Disillusioned with Left Rule, Bengal Gives Didi Another Chance
West Bengal’s Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee is all set to form the government once again with over 200 of 294 seats in the staggered 2016 assembly elections.
While the urban chattering classes kept measuring Banerjee’s eroding popularity, a different narrative was playing out in remote areas of rural Bengal. Like India, Bengal too lives in her villages. Almost 80 per cent of those who voted in the state reside in the rural areas.
Hatred Against Left Persists
While the urban educated may view her as the ultimate street-fighter and shrivel in horror when she unleashes a foul-mouthed tirade against her officers or when she openly threatens her detractors with dire consequences once she returns to power, Mamata Banerjee is now here to stay for the next five years.
We can lament the encouragement she has given to the ‘syndicate culture’ where party goons extort money from realtors and supply poor quality material but despite the collapse of the Girish Park flyover, Banerjee had several factors that worked for her in these polls.
In certain rural areas, the hatred for the CPI(M), who ruled West Bengal for 34 years, still exists.
Common Man’s Chief Minister
But Banerjee’s primary strength is the fact that she is the common man’s chief minister. While the poor queue up for water and ration, Banerjee wants to be perceived as one of them even though she occupies the highest seat in the state.
Symbolism is important to her. She is the embodiment of simplicity and austerity: her cotton sari, her rubber slippers. While other politicians may use bullet-proof luxury cars, Didi still sits in the front seat of a Santro without an air-conditioner. It’s a personality statement. She continues to live in her humble home in Kalighat in south Kolkata, which her family has occupied for 50 years.A bureaucrat who has worked closely with Mamata Banerjee
While the urban populace may dismiss this, these factors have contributed to Banerjee’s popularity with the masses. Their didi has shunned paraphernalia and the trappings of power.
Together with this, Banerjee focused on her performance in rural Bengal. Her voters saw more work in the last four years than they had seen in almost four decades. Roads were built, drinking water was made available through a pipeline scheme and medical facilities upgraded in the districts.
An irate Communist leader during his campaign conceded that work had been done but so had pilferage and corruption taken place. The message is clear: the rural voter wants his facilities, he seem unconcerned about corruption.
A leading industrialist in the state and FICCI president Harshavardhan Neotia, who has seen Banerjee from close quarters says, “She is a very hard working woman who has tremendous compassion for the deprived. She has relentless energy and a drive to accomplish many things in a short period of time.”
Dolenomics Worked for Didi
But Banerjee’s masterstroke were the doles and freebies she initiated like Jayalalitha in Tamil Nadu.
Her rural voters do not care whether she is dictatorial and breaks systems or lacks finesse. What matters is that she has contributed towards their betterment.
Close to 48% of Banerjee’s voters were women. Banerjee played this card effectively. Under the Kanyashree scheme, 26 lakh girls were given electronic bank accounts. Every month Rs 500 flowed into these accounts for just attending school.
Three months’ short of elections, Banerjee began distributing rice at Rs 2 a kg. This endeared her in the backward and tribal areas of the state.
Under the Sabuj Sathi scheme, 40 lakh cycles were distributed to girls in the state. For the first time in rural areas of Bengal, girls became mobile.
An Overwhelming Victory
- Despite the flyover tragedy and graft taint, many factors
worked for Mamata, including the hatred for the Left that ruled
Bengal for 34 years.
- TMC’s focus on rural Bengal worked in party’s favour as
people rewarded it for building roads, providing drinking water and
- It is this chunk of rural voters that explains TMC’s
comeback for corruption is not an electoral issue in villages.
- The women card also worked for Mamata as the schemes
launched by the state government for girls contributed towards their
- While the bhadrolok rejected
Mamata due to graft allegations, controversy generated after the Narada expose
clearly had no impact in these polls.
No Impact of Graft Charges
While urban areas lamented the loss of freedom of expression when the Jadavpur University professor went through torture for the innocuous act of circulating a cartoon or when the bhadrolok expressed shock and horror at the Narada expose, these issues had scant impact in areas where only one kind of freedom matters: freedom from hunger and deprivation.
Banerjee has held over hundred meetings in the districts. At each meeting over 30 secretaries of different departments would accompany her. She connected with the people like no other leader had. Flamboyantly she would announce, ‘You don’t have to go to the state secretariat, I have brought the state secretariat here.’
As West Bengal prepares for her second term as chief minister, a senior bureaucrat describes her as a no-nonsense administrator. He quotes the 16th century political thinker, Machiavelli’s words from The Prince, “ The Prince must be loved. However, If he can’t be loved, he must be feared. Banerjee seems to have internalised this well. While many love her, nearly everyone fears her.”
(The writer is a Kolkata-based senior journalist)
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