BENGAL POLITICS: Open and shut polls? Need not be so

BENGAL POLITICS: Open and shut polls? Need not be so – Really now ?!!

(No photos posted as BSNL still down – Bengal at fault so consistently ?!!)

BY ASHIS CHAKRABARTI

One more election in Bengal and Mamata Banerjee one more step closer to smiling into the chief minister’s office at Writers’ Buildings next year.

It’s not just her hope, it’s also the general assumption. The big push that she had started in the panchayat polls of 2008, riding on the crest of her agitation against land acquisition for Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee’s aggressive industrialisation drive, got bigger in the 2009 Lok Sabha polls.

The Left was left far behind also in the Assembly by-elections that followed — in Sealdah, Bowbazar, Alipore and Belgachhia East — and in the two civic bodies at Asansol and Siliguri. If the results of the 2009 Lok Sabha polls were to be extrapolated for the Calcutta civic area, the Left with 22 wards trailed far behind the 119 of the Congress-Trinamul Congress alliance.

So these civic polls offer a simple and entirely possible scenario of Mamata winning two more battles — one for Calcutta and another for Bengal — before the final showdown in 2011.

For the CPM, the loss of the civic bodies in Calcutta and Salt Lake is a possibility, but the real concern is how much of the lost ground it can recover — in Calcutta and the rest of Bengal — so that it is fit again to fight back in 2011.

But there is a possible second scenario and thereby hangs a different tale.

Consider the differences and ponder the questions they raise. The first and the most obvious difference between 2009 and these polls is the break-up of the Congress-Trinamul alliance. The question is not about the Congress being a small force in Bengal compared with Trinamul or even about the two parties making up yet again for the Assembly polls next year.

The real questions that the break-up raises are about the 2009 poll results. Everyone agrees the verdict was more an expression of anger at the CPM than a sudden surge of love for Mamata.

In 2009, the alliance’s vote rose to 44.67 per cent, but the big change in Mamata’s fortunes was primarily because of a 7.5 per cent drop in the CPM’s vote share from what it had been in both the 2004 Lok Sabha and the 2006 Assembly elections — a little over 50per cent.

But, despite the erosion of the Left vote, the difference between it and the Congress-Trinamul alliance in 2009 was just 1.6 per cent.

The collapse of the alliance has created two major grey areas in these civic polls. One, what was the Congress’s share in the alliance’s total vote and how much of its success was because of the national factor, i.e. the all-India swing in favour of the Congress?

There’s no doubt, though, that the Congress’s vote share was much smaller than Trinamul’s, for the simple reason that the former fought for half the number of seats that Trinamul contested.

But how small is the Congress’s own vote? Interestingly, the Congress and Trinamul have never fought an election to the Calcutta Municipal Corporation in an alliance. In the districts, lower-level adjustments among them and also the BJP, however, have long been an accepted practice.

The results of Assembly and parliamentary polls since 2001, however, make one thing clear — a Congress-Trinamul alliance’s share is far larger than that of a Trinamul-BJP tie-up. These polls also show that, despite its decline since Mamata took away a large chunk of the anti-Left vote in Bengal, the Congress has had an average of 14 per cent vote of its own. The last two civic polls in Calcutta in 2000 and 2005, when also the Congress and Trinamul fought separately, the former had a vote share of about 13 per cent.

So what happens if Mamata loses most of that Congress vote? Even if the Congress’s vote isn’t enough to fetch it many seats in Calcutta or most of the other 80 civic bodies that go to the polls on Sunday, it may cause much damage to Mamata’s fortunes. The question is how much. It’s easier to figure it out in an Assembly or parliamentary election. But in civic polls, with their small constituencies, small vote shares can have a big impact on the main players’ fortunes.

Then there is the other big question that the break-up of the alliance raises — how would the Muslim vote behave in this changed scenario? If the Muslims deserted the CPM in large numbers in 2009, this clearly had two broad reasons — one, the anger and fear in the community over the CPM’s land-for-industry policy and two, the community’s anxiety not to let the BJP come back to power at the Centre and hence its decision to flock to the Congress and its allies (Trinamul in Bengal). Which one was a bigger factor? Did the Muslims in Calcutta see things differently from their compatriots in the Bengal districts?

