A senior BJP leader, campaigning in Kolkata, may well have put his finger on the people’s pulse.
When he attacked Mamata Banerjee and the Left-Congress Front in equal measure, the crowd response was tepid. But when he attacked the Trinamool Congress (TMC) for 60 per cent of his speech, people applauded. At 75 percent, there was thunderous applause.
This was at the earlier phases of polling, but there is no reason to believe that the trend will change before counting day.
In fact, if the violence witnessed during the earlier phases continues, and the stuffing of ballot boxes by ‘ghost’ voters after polling hours multiplies, it will become clear that the TMC is nervous. It is brazening it out through violence, which has now become associated with Mamata’s party in the popular imagination.
Does this mean there was no violence during 34 years of CPI-M rule?
A left liberal intellectual explains it succinctly: “CPI-M was more disciplined because it was cadre based; cadres knew the area and its leaders, the ones who had to be attacked. TMC goons who have grown during the five years of TMC rule, enter areas they may not know and attack everybody. There is, therefore, much more bloodshed.” There is universal fear.
“Laat khayega ki biryani khayega” (Would you like to be kicked or served biryani?) An “aabdar” or barman at one of Kolkata’s many clubs, mimics the TMC’s neighbourhood tough. Aabdar is derived from Urdu – one who serves drinks.
“This time we are quiet, but we shall show our hands at the polling booth.” He is clearly among the urban Muslims still loyal to the Communist Party of India-Marxist (CPI-M). Otherwise Muslims across the board have no grievance with the Mamata.
In fact, they quite adore her for the way she created an almighty movement in West Bengal on the land issue in Singur and Nandigram between 2006 and 2007. In both these efforts at industrialization by the CPI-M, poorest Muslims, among others, would have lost their livelihood and property, “had Didi not intervened”.
That is where she hit the political jackpot. She had lost the 2006 assembly poll but she used Singur and Nandigram as fulcrums to turn her fortunes around. She won 70 per cent of the 54,000 Panchayat seats in 2008. In the 2009 Lok Sabha election, Left Front came down to 15 seats from 42 in 2004. In 2014, they had only two seats. Mamata won 38.
Now comes the “vote share” punditry on which those who wish to see the back of Mamata in Bengal base their calculations.
Even at her peak Mamata’s vote share was only 40 per cent. The CPI-M was 30 per cent and Congress, 10. The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) may have won just two seats but its vote share was 17 percent.
A very arithmetical argument is: CPI-M’s 30 percent and Congress 10 makes the alliance equal to Mamata’s 40. The question is: Which way will the BJP’s 17 per cent split?
In a complex sociological turf, arithmetic is inadequate to accurately calculate electoral outcomes. To this comes a quick riposte. In Bihar, Lalu Prasad Yadav held onto his vote bank. After the Nitish Kumar-BJP combination ran its course, it was the Nitish-Lalu combination that triumphed.
Through grit, courage and a refusal to lose, once Mamata ascended the gaddi, she faced her biggest challenge: How to cope with the CPI-M cadres?
Violent tactics to overcome this handicap has become a strategy. Willy nilly she must keep riding the tiger. A group of thugs, cheering her along. Some of these cheering goons have formed an irregular system of co-operatives, called syndicates.
Imagine the new, garish, multi-storeyed buildings near Kolkata airport. Obviously, land has been acquired. “Land losers” have been given a novel compensation. They will supply all the materials used in the buildings. The infection has spread. No enterprise can take to wing without the syndicate’s “blessings”.
A senior Bengali academic from the US, confident that many in Mamata’s administration had once been his students, returned to Kolkata to have his ancestral house repaired. Work progressed until one day a dozen peak-capped TMC volunteers materialized. How had work begun without their knowledge?
The professor and his wife called up a powerful minister, their student. The minister said he was helpless because the syndicate operated on the directives of a different minister.
This system has replaced the Left cadres. Indeed, out-of-job cadres have switched sides and joined the syndicate system. There is great consternation all around.
Obviously, there is loss of support for her. This explains the conventional wisdom across the board: She will return with a vastly reduced margin.
If it is generally accepted that she is on a down-hill slope, who can say with certainty where she may land?
She will, however, not lose support among Muslims who are over 30 per cent of the state’s population. Talk to Samsuzaman Ansari, local leader in Matia Burj, where Awadh’s last Nawab, Wajid Ali Shah, was exiled by the British in 1856, and he will list all that Didi has done for the community.
Did not the Left Front government also give them protection? Yes, they gave us protection but they also gave us a mantra:
“Gai ka gosht khaao/CPI-M ke geet gaao”
(Eat beef to your heart’s content; but sing the CPI-M’s praises). That was all.
There is populism all around. She has improved on Tamil Nadu Chief Minister J. Jayalalithaa’s rural schemes – not just Rs.2 per kg of rice but even gold bangles for girls.
For the Left Front and the Congress this could well be their last battle for survival in the state. They have joined hands in Bengal even though they are in direct conflict in Kerala. There may be no morality in all of this, but is it practical commonsense?
(A senior commentator on political and diplomatic affairs, Saeed Naqvi can be reached on firstname.lastname@example.org. The views expressed are personal)