.
Panic spread among the rank and file of the TMC when the contours of the alliance became clearer. Hectic parleys in Kolkata by the state leadership of the Communist Party of India -Marxist or CPI(M) led Left Front and the Congress and the almost carte blanche given by the central leadership to the redoubtable Adhir Chowdhury, the president of the Congress Party’s West Bengal unit, ensured that an electoral understanding (both CPI(M) and Congress party refuse to call it an alliance) was put in place, and there would be a one-on-one fight against the TMC in 95 percent of the assembly segments.
North Bengal which has about 75 seats, is in all likelihood, going to go the “alliance” way. Both the Left Front and the Congress are comfortably placed and poised to defeat the TMC in almost all the seats. TMC’s tally is likely to be in single digit in North Bengal.
In the remaining 220 odd seats, predominantly in South Bengal, almost every assembly segment will see a tight race between the two main contestants. 24 Parganas (both North and South) and undivided Midnapore district have almost 90 seats between them and it is widely perceived that the political party which wins the most assembly seats in these districts will capture Writers Building, the seat of power in West Bengal. Dissidents in many assembly segments are openly defying the TMC diktat and backing the “alliance” candidate, as is evident in Nanoor, and Birbhum. Bloody turf wars and internecine infighting are taking a heavy toll on the TMC in many districts. The elections are too close to call and the initial edge that the ruling party enjoyed is slowly being bridged by the “alliance” candidates in almost all the seats.
Many political analysts in Delhi believe that the Muslim vote is with the TMC. Nothing could be farther from the truth. In the thickest concentration of “minority” districts like Dinajpur, Malda, Murshidabad and Cooch Behar, the TMC was placed in third position behind the Left/Congress when all three parties fought separately in the 2014 LokSabha elections. Almost 92 percent of the Muslims are Bengalis and are poor and marginal farmers. The remaining eight percent Muslims, are Urdu speaking, mostly the Calcutta elite, who have hijacked the party and captured the imagination of the TMC supremo Mamata Banerjee. Three of them- Firhad Hakim, Sultan Ahmed and his brother Iqbal Ahmed- were caught red handed in a sting operation conducted by Narada News.
Politics is almost always about equation and emotion (which analysts call arithmetic and chemistry). Emotions were running high in Bengal, when a sting operation conducted by Narada News released clips on the eve of the Ides of March (March 14th 2016), of senior TMC leaders including the Kolkata Mayor, five MPs from the Lok Sabha and a Rajya Sabha MP and three MLAs accepting bribes to lobby and provide lucrative contracts to a fictitious company called Impex Consultancy. Predictably, the TMC cried hoarse about a “political conspiracy” and immediately dubbed it a “smear campaign” by the “dirty tricks departments”of their political adversaries.
The first phase of elections are on 4 April 2016. The Narada News sting is slowly percolating to the grassroots of the eastern state through viral organic social media campaigns-primarily on Whatsapp and Facebook. Chatter on social media is revelatory, and the carefully cultivated clean image of the chief minister, Mamata has taken a hit. In stark contrast with the Armani/Gucci bling that her nephew and heir apparent Abhishek Bannerjee flaunts, it has become obvious to any unbiased observer that the cheap cotton sari and the hawai sandals, worn by Mamata are necessary props in a stage-managed show.
The Left Front has announced it will put up large screens at prominent locations to beam the Narada tapes across the state. It is now becoming extremely clear that the Narada exposé will have a significant impact in this age of hyper media. Very few voters are buying the “doctored video” claims of the TMC. While Mamata’s party cries “kutsha” (slander), they refuse to send the videotapes for forensic examination and disprove their theory that the tapes are doctored.
On May 14th 2001, almost 15 years to this day, BJP national president, Bangaru Laxman had to quit on charges of accepting bribes. The timing of that sting operation came in handy for Mamata and the TMC had then occupied the moral high ground and quit the NDA government, to have an alliance with the Congress party in the ensuing assembly elections. It is a matter of record, that after she was defeated at the hustings, she was forced to eat humble pie, and rejoined the NDA government a few months after the 2002 Gujarat riots, at terms unfavourable to her. The political bankruptcy and the intellectual hypocrisy is clearly not lost on the voters of West Bengal.
Section 9 of the Prevention of Corruption Act (PCA) is unambiguous in its wording, “Whoever accepts or obtains or agrees to accept or attempts to obtain any gratification as a motive or rewards, for inducing by the exercise of personal influence any public servant, then he can be tried for an offence under this section.” The prescribed punishment could be for a minimum term of six months that may extend to five years with a penalty. The Ethics Committee of the Lok Sabha, headed by LK Advani is to examine and investigate the charges, and recommend disciplinary action, if any.
As campaigning is in full swing, the accused TMC leaders, alleged to have accepted the bribes are giving conflicting statements. While some leaders like Aparupa Poddar, the MP from Arambagh constituency are calling it a donation, Saugata Roy, the MP from Dum Dum was far more contrite and candid in a closed door meeting of TMC workers. He said he was saddened and embarrassed by the Narada revelations. Most of the other leaders, including their chief national spokesperson Derek O’ Brien (not shown in the Narada news tape) have decided to brazen it out hoping that the public will forget the shameful incidents of elected representatives caught red handed with their hands in the till.
The TMC still wants to live in a make believe bubble. This culture of denial will prove costly to the credibility of the party when voters repeatedly prick that bubble over the seven phases during elections in West Bengal. The voters are mature and intelligent and on May 19th we should know the full impact of the Narada sting operation had on the voting behavior.
(The writer V Mathew is an election researcher and a Kolkata based political analyst)