The massive erosion in the Left vote was mainly in the rural areas, though the overall political pattern showed as strongly in the districts as in Calcutta. According to an analysis of the 2009 results by the New Delhi-based Lokniti-Centre for the Study of Developing Societies, the Left and the non-Left had an equal share of votes — 44 per cent — among the professional and salaried people in urban areas.

Among the skilled and semi-skilled workers in urban areas, the Left was still ahead with 57 per cent of the vote, compared with the non-Left’s 37 per cent. It is among the business classes that the Left suffered the biggest reverse in the towns.

Finally, there is the question whether 2009 was an aberration or spike, as statisticians call it, because of a sudden and dramatic change in the normal voting pattern. In most elections in Bengal since 1984, except between 2004 and 2006, the vote shares of the Left and its opponents had been roughly equal.

If one week is a long time in politics, one year could be an eternity. The CPM hopes that the passing of one year has lessened the intensity of the anger against it. It points to the student union elections earlier this year as evidence of the changing mood.

For all the advances made by Trinamul, the SFI, the students’ wing of the CPM, won 252 of the 406 college polls and its allies another three. Trinamul and the Congress student bodies got 151. For the 88 colleges in Calcutta, the tally was 64 for the SFI and allies and 24 for the Trinamul students’ wing. (In 2008-2009, the comparative figures were 71 and 19).

The Left camp also argues that increasing lawlessness and disruptions in public life could make more sections of the people sceptical, even fearful, about Trinamul’s agenda for change.

But that’s a fear the CPM has tried to arouse and exploit in this campaign. The question is whether it can be more powerful than the hope for change that Mamata dangles before Bengal.

Mamata refuses to quit, pushes for CBI probe – not CID as in Darjeeling ?!!

FROM THE TELEGRAPH SPECIAL CORRESPONDENT

Calcutta, May 29: Mamata Banerjee today dismissed the question of her resignation in the wake of the Jnaneswari Express tragedy, turning her focus to persuading the Centre to order a CBI probe into the derailment.

“What did the chief minister do when the Stephen Court tragedy took place in March claming 43 lives?” the agitated railway minister asked this evening, referring to the fire in the city in March.

The Trinamul leader was responding to a question if she would offer to resign like her cabinet colleague Praful Patel. The civil aviation minister had offered to quit after the Mangalore plane crash a week ago but it was rejected by the Prime Minister.

Mamata had stepped down as railway minister from the BJP-led NDA government in March 2001, demanding the resignation of the then defence minister, George Fernandes, in the wake of the Tehelka expose.

On her return to Calcutta from the train tragedy site yesterday morning, Mamata spoke to the Union home minister to ensure that the CBI probes the incident, Trinamul sources said.

According to rules, the Centre cannot order a CBI probe without a state government’s consent, though higher courts can do so in extraordinary circumstances.

Sources in Delhi said they did not get the impression that the Bengal government would oppose a CBI probe.

Asked if the matter has been discussed with the Centre, Bengal chief secretary Ardhendu Sen said in Calcutta: “I’ve spoken to (Union home secretary) G.K. Pillai about the matter. However, this is not an opportune moment to discuss it and I will comment on it later.”

Mamata today seemed to blame her political rivals for the disaster. “Yesterday’s train disaster was a sabotage and a deep-rooted political conspiracy, hatched by some persons just two days before the civic polls. This was a heinous crime. This is why I asked for a CBI probe to identify those involved. The home ministry has agreed to conduct a CBI probe on the basis of a letter from the railways,” she told a media conference at her Kalighat residence.

Mamata condemned the manner in which the CPM had planned to “exploit the train disaster”. “The CPM had decided to take out a condolence procession yesterday hours after the train disaster in an effort to exploit it for cheap political gains. The party’s main purpose was to slight me before the electorate on the eve of civic polls. But the State Election Commission thankfully stopped it. Going by all this, only a CBI probe can identify the persons behind the train disaster,” Mamata said.

On the Maoists’ involvement, Mamata, however, remained non-committal.

Asked why the names of the Maoists did not figure in the FIR lodged with the police yesterday, the Trinamul chief said: “This is a matter of investigation. The FIR was lodged by the driver of the train who had heard an explosion. This is why a case was registered under the Explosives Act. Now I want the police to probe the matter and find who the culprits are.”

Told that People’s Committee Against Police Atrocities had pointed fingers at the CPM, Mamata said: “I don’t know who said what. I will wait for CBI to identify the culprits.”

