The All-India Trinamool Congress led by Mamata Banerjee came to power in West Bengal in 2011. Since then, the voter base of the 1998-born party not only increased with time but has also changed in character.
The arrest of two key leaders of the party- Partha Chatterjee and Anubrata Mondal has exposed the party’s failed perception management system; not the first time that the party has been faced with such a predicament.
German political scientist Elisabeth Noelle-Neumann developed the spiral of silence theory, which states that a person's desire to express their own political belief is influenced by how they perceive the distribution of the general public's opinions.
This can be understood from the recent remarks of TMC Rajya Sabha MP Jawhar Sircar. He publicly admitted that he had been mocked by his friends and family since the recent developments of SSC Scam in the state. If this is the case with a MP, the situation with the ground workers at the grassroot level is a no-brainer.
AITC is facing some flak and this has prompted even the party’s most vocal supporters to tone down. This article explores what factors have influenced the general opinion of the public against the party, and why are said supporters caught in a ‘spiral of silence’
Recent Arrest of High-Profile Leaders
On July 22, Party’s then secretary general and minister, Partha Chatterjee was taken into custody by the Enforcement Directorate over irregularities in the appointment of teachers and teaching staff recruited through the West Bengal School Service Commission Examinations. Approximately 50 crore rupees in cash were recovered from actor Arpita Mukherjee’s residence, who is said to be Chatterjee’s close aide.
The images of large chunks of cash being recovered from Mukherjee’s flat shocked the conscience of West Bengal’s residents and sent shockwaves nationwide.
Chatterjee was heavily criticized by the public, which ultimately prompted AITC to suspend him from the party, and West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee to sack him from his ministerial positions.
To make things worse, party strongman and Birbhum district president Anubrata Mondal was taken into custody by the Central Bureau of Investigation on August 11 in relation to an alleged cattle smuggling scam.
These two incidents put the party on the backfoot, after having enjoyed repeated victories and close to sheer dominance in the state. The party found itself unable to give a coherent reply and influence the narrative.
Lack of 'Cultural' Support
AITC has a history of acting against any artist who has spoken up against them through their art. Over the years, this practice has caused the party severe backlash from West Bengal’s cultural sphere. The party used to enjoy significant support from this sphere when it came to power in 2011, but that support has reduced over time.
Various incidents have dented AITC’s image over the years starting from Ambikesh Mahapatra’s controversy in 2012. The Jadavpur University professor had forwarded an email which contained a caricature of Satyajit Ray’s Sonar Kella depicting Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee and then Railway minister, Mukul Roy. Mahapatra was arrested and spent a significant time in jail.
In a response to the violence marred Panchayat election of 2018, poet Shankha Ghosh wrote a satirical poem criticizing the poll plank of AITC- Unnayan (Development).
Anubrata Mondal remarked, "I know Rabindranath, Nazrul. Who is this poet? He can't write. He is a liar. I say, development is standing on the road." Anubrata’s controversial statement heavily was criticised but that didn’t stop the party from commenting on it further.
Anik Dutta’s Bhobishyoter Bhoot (2019) which was a sequel to Bhooter Bhobishyot (2012), was virtually banned by the West Bengal government for portraying the it in a bad light. Senior Tollywood artists like Soumitra Chatterjee and Aparna Sen openly criticised the alleged ‘fascist behaviour’ of the state. The Supreme Court imposed a hefty compensation of one lakh rupees on the state of West Bengal.
Despite these incidents, the party still enjoys considerable support from the film, art and sports industry, with several celebrities joining the party’s rank and file. But that hasn’t stopped the party from being ridiculed in the said circles.
AITC was successful in appropriating cultural figures of Bengal - from Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar and Rabindranath Tagore to Uttam Kumar, which did buy them some support from said cultural sphere.
But in recent years, the government of West Bengal introduced an award called Mahayanak Samman, generally given to actors. The word Mahanayak is closely associated with Uttam Kumar. Introducing an award with this adjective and giving it to actors like Dev, Nusrat Jahan, Soham Chakraborty has been ridiculed by the general public.
SSC-TET ‘Scam’ and Rising Unemployment
The education sector has been one of the most criticised sectors of the Mamata Banerjee government, even so after the arrest of Chatterjee in the ‘SSC Scam’. Almost 70% of the state's youth appear for the SSC and TET examinations, but alleged irregularities and a lack of resolution have rendered lakhs of them unemployed and on the streets, protesting for over 500 days.
This was one of the main reasons behind the growing unemployment in the state. Voices of these unemployed youths dominated the social media causing humiliation for the party. The party failed to raise any counter to this. The party was mostly mum on this topic until the Partha Chatterjee saga started. It is only after that that the party actively took interest in their plight.
Saradha Narada ‘Scandal’
The involvement of the party’s prominent leaders in the alleged scam sparked criticism across the state. Even today, the two alleged scams are heavily associated with the party. That, however, hasn’t stopped the leaders allegedly involved in the ‘scams’ from losing elections. It has however, left the party supporter with lesser justifications to defend the party. Opposition parties still use Saradha and Narada to attack AITC over charges of corruption.
Criticism on Social-Media
While the Bharatiya Janata Party effectively used social media for their campaigning, and the same can be credited to their rise, parties like AITC were indifferent to social media for a long time. Following BJP’s suit, even CPI-M optimised their strategy for social media while AITC was left behind.
As BJP tried to build their base in Bengal, their IT cell propagated fake news pertaining to AITC. Most of them were videos from Pakistan shared as videos from West Bengal. These pieces of news and propaganda dominated the social media circles in the state.
Then came the self-proclaimed news portals in Facebook and YouTube. The advantage of these were that there was no hard and fast rule to be qualified as news portal and secondly the Govt. had almost no control over them.
Famous anti-TMC YouTube channels like Arambagh TV or Banglar Barta by Sanmoy Banerjee generated huge viewership. On the other hand, AITC which took social media seriously as recently as 2019, failed to run any counter to these channels. Even now there aren’t many digital content creators in favour of AITC leaving the likes of Debangshu Bhattacharya who is directly associated with the party.
Memes Influencing Political Discourse
AITC has no lack of Meme Materials within the party. Starting from the Supremo Mamata Banerjee herself, Anubrata Mondal, Partha Chatterjee, Madan Mitra all are frequently featured in viral memes in Facebook or WhatsApp. Among the many reasons behind being ridiculed as a meme, the inarticulate nature of Mamata Banerjee’s speeches must get the prominence.
Humba Humba, Rumba Rumba by Mamata Banerjee during one of her speeches are among the most shared political memes of all times. There are several such notable phrases that she has used over time which have become the subject of memes. Apart from this, the inaccurate Hindi of CM coupled with slip of tongues make her more prone to social media trolls.
Banerjee, who is known to be a symbol of women empowerment has made controversial comments over time which have been perceived as problematic and thereby become the subject of online criticism. In one of her recent speeches, she remarked, “One should not lend his books and wife to anyone. If given, no refund is available.”
The poems and artworks by Banerjee have also been severely trolled in the social media.
While there is no correlation to memes influencing electoral figures, it does influence the political discourse surrounding the subject. Therefore, it makes it tougher for an AITC supporter to publicly speak in the party’s favour.
AITC, a party which has failed in managing perceptions both online and offine have inevitably left the party’s supporters with less justifications to defend the party in public.
The Left had strong organization amongst govt. employees especially the teachers who used to propagate the party’s ideas to the common public, but AITC has failed to develop any such machinery.
It is pertinent to note that AITC’s core voter base come primarily from the state’s rural belt, whose voice doesn't reach mainstream media and a large section of them don’t use social media the way the urban voter does.
(This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)