A student hostel run by the RSS-affiliate Vanavasi Kalyan Ashram (VKA) is the last place where one would expect to find any motif of the Trinamool Congress government’s largesse.
A row of blue bicycles distributed under the state government’s internationally acclaimed ‘Sabooj Sathi’ scheme will catch the attention as one enters through an iron gate into a sprawling campus of the VKA hostel at Kharibari in Darjeeling district.
Under the scheme, bicycles are distributed to students of classes 9 to 12 studying in government and government-aided schools and madrasas of the state to increase retention in schools.
Eligible students of the VKA hostel are among the six million students of 12,000 schools who have benefited from the scheme until February this year. It was launched in September 2015.
Politics of entitlements
The TMC government in West Bengal runs over 20 such welfare schemes, which the party on its website claims to have transformed the state.
A couple of such schemes have been added in the run-up-to the upcoming elections. Just days before poll dates were announced, Banerjee launched “Maa kitchen”, providing meals to the poor at ₹5 a plate.
In January, the Mamata government launched the ‘Choker Alo’ scheme to provide free spectacles and eye treatment, including cataract operations, over the next five years. The Election Commission earlier this month raised objection to the project and asked the state government to halt it until the polls are over.
The government also transferred Rs 10,000 each to the bank accounts of 9.5 lakh 12th-grade students studying in government schools for procurement of tablets or smartphones for their “online education.”
With effect from January 2021, the state government brought into effect a three per cent hike in dearness allowance for nearly10 lakh state government employees.
Since December last year, the state government also extended benefits of free health insurance scheme of ₹5 lakh per family to all citizens of the state.
Beneficiaries of the appease-all doles are not only ordinary citizens but also families of top BJP leaders including the party’s state president Dilip Ghosh.
“If there is no discernible strong anti-incumbency wave against Mamata Banerjee’s government, which is seeking a mandate for a third term in office, it is because of her freebie politics, a model she adopted from the electoral politics of southern states, particularly Tamil Nadu,” observed author and political commentator Nirmalya Banerjee.
When the state was hit by the double whammy of COVID-19 pandemic-induced lockdown and cyclone Amphan last year, Banerjee’s answer to the crises was more doles.
The TMC government provided one-time financial assistance of ₹1,000 each to around 1 lakh migrant workers stranded in other states during the nationwide lockdown. The government also provided free-ration to all.
In the aftermath of the cyclone, the state government made a direct cash transfer of Rs 20,000 each to five lakh families whose houses were destroyed. Similar benefits were provided to farmers whose crops were ravaged.
Cut money factor
On the flip side, there were allegations of nepotism and TMC workers taking cut money (illegal commission) from people seeking to avail benefits of the government’s “welfare” schemes.
As the opposition upped its ante over the alleged irregularities in the disbursement of welfare schemes, the government launched its ‘Duare Sarkar’ and ‘Paray Samadhan’ schemes to hand out benefits of the government’s initiatives at people’s doorsteps.
Over 2.75 crore people attended 32,830 outreach camps organised at the gram panchayat and municipal ward levels for various entitlements.
The 30-day long drive that started on December 1 proved to be a redeeming step. “Had it not been for Duare Sarkar our party would not have stood a chance this election,” a senior TMC leader from north Bengal confided.
From Totopara in the state’s extreme north to Sunderbans in the southern tip, people admit having received benefits of free rations, free health care, students’ scholarship, entitlements for the girl child, widows, senior citizens and so on.
“Every person in our community has been a beneficiary of one or the other welfare scheme of the government,” said Bakul Toto, the president of the Toto Kalyan Samity — the apex body of one of the world’s smallest tribal groups that resides in Totopara village of Alipurduar district.
Aspirations beyond freebies
Prasanjit Mandal of Sunderban Foundation echoed Toto’s views. He said a large section of the people benefited from the entitlements. In the same breath, he added that welfare schemes could take care of some basic needs, but beyond that people tend to have other aspirations too. There lies the catch.
“True, this government has largely taken care of roti-kapda-makaan and even bijli-sadak and padhai… But it has failed to hold the promise of a better future,” said Samujjwal Hemram of Islampur in North Dinajpur district.
Hemram, 23, completed his M.Sc in Media Science from Inspiria Knowledge Campus, Siliguri. Like many other educated youths of the state, he is frustrated about the lack of meaningful employment avenues in the state.
“In its 10-year rule, the TMC government could not set up a single big industry in the state. Rather many industries closed down during its tenure. If the BJP comes to power, we will usher in industrial development. We will make West Bengal an industrially developed state like Gujarat,” said BJP National Council member Ganesh Chandra Debnath.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Home Minister Amit Shah and other BJP leaders are trying to tickle this aspiration with the promise of building Sonar Bangla (golden Bengal), a metaphor for prosperity.
Even in the hinterlands, aspiration is growing and people are no longer satisfied with their enough-for-need farm yields and the MGNREGA handouts.
Landholdings of most farmers in Bengal are too small to be even kitchen gardens in comparison to farms in Haryana and Punjab.
This means farming is only good enough for subsistence. It does not hold promise of a better future, prompting many farmers to take up odd jobs in the cities during the non-farming season to jack up their income.
This workforce often has to migrate outside the state as there are not enough job avenues in Bengal to absorb them. Bengal ranks fourth among states from where people migrate for work.
“Who wants to migrate to a distant land? I was working in a foundry in Howrah as a metal caster. After it closed down, I took up a job at Coimbatore in Tamil Nadu,” said Ganesh Lodha from Jhargram.
