Monday / March 25.




By Ashis Biswas


As the ruling Trinamool Congress (TMC) and opposition parties gear up for the next round of West Bengal Assembly elections, their campaign themes have been established.


The TMC is contesting on a ‘development’ slogan, while the twin pillars of the opposition’s campaign will be ‘lawlessness and economic stagnation’, broadly speaking.


At first sight, the TMC’s claim of having improved the state’s economy may look suspect, if not downright dubious, to most observers. However, initial impressions may be deceptive. After 54 months of its tenure, the ruling TMC has consolidated its position in rural Bengal. Especially in the highly populated South Bengal districts, which account for most of the 294 seats in the Assembly, the TMC is confident of doing better than its opponents in the polls.


There is good reason for the TMC’s optimism. In terms of big brush strokes, it can be said that the quality of life has significantly improved for millions living in the suburbs and villages because of four changes – better roads, street lights, power supply and drinking water.


This is not to suggest that bad roads and highways are a thing of the past in Bengal. Only 50 per cent of the nearly 600-kilometre-long road connecting Greater Kolkata with Siliguri has been widened or is reasonably motorable, after 54 months. The rest of this most crucial north-south traffic artery, part of the National Highway 34, remains in shambles, bringing much misery and frustration for unfortunate travellers and common people.


Delays by the state government in clearing encroachments for vote bank considerations have frustrated the central government, which had long ago sanctioned the promised sums for improving/widening the entire long stretch. Intriguingly, even if the work has not been completed, the Centre’s money has been spent!


As economist Dipankar Dasgupta pointed out during a recent discussion, unless such major roads are improved and maintained properly, Bengal’s economic recovery may be jeopardised. His argument did not seem to impress TMC leaders who were present.


However, the outcome of the next round of polls may not wholly depend on such obvious, in part deliberate, failures of the TMC government. As one observer explains, “The point is, even in the remote villages, what were kutcha roads have now been paved or rebuilt by concrete. Waterlogging during the monsoons is restricted only to low lying areas. Along most such roads and even alleyways, there is street lighting now. Trees have been planted to increase greenery. New ponds and water bodies have been dug, numbering over 150,000 all over the state! There are plans to introduce commercial fishing in some of these.”


Such claims are not unfounded. Even a central government report quoted in Parliament showed that the number of villages yet to be served by electricity in Bengal was only 22 now! There are nearly 34,000 villages in the state. And until May 2011, when the last Assembly elections were held, the number of villages without power was over 10,000!


As for road building and other projects, this writer spoke to residents of North and South 24 Parganas, How, Hooghly, East and West Midnapore and Bankura districts. All were by no means TMC supporters, but they confirmed that some improvements had indeed occurred. They also pointed out that the supply of drinking water to had reached a larger number of people.


The irony is that such progress was achieved despite the rampant factionalism and infights among rival TMC factions, which dominate most villages panchayats. Also, most of the funds were provided by the Centre through the NREGA and other schemes. The question arises, why are South Bengal villagers, by no means ignorant about the facts of life, remain more thankful to the TMC and not the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which rules at the Centre.


Especially in the South Bengal context, this is where the failure of the opposition Congress, Left Front (LF) and the BJP parties becomes glaringly apparent. To deal with the LF first, the State government had gone into a paralysis of inaction after March 14, 2007 the day of the Nandigram firing, when 14 poor villagers were shot down by the police.


The government even withdrew its police personnel from many areas of the Maoist-affected Jangalmahal districts, leaving the people in distress. Administration in the rural areas virtually collapsed. It was not much better in the North Bengal, where the militant Gorkha agitation virtually put an end to rural development and related work.


To the credit of Mamata Banerjee as chief minister, it needs stressing that she had been visiting the trouble-torn north and south Bengal areas even while in opposition. After becoming CM, despite what her critics dismissed as her ‘antics,’ ‘gimmicks’ and ‘vote-bank populism,’ she visited most of the 20 districts frequently .


As one write-up points out, she has made over 50 such visits during her tenure, which none of her predecessors had done! In the districts, she had held regular meetings with local people, the DMs, and the BDOs, often rebuking them publicly for their shortcomings.


As for the BJP, its best period for consolidation was just after the 2014 Lok Sabha polls when its vote share rose from around 6 to over 16% of the aggregate. But subsequently, very poor leadership, nepotism, corruption, dissension and the absence of any programme of action came in the way of the BJP’s expansion.


Dilip Ghosh, an RSS veteran, has now replaced Rahul Sinha as the state party president, but the replacement has come too late to matter. No one expects the BJP to do very well in the 2016 Assembly polls. Its leaders and activists have not been able to inform the people of rural Bengal effectively enough that most of the money spent on Bengal’s rural development came from the centre, not the state.


With its huge lead in rural Bengal over its opposition, the TMC expects to offset its probable losses in the urban or suburban areas where the lack of new industries, closure of jute mills and tea plantations, and no new investments, have broadly alienated the urban voter. The law and order situation too has worsened sharply. Nevertheless, with its major share of the rural votes along with the support of Muslim voters, the TMC expects to emerge as the undisputed number one party in 2016. (IPA Service)