Prime Minister Narendra Modi's campaign visit to West Bengal on Monday, though important in itself, raises a raft of questions and issues about the political situation in the state in the run-up to what is being billed as a neck-and-neck race. In this context, a disclaimer is in order. What follows is an analysis of the situation as it stands and in no way an attempt at prognosticating the results of elections that are still a few months away.
Let us then begin with the prime minister's visit, which tops other several visits to the state by Modi himself, Union Home Minister Amit Shah and Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) president JP Nadda. The frequency of these visits is in itself significant, but more on that later.
On Monday, Modi launched the expected tirade against Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee, her party and her government. There were three lines of attack, all oft-repeated. First, the Trinamool Congress (TMC) government is holding up development; second, the party that controls the government promotes corruption; and, third, extortion (tolabaji) has reached such levels that, in Modi's words, 'one cannot rent space without paying a cut'. Space for what appears not to have been specified.
The second and third points are obviously related and are a variation on allegations about the frequent exchange of 'cut money' for the provision of essential services and the omnipresent operations of 'syndicates', which apparently run the State.
The TMC has countered the first charge by pointing to eight central awards the Bengal government has won from the BJP-ruled central government. It has also pointed out that the state government has sent details of 250,000 beneficiaries under the Pradhan Mantri Kisan Samman Nidhi, but no action has ensued. It has also said that Mamata, as railway minister, had laid the foundation of the Noapara-Dakshineswar Metro extension in 2010. The BJP government starved the project of funds, but was now trying to take credit.
Finally, in reply to Modi's charge that Bengal had not utilised over 60 percent of the Rs 1,700 crores (spending jus Rs 609 crore) for providing clean piped water for everyone in the state, the party had two ripostes. First, the Mamata government's Jal Swapno scheme, which is in the process of being implemented, will provide clean piped water to 20 million households at a cost of Rs 58,000 crore, borne entirely by the state government.
Besides, public health officials rubbished Modi's figures, saying that as of 21 February, Rs 1,040.79 crore had been spent out of the Rs 1,953.66 crore made available this fiscal. Moreover, the COVID-19 situation had slowed down the programme, because people had refused to let engineers enter their areas. Quite apart from that are the irrefutable charges that the Centre has been refusing to pay states, including Bengal, their legitimate dues out of revenues collected.
The prime minister made another slew of allegations about factories that had been shut down, speaking in an area near the currently closed Dunlop factory. The general drift of the allegations was that the TMC government has been responsible for the de-industrialization of Bengal. There is a problem with this thesis, given that the decimation of Bengal's industrial sector happened mostly during the 34 years of Left Front rule.
If anything, neutrals will agree, for all its faults, the Mamata government has tried to re-start the industrialisation process and built substantial social infrastructure, including roads, schools and health facilities. In any case, critics pointed out, the BJP government has hardly been an exemplar: it did nothing to help revive Dunlop or Hindustan Motors, the two big factories shut down in Hooghly district, where Modi was speaking. Nor, the critics say, has it opened five central jute mills that remain closed, as promised during the 2014 election campaign. Incidentally, about a week back the state government facilitated a deal which involves the Mumbai-based Hiranandani group acquiring 100 acres of the Hindustan Motors land at a cost of Rs 10,000 crore to set up IT and other ventures.
In electoral politics, however, these kind of statistical iterations and debates don't cut much ice. Even educated, middle-class people would struggle to ascertain the veracity of a bewildering array of claims. As for the allegations of corruption, extortion and the so-called 'syndicate raj', some of it is doubtless true. But the effectiveness of these charges as election rhetoric is undermined by a few factors. To begin with, there are problems of re-iteration and exaggeration. Public opinion, even when otherwise hostile to the TMC, has by and large praised the government's distribution of post-Amphan relief, for instance.
Scepticism about such allegations are also bolstered by public knowledge that Bengal is hardly a desert of corruption surrounded by an oasis of countrywide probity. But even more significant is the constant attempt to induce TMC leaders to defect to the BJP. The challenger to the ruling party can't seriously talk about corruption after it lures the likes of Mukul Roy and Suvendu Adhikari into its ranks.
Quite apart from these well-rehearsed exchanges, there are important factors that need to be taken into account. First, Mamata has embarked, especially of late, on a populist programme that is finding takers. It would not perhaps be excessive to say that Mamata has evolved a style of governance that has changed perceptions of herself and the government, if not so much the party. Thus, 'Duare Sarkar', which is trying to take the government to the people, as also the more recent 'Paray Paray Samadhan', which specifically aims at solving local problems involving relatively small financial outlays by cutting through red tape.
But the most important scheme is 'Swasthya Sathi', which aims to provide health coverage of up to Rs 5 lakh per year to every family in the state, with no strings attached. Private hospitals have been roped in to reserve beds for those registered under the scheme. Though the scheme was launched in 2016, it gained traction from December 2020, when it was universalized because of the pandemic and renamed 'Swasthya Sathi Health Scheme 2021'. Private hospitals have seen a three-fold jump in people seeking to register under the scheme in private hospitals by mid-February. These schemes, including the internationally recognized 'Kanyashree' programme, are the flagships. Many other schemes have been or are being launched. Their appeal, politically and electorally, cannot be dismissed out of hand.
Let us return to the incessant visits to Bengal by Modi, Shah and Nadda. If this isn't exactly overkill, it does point to an excessive reliance on the big guns from Delhi. That, in turn, points to the weakness of the local leadership. There is not one state BJP leader who has the stature to match Mamata's appeal. The fault lines between the old guard in the state unit of the party and the new entrants accentuates the Bengal BJP's leadership problem.
So, will it boil down to a Modi versus Mamata projection? The BJP has sedulously avoided giving this kind of impression in most other states, because the conventional wisdom is that it doesn't work well. So, when you don't have a commanding figure, opt for the line that we don't have a chief ministerial candidate because we don't need one. When the time comes, the party will decide " meaning the brass in Delhi.
Which brings us to our last major issue. The TMC has pitched this election as a contest between the people of Bengal and 'outsiders'. It doesn't help counter that strategy by relying on national leaders to fight the party's battles, especially when there's no Bengal 'face' of note anywhere around.
Modi and Shah's amateurish attempts to speak Bengali and appropriate 'Bengali icons' just makes things worse, compounded further by the serial gaffes made by the Bengal BJP on a number of pretty basic cultural facts. In other words, a sub-nationalist strategy could work better for the TMC than for the BJP.
This is the situation at this point. In a couple of months a lot could change. There are other factors to be kept in mind: for instance, what role will the Left-Congress-Indian Secular Forum play in terms of bagging a share of the votes? There are many imponderables. But at the moment, it looks like the ruling TMC has the edge.