Mamata Banerjee’s staunchest supporters believe that she actually strode up to the Nabanna (administrative headquarters of her government) rooftop on Friday, April 3 night and angrily ordered Cyclone Fani not to mess with West Bengal – and her warning indeed forced the deadly cyclone to leave the Trinamool Congress-ruled state alone whereas it killed 36 people in Orissa and 20 in Bangladesh.
If the Indian Army can proudly announce that the Yeti is alive and walking in the Himalayas, Bengal’s teeming masses are surely entitled to believe that Cyclone Fani did not unleash death and destruction, thanks to Didi’s ultimatum to spare Bengal or face her wrath!
But myths apart, Mamata’s dominance and eminence is all too evident ahead of May 23 when the will of the people will finally come out into the open. She exudes more and more confidence as the D Day approaches. The latest manifestation of her self-assurance is her refusal to take Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s telephone calls to discuss Bengal’s preparedness before the cyclone. Modi and other BJP leaders are bitterly criticising Mamata for deliberately insulting the PM by declining to talk to him. But Didi’s snub in the thick of campaigning has raised the morale of Trinamool cadres in the closing phases of the unnecessarily long-drawn-out general elections.
Projections of a BJP blitzkrieg are not supported by reality on ground
The moot point today is whether the BJP can wrest a sizeable number of seats in Bengal to make up for its widely anticipated losses in the Hindi heartland. Amit Shah, who has campaigned sincerely and tirelessly for months in Mamataland, is confident of winning 22 out of 42 seats. Many analysts and commentators are predicting that the BJP will win in as many as 10-12 constituencies. Others believe that the BJP’s tally will be at least 8. Overall, there is a perception that the BJP is all set to storm the Trinamool fortress where it won only two seats in 2014 and 3 out of 294 in the 2016 Assembly polls. In 2014, Trinamool bagged 34 seats while the Congress and CPI(M) won four and two respectively. In 2016, Trinamool won a mind-boggling 211 Assembly seats, reiterating its political hegemony.
Minus the hype and buzz, Trinamool and Mamata are too well entrenched for the BJP to overrun Bengal at this juncture when the BJP’s prospects are so gloomy nationally. There are no indicators whatsoever of the BJP’s sudden rise, popularity or acceptability in Bengal where the Hindu Right has been traditionally bereft of credibility or respectability. So objectively speaking, projections of a BJP blitzkrieg by saffron generals like Shah and Modi or in TV studios and some newsrooms are clearly unsustainable because of ground realities.
The insurmountable obstacles in the BJP’s tortuous path in Bengal are two Ms: Mamata and Muslims. The combination has turned Bengal into an impregnable fortress by my reckoning. Mamata is the colossus of Bengal politics towering above her peers. Ordinary people still have blind faith in her. Her persistent popularity is the surest sign of Trinamool’s political supremacy which is most likely to translate into electoral triumph when the EVMs start talking.
Let’s not forget that long before she became CM in 2011, aggrieved groups made a beeline for her, undermining the authority of her Marxist predecessor Buddhadeb Bhattacharya. Agitating farmers in Singur and Nandigram turned to her for help, clearly showing how the ground was slipping beneath Marxists’ feet. She championed their cause and ultimately ousted the Left.
In 2019 there are still agitators and demonstrators in Bengal; pockets of the disenchanted and the alienated exist even today. But, significantly, they don’t turn to Dilip Ghosh, Suryakanta Mishra or Somen Mitra, the state chiefs of BJP, CPI(M) and Congress, respectively, for help or solace. All of them want to sit down with Banerjee to find a solution, whether it’s the Bhangar farmers of South 24 Parganas resisting the takeover of their land for power transmission lines, or the Paschim Bongo Khet Mazdoor Samiti fighting for dying tea garden workers, or ordinary people fed up with extortion rackets run by local Trinamool leaders. All roads still lead to Didi’s abode in Kolkata’s Kalighat. There is no alternative to Mamata as things stand.
Women - comprising 50% of the state’s electorate - are especially indebted to Mamata. They are direct beneficiaries of many government policies since 2011 when Trinamool toppled the Left Front. Trinamool introduced 50% reservation for women in all three tiers of the Panchayat system. Moreover schemes like Kanyashree, Sabujsathi, Sashtosathi and Ananddhara provide special facilities and financial incentives to girls and women in schools, colleges, universities and health centers. During Left rule, only 25% of beneficiaries of 100-Days’ Paid Work Programme were women. The percentage has now risen to 50 which is a revolutionary development in the field of women’s welfare. There has been a nearly 10% fall in the number of marriage of underage girls. Any girl who is not married at the age of 18 is rewarded by the administration with a cheque for ₹25,000.
Overall, the position of women has improved since 2011 and women voters regard Mamata as their saviour. The implementation of government schemes for women is of course not perfect. Corruption is rampant but women blame the government machinery for the shortcomings and are grateful to Trinamool in general and Mamata in particular for launching schemes which are changing their lives.
Muslims comprise a massive constituency which BJP can’t even dream of tapping. Bengal has a sizeable Muslim population and around 80% of its votes will be cast for Trinamool because it genuinely tries to protect their religious identity. They are beneficiaries of various government schemes which are improving the socio-economic conditions of Muslims in rural and urban areas of West Bengal since 2011. The gains of the Muslim community in the last eight years are evident from government statistics of health, education and employment generation sectors which are a reliable indication of how Muslims are going to vote.
In the last year of Left Front rule – 2010-2011 – only 50% of Muslim children were studying in primary schools. The current figure is 98%. In 2011, literacy rate among Muslims was 59%. Today it is 71%. In 2011, Muslims accounted for only 4.5% of graduates. The current percentage is over 22. In 2011, the share of Muslims in state government jobs was only 2.4% but it has now risen to 6.78. Muslim representation in the three-tier Panchayat system was only 17% in 2011 which has grown to 30. The percentage of Muslims who got bank loans in 2011 stood at 14.76 in 2011, it has risen to 21. In 2011, Muslims accounted for 27% of beneficiaries of 100-Days’ Paid Work Programme but the current figure is 34 which is even more than the community’s percentage of population.
The lure of Trinamool among Muslims has a solid socio-economic foundation making Mamata’s party the first choice of Muslim voters. Unqualified and unquestioning Muslim support gives the Trinamool a big electoral advantage over the BJP. Bengal, therefore, represents a very slippery slope for Modi and Shah. The two Ms – Mamata and Muslims – are bad news for the duo who seem to think that Bengal is a low hanging fruit.
(The author is a prize-winning investigative journalist and commentator)