By Anurag Dey & Sirshendu Panth
The two-month-long bitter, no-holds-barred campaign for the West Bengal assembly elections turned into a slugfest between development and corruption, with the ruling Trimool Congress tom-tomming its infrastructural projects and welfare schemes and the opposition hitting back with missiles like the rada and Saradha scams and the flyover collapse in the city.
Chief Minister and Trimool supremo Mamata Banerjee, who had a headstart over her opponents by making public the party candidates’ list minutes after the Election Commission announced the poll schedule on March 4, began her campaign with a bang by highlighting the development agenda.
The Trimool manifesto, as also the party’s posters, banners and flexes, widely advertised the government’s schemes like distribution of foodgrain at Rs.2 a kg, doling out of scholarships to girls, bicycles and shoes to students and loans to jobless youth for self employment.
Banerjee’s pet project Kanyashree - a cash-transfer programme for the education of girls - and the government’s “success stories” in building roads, ensuring drinking water and arranging for street lighting even in remote villages were played up by the party.
“The massive development we have ushered in will be the subject of global research in future,” said Banerjee.
The opposition seemed in disarray, with the fledgling Left Front-Congress alliance battling discord over seat adjustment and seemingly confused on crucial matters like joint campaigning and platform sharing.
But then came March 14, and the script completely changed.
A purported sting operation carried out by a portal - rada News - caught on camera over a dozen Trimool leaders including former union ministers, state cabinet heavyweights and MPs accepting wads of currency notes as “bribes” in return for showing favours to a fictitious company.
A further jolt came on the last day of the 2015-16 fiscal. The under-construction Vivekanda Road flyover collapsed, taking 26 lives. Media reports claimed people with little experience in handling such projects were handed out the various contracts because of their proximity to Trimool leaders.
There were allegations about use of substandard material, faulty drawings and poor supervision. Even the main construction company was said to have been blacklisted elsewhere.
As the opposition went to town pillorying the Trimool on the issue of corruption, the ruling party appeared rudderless, constantly shifting its stand.
Having initially dismissed the rada sting as “doctored” and a “political conspiracy”, Banerjee virtually ate her words, by publicly claiming she would have given “a thought to changing the candidates” caught in the tapes, had the videotapes been released before the announcement of her party’s nominees’ list.
Her comments late last month “slap me if I have committed mistakes, I won’t’ mind. But I’m hurt when called a thief”, were seen by some as an indication of her nervousness.
Banerjee tried to counter the flyover issue by pointing out the contract was given out when the Left Front was in power, but drew sharp repostes from BJP and the CPI-M on why the project was not completed during her five years in office.
Political scientist Biswath Chakraborty felt the corruption issue derailed Banerjee’s development plank.
“She went on harping on development till the end. But somehow it lost its sheen after the skeletons of corruption tumbled out from the Trimool wardrobe,” Chakraborty told IANS.
CPI-M politburo member Mohammed Salim spoke on similar lines.
“Initially they started campaigning about development. But people soon called their bluff. All infrastructure projects were started or planned during the LF rule. Some of them are still incomplete. Funds were diverted, corruption crept in. Quality was compromised.
“Only construction activities have taken place to aid the Syndicate mafia, the suppliers’ chains and contractors. Everywhere there is bribery, kickback and extortion,” Salim told IANS.
He said the loot of chit fund money was seen during the Saradha scam.
“Now the rada expose is there.”
State Congress president Adhir Ranjan Chowdhury said the fight was against Trimool’s reign of terror and its unbridled corruption.
“Under the Trimool there is complete archy everywhere. There is no democracy, there is no law and order in the state. Our fight is to re-establish democracy,” Chowdhury told IANS.
BJP state president Dilip Ghosh said the biggest issue was “complete lack of development and the all-round corruption.” “The chief minister keeps making tall claims about development, about jobs and industry, but on the ground it’s only bomb making factories that exist,” Ghosh told IANS.