President’s Rule may be staring at West Bengal.
When a new government steps in, it has to address three issues—the trappings of yesterday, the interests of today and the hopes of tomorrow. How did Mamata Banerjee, the most admired giant killer, who erased a 34-year-long CPM rule from West Bengal, fare in this context? This is a question never addressed in the cacophony of roadside brawl type political discourse in the state. Finally the failure to address the three components of yesterday, today and tomorrow is leading to TMC’s end game.
First look at the state Mamata inherited from Buddhadeb Bhattacharya, the lone Chief Minister of the state after Dr Bidhan Chandra Ray, who wanted to uplift the state’s decaying economy by bringing in fresh investment. The effort of Bhattacharya was stonewalled by a strong entrenched group of people from different strata. The opponents included intellectually brilliant and a former CPM finance minister, Dr Ashok Mitra, the small land holders of Singur and Nandigram led by anti-Left political leaders as also many whom Mitra called lumpen proletariat. A disheartened BuddhaBabu wrote in his reminiscences, Phire Dekha, how a small section of the state’s population backed by a handful of “intellectuals” stalled his sincere efforts. Mamata, obliged by the support of this group, carried on with the policy of stagnation.
What were the interests of “today” when Mamata walked into the state’s historic headquarters, the Writers’ Building? As a politician, her primary interest was to continue her rule uninterrupted. She wanted to come close to the record of Jyoti Basu, the state’s longest serving Chief Minister. Mamata had learnt from her long association with the state’s politics how elections there could be managed. Therefore, she needed to create a political cadre base, which her party lacked. CPM ruled with its party base, starting from local committee to the central committee and politburo. This foundation was weak when Buddhadeb was trying to bring in industry in West Bengal, internal squabbling was high, extortion and money making by the local leaders were rampant. Mamata had to quickly build her own structure to maintain her interest of “today” from within such political elements.
Thus came the likes of Anubrata Mondal, Jahangir Khan, Saokat Molla, et al. They controlled the political cadres in their respective territories. Mostly unemployed, these cadres remained loyal to the local leader as long as the leader could support them to earn livelihood through legal or illegal means, mostly extortion and save them from police action. The local political bosses were the conduit for collecting funds for the party. They facilitated college admission, participation in government sponsored schemes, including receipt of subsidised ration, employment and even living smooth and trouble free lives. By challenging them, one would even lose life. This became a fool-proof network of election win. Few dared to cast vote against the ruling TMC. The effect of intransigence was seen during the post violence on opposition after the 2021 election results.
The third part of any government that is addressing tomorrow’s hope can wait as long as today’s interest of perpetuating political hegemony is ensured. Buddhadeb Bhattacharya made the mistake of breaking out from the status quo and address the hope. He attempted to lift the state’s economy from the morass of stagnation and thus disturbing the balance of power. Mamata Banerjee suffers from no baggage called hope. The system that she set up to ensure uninterrupted TMC rule in West Bengal proved successful even in 2021 in the face of challenge from the Prime Minister Narendra Modi-led BJP.
In the absence of a vibrant economy, there could be no employment opportunity. To save starvation death the state had no option but to provide doles. To keep the youth engaged, the state supported local clubs, festivals, pujas, fairs etc. To bring spirit in an uneventful life, the state liberalised the market for spirit. This one stroke killed three birds. First helped a revenue starved state to earn hefty excise duty—more than Rs 12,000 crore per annum—which gave much needed liquidity to pay for freebies. Second, this kept people happy—cheap liquor proved an exciting option of unwinding for those who had no jobs. Third, this became a source of fund collection—reportedly, there is a standard levy per pouch/bottle charged by the political muscle to run their network. In addition, when jobs are just few, it does not require any great brains to realise that there could be enormous opportunity to collect rent, which is some speed money for helping in getting job. The entire school teacher appointment scam should be seen in this context.
In the initial days of power, Mamata’s TMC obtained fund from the chit funds running in the state. But once the chit fund bubble burst, the party had to look for other sources. School teacher appointment proved an easy option. In order to facilitate smooth fund collection, all Mamata Banerjee had to do was to bring her long term confidant Partha Chatterjee as education minister, removing Bratya Basu, a dramatist and intellectual of sorts. Since 2012, Partha Chatterjee presided over this fund collection goose. The process was simple enough. Just change the results of job test. This helped those who could pay for numbers—even after submitting blank answer scripts, reportedly, they could get numbers high enough for a school teacher’s job.
This buy-your-number scheme worked well till some complaints disrupted the smooth system—a few hundred job seekers, who had qualified in the examination, yet did not receive appointment letters, knocked on the doors of the Calcutta High Court. The case was allotted to one judge, a former lawyer of School Service Commission. However, there were division benches pliant enough to rein in the Justice, who was ordering investigation. Problem was that the single judge exposed the nexus by drawing attention of the Chief Justices of the High Court and the Supreme Court. Such outburst as well as report of a retired HC judge, who investigated the issue at the behest of the court, sealed the fate of manipulation.
Finding her hands tied, Mamata Banerjee attempted to catapult herself in the national stage as an alternative to Narendra Modi. Presumably, she wanted to project the cases against her ministers as vendetta politics. This ended in disaster. But a desperate Mamata is again coming to the national capital for a NITI Aayog meeting. Will Mamata build a bridge with the Opposition for some fig leaf? Will she persuade the ruling BJP to go slow on her corruption? Both are unlikely.
The second option for Mamata is to cut the loss and banish Partha Chatterjee. This she did through her nephew Abhishek. Abhishek is under scrutiny for several allegedly illegal money-making schemes. Perhaps he hopes that he might escape scrutiny of agencies on his alleged financial deals over coal, cow, sand deals by sacrificing Partha. This, too, is unlikely. Those are separate cases. Even if TMC rule turns turtle just from the Partha Chatterjee scam, these cases will reach the logical stages in due course. What is more, with the current expose, his legal defence will turn wobbly. One member of the Abhishek coterie, a former wheeler dealer journalist, Kunal Ghosh, went surreptitiously to meet BJP minister Dharmendra Pradhan when the latter was in Kolkata recently. Clearly there is panic in Kolkata.
Internal squabbles are raising head within TMC. Abhishek hopes to emerge the pillar behind Mamata’s chair. Others like Firhad Hakim will not let it be easy for him. Many insiders’ tip-off will now help investigative agencies. In this game, Abhishek will be a casualty.
Will this end TMC’s rule and see legislators breaking away and joining a BJP-led government like it happened in Maharashtra? Many are speculating on that line, winking at the fact that politics in every state has its distinctive character.
The TMC MLAs are of two types. There is a group who are deeply involved in the party’s scams. They cannot save themselves even if they desert the party now. They will be hounded out by the local people, who had been at their receiving end. The others who are not that much neck deep in corruption, might think they would be acceptable to BJP. But the question is of anti-defection law. Since corruption racket in the state had been so deep, it is safe to assume that more than 100 out of 213 TMC MLAs are caught in the no man’s land. This will leave no option to break away from TMC.
Clearly, West Bengal is heading towards President’s Rule. It is a matter of time. That such a possibility is strong could be sensed from the Centre, read Prime Minister, not appointing a full-time Governor in the state after Jagdeep Dhankhar’s resignation. Evidently, the Union Government is waiting and watching the scene so as to send an effective administrator to manage the state once the ruling government there retires hurt.
Author Sugato Hazra’s latest book is “Losing the Plot: The Political Isolation of Bengal”.