2016: ‘Didi’ Show in Bengal

West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee. (File Photo: IANS)
West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee (File Photo: IANS)

Bengal voters, Singur verdict bring cheer for Didi, Left decline continues….’2016 In Retrospect’ by Sirshendu Panth

West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee. (File Photo: IANS)
West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee (File Photo: IANS)

The Mamata Banerjee-led Trinamool Congress’ resounding win in the assembly polls, the Singur case verdict that further strengthened the ruling party’s position and the once invincible Left Front’s continued marginalisation were the highlights in the action-packed political theatre of West Bengal in 2016.

On the flip side, graft emerged as a major issue, with top Trinamool leaders allegedly seen accepting money in a sting operation, while a “faulty” under-construction flyover collapsed in a congested street — crushing scores of unsuspecting people and vehicles under tons of steel and concrete.

The April-May assembly polls, that brought together once arch foes Left Front and the Congress in an alliance, saw the Trinamool retain power with a two-thirds majority. Despite a high-pitched campaign by the opposition parties, and allegations of corruption against its leaders, the Trinamool finished with 211 seats in the 294-member House. The Congress emerged as the principal opposition party, winning 44 seats, followed by the Left Front with 33 (including one independent backed by the Front), while the BJP and its associates got half a dozen seats.

The Trinamool, which had campaigned on the plank of development, highlighting the welfare initiatives like providing rice to the poor at Rs 2 a kg, cycles to students and grants to girls under the Kanyashree scheme, decimated the opposition in 15 out of 20 districts.

The verdict was particularly disappointing for the Left Front, the state’s rulers for 34 years at a stretch from 1977 to 2011. Front major Communist Party of India-Marxist (CPI-M), which had taken the lead in cobbling togerher the alliance with the Congress even at the cost of annoying some decades-old Left Front partners, failed to arrest its journey downhill that had started in the twilight years of the Left rule.

What rubbed salt into the comrades’ wounds was the fact that they had to cede the principal opposition status to the Congress, despite having contested the lion’s share of the 294 elected seats in the 295-member house (one member is nominated).

The lead-up to the polls was marred by a low-level of political discourse as many of the speakers from various parties were caught in television grabs issuing life threats to opponents, using indecent language and invectives and even threatening the administration and the police.

The Narada sting footage, which purportedly showed Trinamool leaders, including ministers, MPs, state lawmakers and party office-bearers, accepting bundles of cash in exchange of a promise to give lucrative contracts to a fictitious company, hit the public domain in the midst of the hurly-burly of campaigning and immediately generated a big political storm. While the Trinamool questioned the genuineness of the footage, the opposition parties made the “revelations” a major poll issue.

The Vivekananda Road flyover, at the crowded Posta area in north Kolkata, came apart on March 31, taking 26 human lives and injuring over 100 persons. This led to another bout of allegations and counter-allegations among political opponents in the election-bound state.

Months later, a report drawn up by former faculty members of the Indian Institute of Technology-Kharagpur concluded that faulty design, sub-standard raw material and inadequate supervision caused the flyover’s collapse.

After its assembly poll success, the Trinamool had more reason to cheer as the Supreme Court struck down the land acquisition made by the erstwhile Left Front government for the Tata Motors’ Nano project in Hooghly district’s Singur in 2006, and ordered that the land be returned to the cultivators.

As the supremo of the then principal opposition party, the Trinamool, Banerjee had spearheaded the anti-land acquisition protests, undertaking a 26-day hunger-strike followed by a 16-day sit-in demanding 400 of the 997.11 acres acquired for the project be returned to those farmers who did not want to part with their land. Following a sustained movement, the Tatas relocated the factory from Singur to Sanand in Gujarat.

In the aftermath of the Supreme Court judgement, the Trinamool administration went into overdrive to return physical and empirical possession of land to the peasants.

Banerjee, affectionately called “didi” (elder sister), herself made a couple of highly publicised trips to Singur, sowing seeds in the fields and returning title deeds to the farmers.

Buoyed by the judicial verdict, the Trinamool went from strength to strength as front-ranking Congress leaders like Manas Bhunia and several other lawmakers from the opposition ranks crossed over to its fold.

The Trinamool got a further boost when it received national party status from the Election Commission, and through the year tried to position itself as the epicentre of the anti-BJP political space nationally. Banerjee raised the intensity of her attacks on Prime Minister Narendra Modi after the central government demonetised high-value currency notes.

In order to tap investments, the Banerjee government organised the Bengal global business summit, and claimed to have received investment proposals worth at least Rs 2,50,104 crore. How many of these proposals will reach the implementation stage of the industry-starved state remains a big question.

However, taking a big stride in medical treatment, the state saw a number of cadaver transplants, with the administration providing green channels in Kolkata to vehicles transferring body parts from one hospital to another.

During the year, the state lost one of its cultural icons, writer activist Mahasweta Devi, while death also snatched away 103-year-old bodybuilder and former Mr Universe Manohar Aich.

But 2016, in its last lap, brought a piece of good news when poet Shankha Ghosh was chosen for the Jnanpith, the country’s highest literary award.