Kolkata: With assembly polls in Bengal around seven months away, chief minister Mamata Banerjee is arguably facing the toughest election in her four-decade-long political career as she seeks a third term in office.
She has not only been re-structuring Trinamool Congress leadership, chalking poll strategies and meeting booth-level leaders, but the TMC chief has also been keen to utilise the administrative power at her disposal.
On Monday, speaking to the media from the state secretariat, Banerjee announced a monthly stipend of Rs 1,000 each for around 8,000 poor Hindu purohits (priests) in the state.
“Poor Hindu priests had met me multiple times so that we would consider an honorarium for them. We have decided to give a monthly pay-out of Rs 1,000 to the nearly 8,000 priests who had already applied. The government will also build houses for the poor priests who don’t have homes under the Banglar Awas Yojana,” said the chief minister.
The move is visibly significant as BJP and its ideological fountainhead, the RSS, have over the last few years successfully engineered the narrative that Banerjee is “anti-Hindu” and that her policies have all revolve around “appeasing” only the minority groups. The state government’s 2012 decision of providing a monthly honorarium of Rs 2,500 for imams and Rs 1,000 for muezzins is a particular favourite, cited by BJP leaders often.
Even as the chief minister has been trying to reverse such a perception ahead of the elections, a look at some of her decisions reflect that her government’s policies or announcements have addressed a range of concerns, quite contrary to the Sangh parivar’s campaign the TMC regime has benefited only a single community or religious group.
The Sachar committee report of 2010 had painted a poor picture of the economic and educational status of Bengal’s Muslims. Six years later, in 2016, a report by Nobel laureate Amartya Sen’s Pratichi Institute found that nearly 80% rural Muslim households in the state have a monthly income of Rs 5,000 or less, which is only slightly above the poverty line.
While Mamata Banerjee’s government claims to have addressed some of these issues within the Muslim community, the focus seems to have also widened to allow for the allocation of huge sums for the makeover of famous temples like Dakshineswar, Tarapith, and Bakreshwar. For the past two years, 28,000 ‘Durga Pujo’ committees across Bengal received yearly grants of Rs 10,000 in 2018, which was later increased to Rs 25,000 in 2019.
In spite of these populist measures, the BJP continues to ride on a largely successful campaign against Banerjee’s alleged “selective nature of welfare.” It catapulted itself from two Lok Sabha seats in 2014 to 18 seats in the last Lok Sabha election.
The ‘lost’ voters
Mere doles have failed the TMC in Bengal, if its poll performance is any indicator. BJP has performed well in rural Bengal — especially in the SC and ST-majority Uttar Dinajpur, Dakshin Dinajpur, Murshidabad and Nadia districts, and the Adivasi-dominated Jangalmahal belt. TMC still managed to emerge as the single-largest party in the parliamentary polls because it retained most of its seats in urban Bengal.
Yet, it appears that the chief minister has aggressively pushed the same set of tactics as a last-ditch measure to counter the rising influence of the saffron party. Her incentive to Hindu priests, although indicative of a desire for an image makeover, signals that Banerjee may rely more on sops and doles as assembly polls draw nearer.
For the last few months, she has been trying every possible measure to reach out to her lost voters, especially Dalits and those belonging to SC and ST communities.
In July 2019, for the very first time since she assumed office in 2011, Mamata held a meeting with all 84 SC and ST MLAs. Later in September, a special cell was launched for the redressal of grievances of people belonging to the neglected communities of the state.
In a significant cabinet shuffle in November 2019, Mamata removed Rajib Banerjee, who was in charge of the Backward Classes Welfare Department and the SC, ST and Tribal Affairs Department and gave the charge to Rajbanshi leader, Binay Krishna Barman. The Rajbanshis form a part of the SC community in the state.
Banerjee also announced the setting up of a Dalit Sahitya Academy and appointed 70-year-old Dalit writer Manoranjan Byapari as chairman.
Shantiram Mahato, an OBC leader, was brought back as the minister for Western Region Development, clearly as a reaction to BJP’s inroads into the region.
On September 8, while observing West Bengal Police Day, Banerjee announced that her government has decided to promote 5,400 temporary junior constables in the Jangalmahal to permanent constables.
“They will be eligible for all facilities and benefits that constables get,” she said.
Chhatradhar Mahato, the poster boy of the Maoist movement at Lalgarh in Jangalmahal, joined TMC within five months after his release from prison, where he spent 10 years. The TMC quickly appointed him as a secretary of the state unit.
Much of what the chief minister has done in the recent past appears to be a response to BJP’s political play. The saffron party has managed to consolidate a significant number of Dalits, Adivasis, and OBC groups in rural Bengal and its Hindutva campaign and sustained opposition to the state government’s highhandedness has helped the BJP to create a strong anti-incumbency stir on the ground.
It is said that most of Banerjee’s moves at this stage bear the telltale marks of poll strategist Prashant Kishore, whose organisation I-PAC has teamed up with the TMC ahead of the next assembly polls. It remains to be seen whether these measures help her tide over the politics of polarisation that the saffron party has so successfully engineered in the state.