He came to his village to caste vote on March 27 in the first of the eighth-phase elections for the state’s 294 seats.
Lodha’s family gets free ration from the government. Besides, his elderly father also gets a grant of ₹1,000 per month under the state government’s ‘Jai Johar’ pension scheme.
Lodha is not unhappy with the government, but at the same time, he wants a job nearer home.
Keeping the need of aspirational Bengal in mind, Banerjee, in her election rallies, reels off promises of job creation and industrialisation while reminding the voters about a slew of welfare schemes her government runs.
“There will be an investment of ₹62,000 (for Jangalmahal Industrial Town). Many jobs will be created… Unlike the BJP, I keep my promises,” Banerjee said at a rally on Tuesday (March 16).
Corruption a non-issue
Corruption is another card the opposition, particularly the BJP, is trying to use against the ruling dispensation. The CBI interrogation of the wife of Abhishek Banerjee, chief minister’s nephew, in a coal smuggling case last month, generated a lot of media attention. But the issue of corruption seems to have failed to stir the masses enough to make any significant impact electorally.
“The Saradha chit-fund case and Narada sting operation — the two major scams that rocked the state in the recent past — happened before the 2016 assembly elections. Investigations into these cases in all these years did not make much headway. So these issues are no longer politically relevant,” Banerjee pointed out.
Moreover, the BJP also lost moral high ground on corruption issues after many TMC leaders whose names were linked to these scams switched over to the party.
Politics of identity
In the absence of any real issues and anti-incumbency wave, identity politics is dominating this election with the BJP pushing its Hindutva agenda while the TMC is trying to counter it with Bengali sub-regionalism.
This larger identity narrative also has several sub narratives drawing a wedge into a larger dominant Bengali or Hindu order.
The BJP tested success in the 2019 elections by consolidating Dalits (particularly the Matua sects) and tribals under its Hindutva umbrella.
The state’s over 50 lakh tribals (as per 2011 census) accounts for about 5.8 per cent of the total population, while the share of SC communities in the state’s over 9 crore population is 23.51 per cent.
There are 16 assembly seats reserved for the STs and 68 for the SCs. But the influence of the communities extends beyond reserved seats.
Under the SC category, again there are more than 50 sub-castes, major groupings being the Rajbanshis, who account for 18.4 per cent of the total SC population, the Namasudras with 17.4 per cent and the Bagdis with 14.9 per cent population.
Again in the multi-layered identity politics, sub-sects are being further fragmented into splinter groups to woo them separately. For instance, Matua sects within the bigger Namasudra community are being aggressively pursued by both the TMC and the BJP.
Further extending the identity outreach, BJP national president J P Nadda on Tuesday (March 16) promised during an election rally that if his party was voted to power, the Mahishya and Teli communities would be included in the reserved category. The communities are now listed as OBCs.
The TMC is hoping that the non-implementation of past promises made to these communities by the BJP would come back to haunt the saffron party.
There are some discontents against the BJP among Matuas for the delay in implementation of the Citizenship Amendment Act 2019.
The Adivasi Kurmi Samaj is also unhappy with the Union government for not granting Scheduled Tribe status to the community as had been promised by the BJP ahead of 2019 elections.
In the 40 assembly seats in the tribal-dominated Jangalmahal area, the Kurmis are the deciding factor with a vote share of above 30 per cent. In the 2019 Lok Sabha elections, the BJP had won in 30 assembly segments, while TMC could hold lead only in 10 segments.
To win back the support of the SCs and STs, in November last year, the state government formed cultural boards for Bauri and Bagdi tribes to help the ST tribes to preserve their cultural heritage. Earlier, a Namasudra Development Board too was formed.
The TMC government also started distributing land ‘pattas’ or land rights to over 1.25 lakh Matua refugee families.
In the state budget presented in February this year, Banerjee announced the opening of 100 new English-medium schools for Scheduled Caste, Scheduled Tribe and poor students over the next three years. She also proposed setting up 500 schools for promoting Ol-Chiki, a tribal language. “1500 para-teachers will be employed in Alchiki language in the next five years,” the CM said.
Besides, budgetary allocations were also made for the opening of schools for Nepali, Hindi, Urdu, Kamtapuri, Kurmali, Sadri and Rajbangshi languages.
The TMC’s efforts to consolidate support with entitlements are, however, threatened by the intense power struggle the party has been facing for the past several months.
This month itself TMC lost five MLAs to the BJP, which also wrest control over Malda Zila Parishad, thanks to defection within the TMC.
In a bizarre development, TMC candidate from Habibpur constituency in Malda district, Sarala Murmu, donned the BJP colour this month.
Party leaders openly admit that internal dissidence is the biggest problem confronting the TMC right now. The TMC expects to offset the damage with the personal charisma of its leader, Mamata Banerjee. “This is my vote. If you don’t elect the TMC candidate, I cannot form the government,” she tells the crowd at her rallies.
Another imponderable factor for the TMC is how the Muslims would vote this time. The party should be worried about the prospect of the Indian Secular Front of the Islamic cleric Abbas Siddiqui denting the TMC’s Muslim vote base.
“The Muslims will vote strategically to defeat the BJP because only the TMC can fight the BJP in the state,” claimed TMC leader Siddiqullah Chowdhury downplaying the ISF factor.
To scrape through, the TMC would need its Muslim vote banks to remain intact.