West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee has finally met her match in the state’s election commissioner, Meera Pandey. The doughty IAS offer has taken on the bullying politician in a legal battle of nerves, in which the former has finally emerged victorious. This is not only Mamata’s first setback after two years of success in browbeating her opponents into silence since coming to power, it also holds out disquieting possibilities for her.
The crux of her confrontation with Pandey was her desire to retain total control over the forthcoming panchayat elections by keeping out the central forces. Mamata is aware that if she can hold the elections with only the subservient state police engaged in supervisory duties, then the Trinamool Congress ‘activists’ – in real terms, goons – will have little difficulty in enforcing their party’s writ on the outcome by intimidating the voters.
In the last two years, she has effectively turned the police into a loyal tool of the ruling party – as did the Marxists when they were in power – by two demonstrative incidents. The first was the removal of a well-regarded police officer, Damayanti Sen, from her post of joint commissioner (crime) in Kolkata when she pursued a professional course while handling the case of the rape of a woman in the Park Street area, which the chief minister had chosen to describe as a ‘sajano ghatona’ or a concocted incident.
The other was the transfer of the Kolkata police commissioner, RK Pachnanda, when he, too, was seen to be acting without fear or favour when a police officer was shot dead by a supporter of the Trinamool Congress in broad daylight. These two interventions by the chief minister in the higher rungs of the police establishment were enough indication to the rest of the force that it must follow the dictates of the ruling party cadres.
Because the panchayat polls will be the first real trial of strength since the Trinamool assumed power, the party cannot afford to take the contest lightly. This is especially in the wake of the belief that its popularity has been eroded by Mamata’s intemperate conduct, which makes her brand anyone questioning her as a Marxist or a Maoist – whether the person is a girl student in a TV show or a farmer at a public meeting or housewives in a village distressed over an incident of rape.
The chief minister even had two academics arrested for posting a cartoon on the internet lampooning her with the help of a dialogue in a Satyajit Ray film. While her paranoia makes her occasionally allege that conspirators are out to kill her, she once went to the extent of telling Washington Post that their plans are hatched in Venezuela or North Korea. This kind of eccentricity has obviously made her lose support in the urban areas, as the huge turnout of the intelligentsia against her in Kolkata recently showed.
However, she may have presumed earlier that her base remains intact in the countryside. But, she is probably no longer as sure after the National Crime Records Bureau found that the highest number of crimes against women – 30,942 cases – took place in West Bengal last year. Hence, her insistence via a long legal battle on keeping out the central forces, over whom the Trinamool cadres will have no control.
But, now the Supreme Court has not only allowed the induction of central forces, but has also spread the elections over several days so that they can be effectively deployed. As a result, there is apparently considerable concern in Writers Building. Trinamool may still win a larger number of seats than the CPI(M) and the Congress. But, a reasonably satisfactory showing by the two opposition parties will not only mean that the wheel has started turning for another ‘parivartan’ in the state, but also that Mamata’s hopes of playing a major role at the national level are unlikely to be fulfilled.
As her recent call to Nitish Kumar after his break with the BJP showed, Mamata had convinced herself that she could be an important constituent of the proposed third front. But, any sign that she is losing ground in West Bengal cannot but undermine her position. Even otherwise, it must be obvious to her friends and foes that her mercurial temperament detracts from the possibility of her being an asset in any group.
As her record in West Bengal shows, she has succeeded in alienating all the social and political sections, which rooted for her before her assumption of power. In the political field, they included the Congress, and in the social sector, a fair number of academics and writers, including the well-known Left-leaning author Mahashweta Devi. Now, they have all turned against her, enabling a previously demoralised CPI(M) to regain some of the lost ground. A rebuff to the Trinamool by the rural electorate will accelerate the process of its decline.