When Mamata Banerjee vowed she would bury the opposition on 19 May, the day results would be declared, she was prophesying the second coming of the Trinamool Congress with an absolute majority. It may come to pass that the Trinamool Congress wins a second term, but Mamata Banerjee will not be able to bury either her past or the opposition.
Anti-incumbency is a weapon that the Trinamool Congress leader has learned to wield to bewildering effect in the past nearly 5 years by dumping responsibility for every problem on the 34 years that the Communist Party of India Marxist led Left Front ruled in West Bengal. From Sharadha chit fund scam in which her ministers are implicated to the collapse of the flyover in Kolkata, Mamata Banerjee has been indiscriminate in declaring that the root of all evil was to be found in the CPIM years in government.
The habit of jettisoning responsibility, of refusing to be accountable is one that Mamata Banerjee acquired as a minister in various governments at the Centre. Since all her stints as a central minister were short lived, she always took credit for launching a scheme or two and then washing her hands off by resigning before being held accountable. From the Railways to Coal and even Youth Affais, the chief minister has worked as partner of Congress, NDA and UPA governments, but she had never made herself accountable.
After nearly five years as chief minister, she still does not believe herself to be accountable. But this is a belief that has just become obsolete. And, Mamata Banerjee has not as yet caught on to that one definitive change in her circumstances. For one, there is nowhere she can bury the consequences of the flyover that crashed in Kolkata killing 27 people and causing injuries to some 90 others. Her efforts at directing public attention to the Communist Party of India Marxist led Left Front as the administration responsible for the terrifying construction tragedy have fallen flat.
Except for her apologists, nobody is willing to believe that the syndicates she has defended as “not all of them are bad” are not involved in supplying sub-standard material to the construction crews working on the Ganesh Talkies-Posta flyover. Nobody, not even her party’s MP from the area, Sudip Bandopadhyaya , is prepared to give benefit of doubt that the Trinamool Congress could not have renegotiated the contracts with IVRCL, the Hyderabad based company that was executing the work.
For another, there is no pit so large and deep that it can cover up the consequences of the sting operation, popularly known as the Narada scandal and by extension, the slow crawl of the Sharadha chit fund scam. And, there is nowhere Mamata Banerjee can hide from the acts of omission and commission by her government, if she wins for the second time. Because there are too many uncomfortable coincidences and some answers will have to be given, sooner rather than later.
It is a strange coincidence that the man caught on the Narada video accepting a cash handout and coyly tucking it into a towel is the same man who was implicated in the Sharadha chit fund scam for his closeness to the master mind, Sudipto Sen. It is this person, namely Kolkata’s mayor, Sovan Chatterjee, who has found it difficult to answer questions about purchases of the strange Trident light posts, reportedly designed by none other than the chief minister, during his tenure.
Anti-incumbency is therefore catching up on Mamata Banerjee. Her strategy of slamming the CPM led Left Front in order to show case her achievements that by her reckoning “can’t be matched in 400 years” has worked so far. Blaming the past has been Mamata Banerjee’s best tool for certifying herself. Winning elections has been the confirmation she needed to snarl at the opposition: “If you can fight, then fight. If you can develop, then do it. If you can accept the challenge then do it. But if you can’t, then shut up and let us carry ahead with development.”
If, on Day One of the confusing six phase-seven days of voting, the Trinamool Congress had allowed the Election Commission to conduct truly free and fair elections in a state better known for its capabilities in rigging and violence than in tamely following the rules of voting, Mamata Banerjee would have been more convincing as an achiever. The one incident of violence by the Trinamool Congress in West Midnapore district, on the CPM candidate for the Salboni constituency, Shyam Pande in which the media suffered collateral damage effectively invalidates the chief minister’s claims of extraordinary governance.
It also defines the challenge for the Election Commission. The Election Commission’s unprecedented arrangements are a confirmation that the Trinamool Congress is an almost uncontrollable force and extraordinary measures are needed to achieve a semblance of free and fair elections. It can choose to spend enormous amounts of public money to conduct a flawed election or it can find a method of securing to every voter in West Bengal the right to vote freely. If on Day One there were 537 complaints to the Election Commission about West Bengal police men who entered polling booths, polling agents who helped voters press the EVM buttons, windows through which the public could peek in while voting was in progress, violation of the 100 meters barrier around polling booths, there is every reason to speculate what will happen over the next six days of voting.
The reckless disregard for the rules by which the Trinamool Congress has distinguished itself during all previous elections, from local municipal and panchayat elections to the Lok Sabha vote in 2014 reveals a contradiction. On the one hand, the ruling party believes that it enjoys almost divine impunity to use violence, physical and verbal, to achieve total domination of the political turf. Hence it has used threats and assaults, to win in every election after 2011. On the other hand, the use of violence implies the Trinamool Congress is uncertain about the levels of support it has among voters.
With six more days of voting left, the Trinamool Congress will have the chance to either change its strategy or it can remain fixed in its routines of using every means, both fair and unfair, to achieve its ends. Either way, the Trinamool Congress will have to confront its own anti-incumbency ghost.