It couldn’t have been easy for an imperious Mamata Banerjee to offer the “unconditional apology” agitating doctors in West Bengal were demanding to return to work. But as the medics’ strike in the state spilled over to the second week, and doctors across the country ceased work in solidarity, the chief minister thought it prudent to tone down her instinctive belligerence and end the crisis.
Not before she’d betrayed a sense of insecurity, which has been palpable in her knee-jerk reactions to the needling, probing political gambits of a triumphant BJP. It’s as much real as imagined, and has been playing out ever since the Lok Sabha election verdict, in which the BJP emerged as the primary challenger to the Trinamool Congress (TMC) in West Bengal, winning a 40 per cent vote share and 18 of the 42 seats-just four less than the TMC. Mamata is now seeing a BJP conspiracy in everything-from her party’s electoral reverses to the doctors’ strike, triggered by the June 10 thrashing of their colleagues at Kolkata’s NRS Medical College & Hospital by the relatives of a deceased 75-year-old patient, Mohammad Shahid. One of the doctors, Paribaha Mukhopadhyay, had suffered grievous head injuries in the attack.
Mamata first tried to brazen it out. She called the protesting doctors BJP/ CPI(M) cadre, ‘outsiders’, ‘urban Naxals’ and communal agents. “A fanatic fundamentalist frenzy is on,” she alleged. “This is a BJP-CPI(M) conspiracy to create communal tension by asking doctors not to examine Muslim patients. If doctors look at surnames before treating patients, or fire officials and the army do the same, can it be tolerated?”
With the strike paralysing government hospitals across the country and pressure building up from the Union government and the Bengal governor, Mamata had to finally back down. To her embarrassment, her own ministers and party leaders, the legislative assembly speaker and even nephew Abesh Banerjee, a medical student, had come out in support of the striking doctors. “It is highly symptomatic that a section of her own party, the TMC, does not share Mamata Banerjee’s views,” says Arunava Ghosh, Congress leader and a senior Calcutta High Court advocate.
HOUSE IN DISARRAY
While Didi may have earned a breather by getting doctors to resume duty, after promising a doctors’ delegation on June 17 to step up security for medical staff at hospitals, the political crisis that has engulfed her party is worsening with every passing day. “It has not even been a month since the Lok Sabha result and 850 gram panchayats have switched allegiance to our party and 40 municipality boards have changed their colour,” says Diptiman Sengupta, a BJP leader from Cooch Behar.
With BJP president Amit Shah setting an expiry date for the TMC in Bengal and Prime Minister Narendra Modi putting a number to TMC legislators ready to jump ship, Mamata’s nervousness is showing. TMC MLA and Bidhannagar (Salt Lake) mayor Sabyasachi Dutta has been criticising the party and daring Mamata to expel him, but she has chosen not to react. Such is the desperation that to stop the panchayat pradhan of Chandrakona village in West Midnapore from joining the BJP, Mamata had to send three senior leaders, including irrigation minister Rajib Banerjee and agricultural marketing minister Tapan Dasgupta. In Cooch Behar, ministers Goutam Deb and Binoy Barman went to mollify a panchayat pradhan, but they met with stiff local resistance.
A spate of desertions has hit the TMC in the past month. On May 29, three party MLAs and more than 60 councillors switched over to the BJP. On June 17, Sunil Singh, the TMC’s Nowpara MLA, joined the BJP with 12 councillors. And if BJP leader Mukul Roy-once considered Mamata’s second-in-command-is to be believed, as many as 150 TMC leaders are in touch with him. Says a state BJP leader, requesting anonymity, “Each Lok Sabha seat has some 1,300 gram panchayats. We are looking to wrest a hundred every month in each of 42 Lok Sabha seats.”
TMC spokesperson Partha Chatterjee welcomes the desertions as an ‘opportunity’ to rid his party of rotten elements. Despite the defection of six MLAs and four wins for the BJP in the recent assembly bypoll, the TMC, which had won 211 seats in the 2016 state election, commands a handsome majority in the 295-member assembly. While the BJP would expect its 18-seat Lok Sabha haul to lend it a big advantage in 129 assembly segments in the 2021 assembly election, Rajib Banerjee is dismissive of the saffron party’s chances. “Winning 18 Lok Sabha seats, the BJP is behaving as if they have won the whole of Bengal. Instead of eyeing Bengal, Amit Shah should concentrate on the BJP-ruled states where gau rakshaks are killing Dalits and even journalists are at the receiving end. The threat of presidential rule in Bengal will remain a hollow threat,” he asserts.
The BJP is on a mission to bring elected rural representatives under its umbrella to ensure people have a better connect with the Centre’s welfare schemes. Under Mamata, central schemes have been running in the state with local branding: the Swachh Bharat Mission is called ‘Mission Nirmal Bangla’; the Pradhan Mantri Gramodaya Yojana is ‘Nijo Griha Nijo Bhumi Prakalpo’ and the Deendayal Upadhyaya Gram Jyoti Yojana is the ‘Sabar Ghare Alo’ scheme.
