The political situation in West Bengal is warming up as the state completes the second phase of polling today, with the subsequent phases unravelling the mystery. But the Bengal election is more than for political change. It may decide whether the politics of a ‘reformist economy’ continue to be on course or whether India will opt for a new model.
The bedrock of the campaign hinges on the economy. Each vote there is not so much about cut money but for how the people could have a better life, as well as trust in the political system. The BJP is keen on perpetuating high prices-to-fee-toll regime and so is its eagerness to win the state. If the BJP wins, it would be an endorsement of its policies for the sale of PSUs -- the privatisation spree. If the TMC wins on its own or forms the government with the Left-led alliance, the Manmohanomics of 1991, which ushered in the privatisation of national assets and inflicted severe woes on the people, would come under challenge, nationwide.
The people are vocal about the promises made in the manifesto. The largely popular perception is that the TMC can be trusted to keep its promises. The other is more about rhetoric and reneging on it.
TMC leader Mamata Banerjee is leading a fierce battle against the aggressive BJP and her manifesto promises higher financial aid to farmers, job creation, better health and education, housing to all and inclusion of more communities in the OBC category. Yes, caste has made a visible return to Bengal politics, shattering the myth of Bengal having risen above caste politics long ago.
The BJP’s Hindutva has emerged equally strong and may polarise voting, not everywhere, but in pockets. It is trying to woo the economically poor Matua community who migrated from erstwhile East Pakistan, now Bangladesh. Matuas are a sect of a scheduled caste group. The BJP expects Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to their sacred places in Bangladesh will help it.
The TMC leader is trying hard to woo the Bengali sentiment away from the pan-nationalistic cry of the BJP. Since Independence, the Bengali narrative has dogged the state and even led the state’s first chief minister, Dr BC Ray, to allege discrimination by Delhi and the consequent flight of capital from the state. Mamata has acted carefully, igniting sentiments to garner the most media footage even during the visits of the Prime Minister or other BJP leaders since January 23, Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose’s birth anniversary bash at the Victory Memorial.
Stark economic issues
In no recent election, not even in Bihar, were state parties seen to be the cynosure of the media as is being seen in Bengal. A large number of YouTube channels, certainly getting funds from different quarters, are showing events and issues that the national media miss. These not only capture popular moods but also stark economic issues like the farmers’ agitation, their campaign in the state, inflation-hit people and midnight discussions on privatisation.
The two-day strike by bank employees and the subsequent strike of insurance workers were also flashed on social media. Bengal is discussing demonetisation, its impact on the poor and economy, GST, the pushing through of the three laws liberalising farm markets and the junking of the land bill in the Rajya Sabha, the lockdown and the ensuing social and economic devastation. The sale of PSUs is being discussed in terms of job losses and how the government would be able to create jobs. An interesting discussion is on Mamata’s high-handed style of functioning and centralisation of power in the BJP. In short, the autocratic behaviour is in question.
Bengal is not much enthused with the BJP’s One Nation, One India, whether it is in terms of market or cultural nationalism. Interestingly enough, the Central Government’s setting up of a development finance institution with Rs 20,000 crore government-funding is not enthusing voters. Infrastructure projects, a perception has developed, use more machines than employing men.
Inflation is hitting the people hard. The rise of consumer prices, administered rise of petrol and diesel prices, the doubling of Bengal’s favourite edible mustard oil prices to Rs 150, fish, other food items and galloping rise of non-food item prices are issues. These voters’ ire is not directed at Mamata.
To say that this is uniformly hitting the BJP in constituencies is also not true. It has a strong fighting machine and has captured a space. The Left-Congress-ISF alliance is vying with the BJP to have the second slot, if not the first. The BJP has emerged as the challenger and carefully sweeps stark economic questions under the carpet with national security issues or safety of the Hindu community facing an onslaught of a highly aggressive minority population.
Muslim politics has entered a new phase, with the rise of the Indian Secular Front of the Furfura Darbar Sharif Pirzada Abbas Siddiqui, “to highlight their economic plight”. It is breaking the mould of Muslim politics comprising about 27 per cent of the population but going high as 80 per cent in some constituencies. Even the BJP has fielded Muslim candidates. The overt Muslim religious identity may change the political pattern in many states and may or may not make the BJP more relevant but its polarised politics may have caused the rise of a Frankenstein against inclusive Gandhian politics.
This changing pattern may also influence the national economy. If the trend strengthens, the political parties would have to be watchful so as not to divide resources on religious grounds, that may lead to new social strife.
Yes, politics is coercive in Bengal. The Left, TMC, BJP and others have mastered the art. It can influence the voting pattern. But the economy is central to Bengal elections. Even a polarised person would vote for or against economic policies. No one till now has an answer to the corruption and bureaucratic empowerment that was started by the Left and has not left untouched any political party. The victory of Modi or Mamata will decide the direction. The BJP has a lot at stake not only for the party but for its rich friends as well and even the much-touted National Education Policy, that aims at privatising the sector.
Mamata, if she wins, may emerge as the future face of a non-BJP alliance, which may even include the Left and Congress. There may be many changes, not only in economic policies, administered prices of petrol but also a move for constitutional restraint on the money powers of the government. A lot may change, or not -- Bengal holds the key.
The writer is a veteran journalist, an observer of the socio-politico-economy and a media academician.