“This road is maintained by PWD, Government of West Bengal” is an omnipresent signboard that greets travellers in almost every nook and corner of the state. The region may change from Cooch Behar and Darjeeling in North Bengal to Jhargram in Junglemahal and Kultali in Sunderban, but the signboard remains the same. After having travelled for almost 13,000km in the state from October 2020 to December 2020, I can claim another inter-play: in a majority of the places the roads, especially in the interiors, are in bad shape.
This state of affairs is unfortunately true for the incumbent party too. It’s everywhere in the state, but mostly in pretty bad shape. Barring rare exceptions, the people’s impression of the local Trinamool leadership everywhere falls in the same template. corrupt, rowdy and arrogant. On top of that, the fear of retribution by the incumbents is so strong that the line between the people’s dislike and their hate against the ruling party often gets blurred.
Several respondents across the state narrated the way dissidents, opponents and anyone daring to question the prevailing corruption and upmanship on the ground are hounded systematically, which includes measures like physical attacks, filing of false cases and depriving them of availing benefits of welfare schemes. This state of affairs is endorsed by the local leadership of the Left, Congress and the thinly present BJP. Besides the common people, it is the local CPM leadership and their supporters who have been at the receiving end of the incumbent’s ire in the last five years.
The Trinamool’s unprecedented harassment is revealed in the case of Biplab Pal, a businessman and hotelier at Bongaon in North 24 Parganas. Being a prominent businessman, he kept his political cards close to his chest. But, on the eve of 2018 panchayat election, he supported a Bharatiya Janata Party candidate, earning the ire of local Trinamool leaders and the chairman of Bongaon municipality, Shankar Adhya. Consequently, a series of statues were built throughout the length of his hotel, blocking any access from the front of the road, allegedly in the name of beautifying the city.
His business came to a standstill. Desiring revenge he joined the BJP in 2018 and now holds the post of party’s district general secretary. “They have destroyed my business. Hence, for the last three years, I am invested completely in politics. I am working day and night to ensure the defeat of the Trinamool in Bongaon Uttar assembly constituency,” he said. “The day we win these statues will be placed in front of chairman’s property, which is on the other side of the road,” Pal added. This sentiment of fear, anger, hate and revenge against the incumbents signify the hubris that Trinamool got afflicted within their attempt to vanquish the rival CPM.
The party succeeded in decimating its prime rival but in so doing, it created a conducive ambience for the emergence of its nemesis, the BJP. Pushed to the brink, the support base of the Left started shifting to the BJP en-masse as they realized that their own party was incapable of protecting them. Both the Left and the Congress lost ground as a credible alternative to the incumbent. It was at this juncture that the BJP emerged as the default beneficiary of the state of grand illusion and anger. The fact that Prime Minister Narendra Modi and home minister Amit Shah exhibited a deep interest in winning and wresting Bengal from the Trinamool further added to the exodus of the people from the Left to the BJP since 2018.
This tectonic shift on the ground is an ongoing process and is strong enough to supersede the limiting factors like organizational weakness and lack of entrenched leadership in a majority of the assembly constituencies that the BJP is strong. “We will vote for the symbol, not the candidate,” is the popular response of the pro-change respondents when asked as to how their sentiment would help the BJP win given the saffron party’s organizational weakness. “First, the people started shifting to the saffron party, now it is the turn of the leaders as they have sensed the popular mood. Besides, they need to win in the coming election,” opined a school teacher at Tamluk in east Medinipur.
The slogan “Prothame Ram, Pore Baam” (First BJP, then CPM) gained currency after a majority of anti-Trinamool people announced their tactical shift to the BJP. “There will not be any Baam after Ram, if the shift to Ram happens, no one should be under any illusion that the BJP will be here for the long haul. Tripura is an example in this regard,” said popular CPM leader Gauranga Goswami at Kalna in east Bardhman. His words sound ominous not only for the Left but also for the incumbent Trinamool, especially when the popular anti-incumbency response has moved from the tactical Prothame Ram, Pore Baam to the decisive Jai Shri Ram.