Silent on clips

Mamata said there were no fish plates on the tracks, but did not refer to the clips that were removed. “This is a long-welded track and this is why fish plates are not required,” she said.

Fish plates link rail tracks while Pandrol clips fix them to the sleepers. At Rajabandh, the clips were removed on a 50-metre stretch on two tracks.

Mamata shielding Maoists: Yechury – but naturally, the blame game ?!!

FROM THE TELEGRAPH SPECIAL CORRESPONDENT

New Delhi, May 29: CPM leader Sitaram Yechury today accused Mamata Banerjee of using yesterday’s rail tragedy to influence public opinion on the eve of civic polls in Bengal while shielding the “culprits” by suggesting that Maoists might not be behind the crash.

The politburo member also urged the Maoists to emulate their counterparts in Nepal and enter the political mainstream.

Yechury expressed displeasure over the railway minister’s insinuations that the CPM could be behind the train disaster. “It is cynical…. All this is being done to influence the public before tomorrow’s municipal polls in Bengal.”

The CPM leader said the Trinamul Congress chief had failed to discharge her duties as minister and was attempting to cover the lapses by shielding those responsible for the incident. “She has chosen to shield the actual culprits by suggesting that Maoists may not be behind the sabotage,” he said.

“The Union railway minister continues to maintain that there was a blast that led to the accident, while the Union home minister has denied that possibility. It is clear that the Union railway minister is seeking to cover up for the serious lapses in her leadership of the railway ministry.”

He added: “Let the Maoists here join the political mainstream.”

Play-safe whiff as CM cancels meet – from red courage to ?!!

FROM THE TELEGRAPH BUREAU

Calcutta, May 29: Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee cancelled a news conference scheduled at Alimuddin Street today, with party sources hinting the chief minister wanted to avoid “unpleasant questions” on yesterday’s train tragedy.

However, the CPM did not let go of the “opportunity” to “discredit” railway minister Mamata Banerjee. The party brought together a host of Left-leaning film personalities and writers at Rabindra Sadan this evening to condemn the Jhargram attack.

The assembly, which included Mrinal Sen, Sunil Gangopadhyay, Sabyasachi Chakraborty, and Papiya Adhikari as well as former cricketer Sambaran Banerjee, also took part in a candlelight vigil.

The CPM had earlier wanted to take out a procession condemning the attack. However, the party was restricted to the candlelight vigil after the Election Commission objected to the rally plan, saying it would amount to violation of the election code of conduct with only a day left for the civic polls.

Last evening, Sen, Gangopadhyay, Soumitra Chatterjee, Tarun Majumdar, Nabaneeta Dev Sen and Rituparna Sengupta had joined others in issuing an appeal to the people to make today’s “protest assembly a success”.

CPM mouthpiece Ganashakti too carried the reactions of personalities such as Nirendranath Chakraborty, Usha Ganguly, Sabyasachi Chakraborty, Abul Bashar and Chuni Goswami, who condemned the attack on the passenger train. Many of them made an appeal through the newspaper to mobilise public opinion against the Maoists.

Asked why Bhattacharjee had called off today’s news conference, CPM state secretariat member Mohammad Salim said: “The death toll from yesterday’s crash is rising. In the midst of this, it would not have been prudent to get into political wrangling. That is why the chief minister cancelled the briefing.” He added that it would not be right “to attribute motives to an assembly of intellectuals who came to condemn the incident”.

Some party sources said the chief minister wanted to avoid uncomfortable questions on whether the state government had taken adequate measures to ensure security in Maoist-hit areas.

“Mamata had said yesterday that law and order was a state subject. Buddhababu could have faced questions on security, which would have been embarrassing for him ahead of the civic polls. The elections are just a day away,” a CPM leader said.

“Journalists could have prodded him to react on Trinamul MP Sisir Adhikari’s remarks yesterday that the incident (the train derailment) was the handiwork of ‘evil forces who are out to vilify Mamata’. The chief minister does not want to get into such controversial issues now.”

If the candlelight vigil by Left-leaning artistes left a tacit message, some of their counterparts who support Trinamul were not to be left behind. They went a step further.