A HOBBLED ADMINISTRATION
After the Lok Sabha shocker, suspecting that a section of government officials had worked in tandem with the BJP against the TMC, Mamata shuffled the administration, transferring 43 IPS officers in 21 days. “She has been shifting district magistrates, superintendents of police and others-sometimes more than once-in the seats where the BJP has won or gained in strength,” says an additional chief secretary-rank officer on condition of anonymity. The officer says when Darjeeling district magistrate Joyoshi Das Gupta fell out of favour for withstanding alleged pressure from the TMC-backed Binay Tamang faction of the Gorkha Janmukti Morcha during the Lok Sabha election, she was transferred twice in two days.
The TMC rank and file now suspect the police of being hand in glove with the BJP. Sources say that during an administrative meeting with Mamata, ministers Jyotipriyo Mullick, Chandrima Bhattacharya and Suvendu Adhikari had complained that the police seemed reluctant to register complaints against BJP workers. Bhattacharya claimed she was receiving hundreds of provocative phone calls every day, with callers either chanting ‘Jai Shri Ram’ or abusing her. Mullick pleaded helplessness in dealing with a blatantly ‘pro-BJP’ police in Bhatpara and Naihati. Hearing this, Mamata, sources say, pulled up the director general of police, who was attending the meeting, saying: “We (TMC) are not yet finished. It’s time you acted firmly and gave orders to your subordinates.”
Political observers say anti-incumbency against the TMC has been evident on the ground for some time. “It’s as if people have suddenly found their voice again,” says former Calcutta University professor Sovon Lal Dutta Gupta. “We see demonstrations from all walks of life. The gag is off, as it were, and people who wouldn’t speak out of fear, who were dubbed Maoists or sent to jail for questioning the government or over trivial things like sharing a Mamata meme, are finding the courage to come out.”
On June 17, four senior faculty members of Kolkata’s Rabindra Bharati University resigned in protest against a caste slur on their colleague, Saraswati Kerketa, allegedly by members of the TMC’s students’ wing. On April 29, lawyers in Bengal went on a month-long cease-work protest following alleged police excesses over parking of vehicles. The lawyers demanded action against a senior IPS officer who had ordered a cane-charge, in which 11 lawyers were injured. Law minister Moloy Ghatak was heckled and sent back when he went to mediate. In March, some 200 aspiring teachers observed a 29-day hunger strike to demand jobs against vacancies in the education department.
The communal trap
Such flashpoints and political violence have become common, with both the TMC and BJP running a polarising Lok Sabha campaign. The BJP began laying the ground for it in 2017 by accusing Mamata of Muslim appeasement. The fight became only sharper in the run-up to the general election, helping the BJP earn handsome dividends. Two days after the election result, a brazen Mamata said: “I appease Muslims… will do it a hundred times… it’s alright to be kicked by the cow that gives you milk.” With the Bengal assembly election being billed as the ‘final match’ between the TMC and the BJP, the politics of religion and violence may only get uglier.
Political violence has intensified after the Lok Sabha verdict and is brushed aside or explained as the fallout of community clashes. The killing of three BJP supporters at Sandeshkhali on June 8 was projected as an attack against Dalits. The FIR was lodged two days later, by which time the principal accused, local TMC leader Shahjahan Sheikh, had fled.
In the June 10 assault that triggered the doctors’ strike, Roy and state BJP chief Dilip Ghosh claim the perpetrators were Muslims. When the protesting doctors condemned the BJP’s bid to communalise the issue, Mamata shot herself in the foot by accusing doctors of discriminating among patients on the basis of their surnames, and tried to justify the outrage of the patients’ families. “When Mamata justifies the attack on doctors as spontaneous, it is clear who is playing the communal card,” says Union junior minister for women and child development Debasree Chaudhuri. “She’s running the administration in her jihadi style and the home ministry is keeping a close watch.”
Creating a linguistic binary is another of Mamata’s strategies, feels Presidency University Professor Emeritus Prasanta Ray. “Her outburst over Jai Shri Ram slogans is calculated. She wants to project the BJP as a party alien to Bengali culture, ethos and language, and hence incapable of fulfilling the aspirations of the people of Bengal,” he says. Is this why Mamata has, of late, raised the pitch against non-Bengalis, saying those staying in her state must speak Bangla?
Psephologist Biswanath Chakraborty sees the Bengali/ non-Bengali narrative as an attempt to split the Hindu vote in the state. “West Bengal has 7.8 million non-Bengali voters and Mamata feels that by doing away with them, she can woo the rest of the 50 million Hindu voters in the name of saving the state,” he says.
Realising that the transfer of the Left’s 22 per cent vote share to the BJP was among the main reasons for the TMC’s Lok Sabha setback, Mamata is appealing to the Left’s 7 per cent loyal vote bank for support. The Left, though, is not buying any of it. “There’s nothing called a Left vote bank,” says Deb. “The vote share that has gone to the BJP was anti-Mamata and anti-TMC. People chose the BJP over the Left because they saw it as an opportunity to teach her a lesson. Anti-incumbency was high and the people refrained from splitting the anti-incumbency vote.”
Chakrabarty cautions that the BJP will find it pretty easy to further consolidate the anti-TMC vote by the next election if Mamata “continues to dig her own grave”. Mamata needs to be mindful that the very fiery streetfighter image that brought her to power in Bengal by ending the Left Front’s 34-year rule.