Upcoming challenges in West Bengal’s political landscape
Over two months after the state assembly elections, which saw Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee-led Trinamool Congress (TMC) returning to power with a thumping majority and its principal rival Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) making substantial gains in terms of seats, the political landscape in the state is set to be roiled once again on a range of issues.
Having come out of the poll battle with flying colours, Mamata now faces challenges posed by a number of legal tussles in which she and her government feature. These are the multi-crore Rupee Saradha chit fund scam case in which several TMC leaders are named, and the Narada sting operation case relating to alleged graft, which shows a number of ruling party leaders accepting wads of currency notes. The cases are being probed by the Central Bureau of Investigation under the control of the federal Indian government on an order by the Calcutta High Court.
Another legal tangle is the Calcutta High Court ordering a thorough probe by a team of the National Human Rights Commission of India (NHRC) into several incidents of post-assembly poll violence and arson in the state. A five-judge bench of the High Court rejected an appeal by the Mamata government to recall its order regarding the NHRC probe. Adding to the tensions was the attack on an NHRC team that visited south Kolkata to investigate the violence against opposition workers there. Two cases are also pending in the Supreme Court relating to post-poll violence in Bengal.
Mamata Banerjee's defeat in Nandigram has also reached the Calcutta High Court, which has issued notices to Suvendu Adhikari (current opposition leader in West Bengal) and the Election Commission (EC), asking them to respond to the Chief Minister's citing of alleged use of corrupt practices, use of religion in campaigns and the EC's rejection of recount of votes in Nandigram. Suvendu, for his part, moved the Supreme Court with the plea that the hearing on Mamata's petition against Nandigram poll results be shifted out of West Bengal. A large part of the political battle in West Bengal has also been seen as a duel between Mamata and her former trusted lieutenant Suvendu, who defected from TMC and walked into the saffron camp in December last year.
Post Suvendu's joining the BJP, Mamata left none in doubt about her firm opposition to him. A measure of her hardened stance towards can be had from a number of developments since the assembly election results were declared on May 2. Suvendu's influence has no doubt posed a serious challenge to TMC's dominance in East Midnapore and West Midnapore districts and surrounding areas. As part of efforts to counter Suvendu's hold in the region, Mamata has appointed six ministers from East and West Midnapore—all of them known for their strident anti-Suvendu posturing, out of her team of 43 ministerial colleagues.
Suvendu had put in place a strong organisational network for the TMC, on which Mamata Banerjee built her surge towards power for the first time in 2011, on the back of the Nandigram movement against land acquisition by the erstwhile Left Front government. The TMC had claimed a majority of the seats in these two Midnapore districts in 2011, 2016 and 2021 assembly polls. In this year's election in West Midnapore, TMC got 13 of the 15 seats and in East Midnapore, nine out of 16 seats, in a big blow to Suvendu's clout in the areas. But there was one result that must have been galling for the TMC—Suvendu's victory in Nandigram.
In a continuous pushback by TMC against Suvendu to blunt his influence, he was removed from the post of chairperson of Tamralipta Janakalyan Samity, an East Midnapore-based cultural body that he had headed for nine years as a TMC leader. Suvendu was also removed from the Sanatan Brahman Trust. His ousting as the head of Haldia Development Authority and head of three cooperative banks in Midnapore is also likely. A no-trust motion against him has been moved at Contai cooperative bank and an audit has been ordered of all the three banks in an apparent bid to find any financial irregularity. A majority of the directors of the 14-member board of Midnapore Vidyasagar Cooperative Society has asked Mamata to remove Suvendu as its chairman. Besides, the Bengal CID is also probing the death of Suvendu's security guard in 2018 as the guard's wife now alleges it was a murder. All these have served to keep the heat on Suvendu.
On the other hand, Suvendu has gained increasing traction with the top BJP national leadership in recent days. He has had a number of meetings with Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Home Minister Amit Shah and BJP President J P Nadda in the last two to three months. He led BJP legislators in resigning from different committees of the Bengal assembly in protest against the appointment of Mukul Roy as the Chairman of the Public Accounts Committee (PAC), which gives the latter the rank of a cabinet minister. Roy is in a piquant situation: he won the recent assembly poll as a BJP candidate but later switched over to TMC but did not give up his legislature membership. On the first day of the budget session of the assembly, Roy was seen sitting in opposition benches in legislators but did not join a walkout by the BJP. Traditionally, the post of PAC Chairman goes to the principal opposition party—be it in parliament or state legislative assembly.
Another issue on which a confrontation is brewing is the holding of by-elections to seven assembly constituencies. The reason the by-elections are important for the ruling party, according to media reports, is that Mamata herself may contest from one of the seven constituencies so that she can continue to be the chief minister.
After her Nandigram loss, Mamata, as per Indian law, must get elected as legislator within six months of becoming Chief Minister. More than half of that time has already gone by since Mamata occupied the top state executive post on May 5 and she has until November to be a legislator. The TMC suspects a ploy by the BJP to delay the bypolls. Mamata has made no secret of her anger with the EC. She took a jibe at both BJP and the EC when she requested Prime Minister Narendra Modi to instruct the poll body to conduct early by-elections to the seven seats.
Pallab Bhattacharya is a special correspondent of The Daily Star. He writes from New Delhi, India.