It is election day for the municipal corporation of Kolkata. The red brick was once the launching pad in politics of not only Mamata Banerjee, but many others, with this corporation building in central Kolkata standing on the road named after Surendra Nath Banerjee's successors in the freedom movement, like CR Das and Subhas Chandra Bose. They did not live to enjoy the fruit of their labour in independent India, but it was nevertheless the “corporation election” that initiated them into representative government. That red brick house still holds the key to power in West Bengal, because in a state of poor peasants and people on the margins of the middle class, Kolkata is where the money is. But the election has gone much worse than what Lord Curzon prophesied, obviously not in admiration, that the elected local bodies of India would become — “parliamentary bodies in miniature”.
Though Kolkata Corporation, like most things in the old capital of the Raj, has turned provincial and insignificant, grossly “miniaturised” as it were, it is still a powerful body in the context of the state. Trinamool Congress (TMC) of Mamata Banerjee can’t afford to lose it one year before election to the assembly. She held four rallies for this civic poll and held an 8km-long road-show that brought traffic to a standstill. Besides, she still has a vice-like grip on the election process. The State Election Commissioner (SEC), a state government appointee, did not utter a squeak when only three companies of central forces (250 personnel each) were available to man 4,704 booths, 1,600 of which are marked as “sensitive”.
In the previous 2010 election, there were 70 companies of central police forces. The state policemen were of course there but in Bengal under TMC they are known as actors playing slain soldiers (kata sainik), in a reference to the hugely popular historical plays of DL Roy in the early decades of the past century. State elections, be it municipal or for village councils, are supervised by SEC and are outside the jurisdiction of the Central Election Commission (CEC). An earlier SEC, an IAS officer, was Mamata’s gadfly. But the current one belonging to the state civil service is known to be her yes-man who made no noise about the so-called election codes being violated, nor did he drive up to the Raj Bhavan with complaints like his predecessor. On the day before the election, the chief minister used her Facebook account to announce free cancer and cardiac treatment in state government hospitals, with little concern for either poll code or the state of her treasury. The SEC was also unfazed as hundreds of roughnecks were ferried from the countryside and suburbs a couple of days before the election and wined and dined in TMC shelters.
I was lucky not to have met them on the way to the polling station, but, as I write this article, television channels are streaming with images of opposition polling agents being clobbered and panic is ruling in booths that are suspected to be going the opposition way. It is still difficult to gamble on the outcome, though the odds are stacked in Mamata’s favour. It will be an interesting development if the TMC tally falls below the halfway mark of the 144-ward corporation. To keep it out of power, one of its three main contenders, BJP, CPI(M) and Congress, most win at least 50 seats. That alone can trigger a wave of defections from all around. For both Congress and CPI(M), the 50-seat goal is unattainable at the moment.
Congress has long since lost its support of Muslim and the poor in the city to the CPI(M) at first and later to the TMC. The CPI(M), on the other hand, is in a state of shock and confusion following his poll reverses from 2009. It is getting a new general secretary tonight, most probably Sitaram Yechury, at the conclusion of its 21st party congress in Visakhapatnam but there is no certainty that it will find a new blueprint of action for making its ideology acceptable to the young generation. BJP, on the other hand, is the newbie, relatively speaking, and Prime Minister Narendra Modi is a major source of attraction for the city’s aspiring youth and, interestingly, the womenfolk.
They are neither moved by the inherent danger of the Hindutva brand of politics, nor by the possibility that Modi’s promise to regenerate the economy may come unstuck. On the other hand, they are truly impressed by Modi’s apparent gravitas when he talks and the impression of ease he creates in the company of foreign dignitaries. Perhaps at a subconscious level, it helps them gain a sense of importance which for the struggling people is so easy to get compromised in such hard times.
If a miracle happens in Kolkata, like BJP getting 50 plus seats, it will be an extension of the AAP story in Delhi, the only difference being that AAP has superior communicating skills whereas the BJP in Bengal has a deficit of both leaders and talent. But that will make BJP’s success in Kolkata even more curious, of course if it happens. In the general election last year, BJP led in 37 wards. It may not be a fair comparison as the 2014 poll was Modi’s election all the way; but it’s not much different now either. On the posters, Modi’s face peers from that of every party candidate. And women voters are turning to Modi on the rebound from Mamata who made herself detestable after her extreme tolerance, if not indulgence, for rapists and criminals. Big cities of India are a different country where voters are getting increasingly impatient with the incumbent.
Mamata may not be as far beyond her sell-by date as Sheila Dikshit became. But she is a horrible manager, with a temper that conceals her slowness. If the Kolkata voter truly intends to teach Mamata a lesson for her arrogance of power, and ineptitude, he cannot but play the BJP card as the other two parties are in a sort of political ICU.
For the experiment to succeed in the Assembly poll next year, everything of course depends on the longevity of the “Modi magic”.