By Shivaji Sarkar
West Bengal elections may be a referendum for India’s economic policies. It will decide whether the politics of “reformist economy” will continue or force the country to search for a new model.
The stakes are high for BJP as it is keen on perpetuating high prices to fee-toll regime and so is its eagerness to win the State. The regional Trinamool-Left forces have put up tough resistance to save their bastion. If the BJP wins, it will be an endorsement of its policies for sale of PSUs or the privatisation spree. If the TMC wins on its own or forms government with the Left-led alliance, nationally the 1991 Manmohanomics, which ushered in privatisation of national assets and severe woes on the people, would come for review.
Trinamool Congress leader Mamata Banerjee leading a fierce battle against the aggressive BJP released her manifesto promising 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 from the supposed myth of the State having risen above caste politics long back.
The BJP’s Hindutva equally has emerged strong and may polarise voting, not everywhere, but in pockets. It is trying to woo the economically poor, Matua community, which migrated from erstwhile East Pakistan or East Bengal, now Bangladesh. Matuas are a sect of scheduled caste group. Prime Minister Narendra Modi during his visit to Dhaka would visit their sacred place that is expected to help the party in West Bengal.
The dynamics are more. The TMC leader is trying hard to woo the Bengali sentiments, against the pan nationalistic cry of the BJP. The Bengali narrative since Independence has dogged the State and even led first State Chief Minister Dr BC Ray allege discrimination by Delhi and consequent flight of capital from the State. Mamata has acted carefully igniting the sentiments to capture the most media footage even during the visits of the Prime Minister or other BJP leaders since January 23, Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose birth anniversary bash at Victory Memorial.
In no recent election, not even in Bihar, the State parties were seen to be the cynosure of the media as it is being seen in Bengal. A large number of You Tube 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 subsequent strike of insurance workers also are flashed on the social media. Bengal is discussing demonetisation, its impact on the poor and economy, GST, pushing through three laws liberalising farm markets and junking of land bill following problems in Rajya Sabha and also lockdown, social and economic devastation. The sale of PSUs is being discussed in terms of job losses and how would the government 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.
West Bengal is not much enthused with ‘One Nation, One India’ of BJP, whether it is in terms 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 consumer prices have risen by 5 per cent in February. They are worried about administered rise of petrol and diesel prices, doubling of edible mustard oil prices to Rs 150, fish, other food items and galloping rise of non-food item prices. This seethes the voter and this ire is not turned towards 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 significant 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 highly aggressive minority population.
Muslim politics has entered a new phase with the rise of ISF of Furfura peer Abbas Siddique “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. Never before, except in Jammu and Kashmir, anywhere a Muslim religious identity has been in the forefront. This may change political pattern in many States and may make BJP more relevant or not but its polarised politics may have caused the rise of a Frankenstein against an inclusive Gandhian politics. Will there be a churning also in the Congress, which has an alliance with AIUDF of Badruddin Ahmed in Assam, and other parties?
This changing pattern may also influence the national economy. If the trend strengthens, political parties would have to be watchful so as not to divide resources on religious community 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 be it whatever, the economy is central to Bengal elections. Even a polarised person would vote for or against the economic policies. No one till now has answer to corruption and bureaucratic empowerment that was started by the Left and has not left untouched any political party. The victory of Modi or Mamata would decide the direction. The BJP has 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 non-BJP alliance, which even may include the Left and Congress. There may begin many changes not only in economic policies, administered prices of petrol but also move for having constitutional restraint on money powers of the government. A lot may change or not, Bengal holds the key. — INFA