At a news conference held at the Press Club to condemn the “dastardly act”, Bratya Basu, Suvaprasanna, Samir Aich and Debobrata Bandopadhyay labelled the train derailment a “sabotage” orchestrated by the Left. “If Trinamul has an entente with the Maoists, then why would they want to destroy our image? So it’s obvious who the beneficiary is,” Bandopadhyay said.

With TV channels beaming the Press Club event “live”, the state poll panel objected. Police commissioner G.M. Chakrabarti sent a team to the venue and the meeting was called off abruptly.

Bengal ready for ‘semi-final’ today – Darjeeling not in the Bengal political game any longer ?!!

FROM THE PRESS TRUST OF INDIA

Kolkata, May 30, 2010 at 0159 hrs IST (PTI): Seen as a ‘semi-final’ before the 2011 state Assembly elections, the electoral battle for 81 municipalities in West Bengal will be held on Sunday.

For the ruling Left Front, which is in power in most of the civic bodies, it will be a litmus test after the string of electoral defeats since the 2008 panchayat polls and last year’s Lok Sabha elections. It is to be seen if it will reap dividends from the Congress-Trinamool split. For the Trinamool and the Congress also, it will be a test to ascertain if the individual strengths of the two parties can see them through.

The 141-ward Kolkata Municipal Corporation (KMC) has emerged as a bone of contention between Trinamool Congress chief Mamata Banerjee and WBPCC President Pranab Mukherjee with the duo trading barbs thick and fast. The war of words between the Trinamool and the Congress started with the former unilaterally announcing its candidates for the KMC and offering its ally just 24 of the 141 wards.

The Congress had demanded 51 wards, including the ones where it either came first or second in the 2005 KMC polls.

Banerjee had even accused the Congress of helping the CPM by dividing votes and taken potshots at them by claiming that her party was not in the UPA at the “mercy” of anyone, but on its own strength.

The WBPCC chief, on the other hand, criticised Banerjee for attempting to marginalise his party in the state. Mukherjee had questioned whether the Trinamool had won 19 Lok Sabha seats in 2009 on its own strength or with support from his party.

The two parties, however, have reached local level adjustments in some municipalities including those in Burdwan district.

West Bengal Chief Minister Buddhadeb Bhattacherjee, meanwhile, had also recently torn into the Trinamool Congress, accusing it of being a lawless party.

Interestingly, the civic polls will be contested at the backdrop of Banerjee’s claims of a possible

advancing of next year’s Assembly elections.

Of the 81 civic bodies, 51 are held by the Left Front. These include those in districts like North 24 Parganas where the Left citadel has crumbled. Of the 21 municipalities, Left runs the board in 19.

Poll hours:

7 am to 3 am (Voters to carry voter identity cards or any other valid residential proof)Counting and results: June 2

Important numbers:

State Election Commission — 2280-1392/ 5277/ 5805 Kolkata Police Control room — 2214-3024 / 2214-3230 / 2214-1310

Municipalities going to polls:

* Kolkata Municipal Corporation

* Hooghly district — Twelve muncipalities

* Burdwan district — Six muncipalities

* Birbhum district — Three municipalities

* Bankura — Three municipalities

* West Midnapore — Six municipalities

* East Midnapore — Two municipalities

* Howrah — One municipality

* North 24 Parganas — 21 municipalities

* South 24 Parganas — Three municipalities

* Nadia — Seven municipalities

* Murshidabad — Six municipalities

* Jalpaiguri — One municipalities

* Malda — Two municipalities

* Cooch Behar — Four municipalities

* Purulia — Three municipalities

(NOTE * – And Darjeeling District’s 4 municipalities ?!!)

All booths in Kolkata, Salt Lake high-sensitive

As Bengal goes to polls, security concerns are paramount in the state following police reports apprehending violence and bloodshed on election day. The CPM and Trinamool Congress had also expressed similar fears earlier.

The state government has, meanwhile, declared all booths in Kolkata and Salt Lake as highly sensitive.

“We are not taking any chances and are deploying forces to the maximum strength to prevent any untoward incident during poll day. For the past few days, strict checking at the borders of districts are being conducted,” said DGP Bhupinder Singh.

The state government, which asked for 135 companies of Armed forces from other states and the Centre, has got only 68 companies. Armed forces have already started patrolling the streets of Kolkata, including sensitive areas. Apart from CRPF, armed forces of Punjab Police, SSB jawans, Kerala Police and others have been pressed into action in Bengal.

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