Has Mamata Banerjee conceded defeat?
Is the Trinamool Congress headed for the exit door after just one bite at the power cherry? Predicting election outcomes is always fraught with danger, even more so in such a tight contest. But telltale signs and Trinamool Congress chief's own behaviour in the last few days suggest that West Bengal may be in for the mother of all surprises on 19 May (the day of the results).
Mamata's bitter rant against police force
For a doughty, firebrand leader, it made for strange viewing when the chief minister on Sunday launched an explosive tirade against her own police force which is temporarily under the command of EC. She claimed that police has unleashed "a reign of terror" in the state and will face "consequences" if she returns to power. And in what is being seen as a barely concealed attack against new top cop Soumen Mitra, the chief minister said officers enjoying power for 15 days should not take it for granted.
"If someone is given a responsibility for just 15 days and starts thinking their life's dream of wearing a gold crown will be fulfilled, that is the biggest mistake," Mamata thundered during an election rally in Chandipur, around 110km from Kolkata.
"I am gentle to those who are good, but if anybody shows red eyes to me, then he will have to face the consequences."
Incidentally, the chief minister had reinstated some officers whom the EC had removed after the 2014 General Elections was done.
The TMC supremo also accused the police of being "cowards" and said they were working at the behest of a 'grand coalition' of CPM, Congress and the BJP.
"I am the chief minister of the state, even I could not sleep for two-three nights due to police tandav (mayhem). The paramilitary forces are being egged on by some coward police personnel. These coward policemen have worked at the behest of Congress, CPI(M) and BJP.
She also threatened retribution.
"I have kept a record of everything, what each has done, whether good or bad. I will give appropriate answer for all the atrocities if I am alive," Mamata said at the rally in east Midnapore on Sunday.
“Those responsible will have to face the consequences. Election Commission’s duty is to ensure free and fair poll, but they have unleashed terror with the help of a section of police officers," she warned.
What prompted the rant?
It is common knowledge that Mamata wasn't amused when Election Commission, in an unprecedented move, replaced incumbent Kolkata Police Commissioner Rajeev Kumar with Mitra bang in the middle of Assembly elections. She made that clear on several occasions since EC took the step on 12 April. Kumar, handpicked by Mamata in January this year, was at the receiving end of a torrent of allegations from the opposition.
Since taking charge, Mitra has delivered a stellar performance. In the last two phases (fourth and fifth), the police bared its teeth and showed what it is capable of when it doesn't have to obey political masters.
In a spectacular show of planning and execution, cops (aided ably by the Central paramilitary forces) ensured a virtually trouble-free election. That is no mean a feat in Bengal where elections are synonymous with bloodshed. The police has been particularly tough with the goons and activists of the ruling party.
It is important to understand that though EC has at its disposal a huge number of paramilitary forces, this punitive arm is heavily dependent on local intelligence — which only the state police force can provide — to preempt and prevent trouble.
Since coming to power, Mitra has ensured that cops ensure a multi-pronged strategy. Before every phase, it made a list of known trouble makers and history sheeters and either took them in custody or kept them under strict vigilance.
During voting in and around Kolkata, cops targeted the local clubs. The ruling party had turned these youth associations in every mohalla into their strongholds by doling out cash. Police, in an unprecedented move, shut them down the day before the polls fearing that these may be used for mobilisation of 'quick action gangs'.
On Friday, for instance, cops had shut down several clubs in south Kolkata after crude bombs were found nearby or on the premises of a few. Fourteen bombs were found in a club in Chetla, the heart of the city.
As a final measure, cops liberally imposed Section 144, chased down and wielded its baton if even two or three people assembled within 200 metres of a polling booth. It employed quick response teams, mobile units and even drones in sensitive zones. Ministers, too, were not spared. Firhad Hakim had to dismantle the red beacon before his car was allowed to pass.
It became hard to believe that during last year's civic elections, one police constable was shot at by goons allegedly affiliated to the ruling party.
"Please let us be cops for one day, today I am a policeman. I will neither listen to anyone except my seniors nor do I know anyone who breaks the law," a detective department officer was quoted, as saying in Times of India.
Even if it doesn't last, the change is dramatic and severe.
Heavy voting and other telltale signs
Heavy turnout is usually associated with anti-incumbency. On this count, Trinamool Congress has reasons to worry. Rural hinterlands in Bengal have a tradition of high voting percentage. This time, even Kolkatans followed suit. The cops ripped out the poison teeth of goonda raj and city dwellers came out to vote in droves.
In 2011, when Bengal decided to vote for 'poriborton' (change) after 34 years of Left rule, the voting percentage in several city constituencies was abnormally high. In the four seats in south Kolkata, for instance, it was 65.87 percent, a steep surge by city standards. This figure looks in danger of being surpassed. Till 5pm on Saturday, it stands at 63.05 percent and when EC finally releases last-hour voting data, it may erase 2011 record.
The rumour mill is also working overtime. Since exit polls are banned, fake exit polls via social media are doing the rounds about a possible upset, rightly dismissed by TMC leaders. A Business Line report mentions police sources as saying that: "Nothing short of a miracle can save the Trinamool from defeat." A comment which the report claims was corroborated by three other officers.
Fracturing of minority votes
As chief minister, Mamata Banerjee has assiduously courted the minority votes which amount to around 27 percent of the electorate in Bengal and even 50 percent in some districts. The chief minister had frequently been criticised by the opposition for her crude and blatant tactics. Soon after coming to power in 2011, she offered honorarium of Rs 2,500 for imams and Rs 1,500 for muezzins through the state Waqf Board (later stopped by Calcutta High Court). Not a small sum in a state where per capita monthly income is around Rs 4,500.
She allotted free land to "homeless, landless imams" and even made Urdu the second official language in areas where 10 per cent of the population is Muslim.
Syed Noor-ul-Rehman Barkati, the shahi imam of the Tipu Sultan mosque, bragged in 2013 that he stopped writer Salman Rushdie from entering Kolkata by a mere phone call to the CM. The same year saw Kolkata police reportedly stalling indefinitely a TV serial, Dusahobas, scripted by Taslima Nasreen after Muslims groups complained that it would hurt religious sentiments.
Huge cutouts of Mamata Banerjee, face covered with hijab and offering namaaz, are a common sight in Bengal.
This votebank, however, is at the danger of getting fractured faced with an alliance of CPIM and Congress — both parties who enjoy equal popularity with the Muslims. Given the free and fair election, therefore, the result will depend on performance, not gimmicks.
Updated Date: May 02, 2016 19:08 PM