Coronavirus Pandemic And Cyclone Amphan: Mamata Banerjee’s Poor Handling Of Relief Work May Cost Her The South Bengal Bastion

Coronavirus Pandemic And Cyclone Amphan: Mamata Banerjee’s Poor Handling Of Relief Work May Cost Her The South Bengal BastionWest Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee.
Snapshot
  • If the resentment against the Trinamool over mishandling of coronavirus pandemic and cyclone Amphan continues to rise, Banerjee will have a tough time retaining her south Bengal bastion a year from now.

You can also read this in Hindi- दक्षिणी बंगाल के तृणमूल गढ़ को भेद रहा ममता बनर्जी सरकार का आपदा कुप्रबंधन

The southern part of Bengal, including Kolkata, has been Trinamool’s seemingly impregnable citadel that firmly withstood the saffron surge that swept through other parts of the state in the Lok Sabha elections a year ago.

Of the 19 Lok Sabha constituencies in south Bengal (Bengal has 42 Lok Sabha seats), the Trinamool romped home comfortably in 16. In the 2014 Lok Sabha polls, the Trinamool had posted a clean sweep of south Bengal.

But mishandling of the twin natural calamities — the coronavirus outbreak and cyclone Amhpan —has seriously dented Trinamool's support base in this region. Bengal’s ruling party is staring at a severe erosion of popular support and may find it impossible to recoup its losses by the time assembly elections are held a year from now.

Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee’s propensity to micromanage everything led to massive mishandling of the pandemic. Allegations of covering up Covid-19 positive cases and deaths, surreptitious disposal of bodies in the dead of night, pathetic state of healthcare infrastructure and Covid-19 care facilities, lack of equipment, deliberate failure to enforce lockdown restrictions (especially in Muslim dominated areas) and many more acts of omission and commission exposed the Trinamool chief’s lack of administrative abilities and irrational temperament.

“The Chief Minister tried to be populist by asking the police to take it easy while enforcing lockdown restrictions and keeping markets open, but that resulted in uncontrolled spread of the virus. The popular perception is that the state government downplayed and hushed up the true extent of the pandemic,” said Sukanta Debroy, a professor of political science and a political commentator.

“Allegations of appeasing Muslims surfaced due to the information blackout imposed on those who returned from the Tablighi Jamaat Markaz at Delhi’s Nizamuddin and the deliberate non-enforcement of lockdown restrictions in Muslim areas of the state. The state’s crackdown on dissent and those who tried to expose the rot reinforced the perception that the government has a lot to hide and is intolerant,” he said.

The Hindu-Muslim clashes in many parts of south Bengal, and the state machinery’s allegedly biased handling of the clashes and riots, triggered grave resentment against the ruling party.

As allegations about Trinamool functionaries siphoning off essential commodities and foodgrains to be distributed through the creaky public distribution system (PDS) surfaced from all parts of the state, the ruling party’s image took a severe beating.

‘Ration riots’ broke out in many areas as people protested against alleged corruption and anomalies in distribution of essentials through the PDS network. And Trinamool functionaries were at the receiving end of people’s collective anger. The state government also fouled up over getting back its lakhs of residents stranded in other states.

Chief Minister Banerjee’s frequent brushes with the Union government and her opposition to all proposals from New Delhi also exposed her as temperamental, irrational and perpetually looking for a fight even when the grave crisis (the pandemic) called for cooperation with the Union government and sound administrative measures.

Cyclone Amphan, which has laid waste to a vast 21,560 square kilometre swathe across south Bengal, couldn’t have come at a worse time for Banerjee. With her chips down, she faced the herculean task of quickly repairing the damage wreaked by the devastating cyclone and providing succour to lakhs of affected people.

But here too she failed. Even a week after Amphan struck (on Wednesday, 20 May), some pockets of Kolkata continue as ‘dark spots’ without power and water. In most of Kolkata, power could be restored only after three days, and that too with the help of the army and central agencies. The condition in the worst-affected districts of North and South 24 Parganas, Howrah and Hooghly, is much worse.

Most areas of Sunderbans, where embankments that protect low-lying farmlands and villages have been washed away and saline sea water has laid all arable land to waste, relief is yet to reach people even a week after the disaster. Townships in the two 24 Parganas continue to be without power and water.

But it is Kolkata — Mamata Banerjee’s stronghold till now — where resentment against her has peaked. Angry protests and even violent demonstrations erupted in many parts of the city on Friday (48 hours after the cyclone) and intensified on Saturday and Sunday over the tardy pace of repair and restoration work by the Trinamool-run Kolkata Municipal Corporation (KMC) and state agencies.

The KMC could not even remove fallen trees more than three days after the cyclone and ultimately had to take the help of the army for this basic task. The KMC’s lack of preparedness, tardy pace of work and lack of equipment and manpower riled Kolkata’s citizens.

Ultimately, the Chief Minister had to intervene and calm tempers, but there were few takers for her assurances and appeals for patience.

Her “behead me if you want” statement while trying to explain away the lack of preparedness and sluggish response of KMC and state agencies did not gain her the sympathy she had wished for, triggering instead a barrage of criticism and mockery.

Her attempt to shift the blame to the privately-run power utility (the Calcutta Electric Supply Corporation) for failing to restore power to Kolkata’s households fell flat on its face and invited censure and disdain.

All this has turned her twin support bases — south Bengal’s Muslims and Bengali bhadraloks —against her of late. The Muslims are angry over glaring deficiencies in the state’s healthcare infrastructure in handling the pandemic and the large numbers of Muslims getting infected by the deadly virus. The bhadraloks are turning their backs to the Trinamool now due to the mishandling of both the pandemic and the damage caused by the cyclone.

“Mamata Banerjee stands badly exposed. People have now realised that she is unnecessarily combative, short-tempered, intolerant and dictatorial, and lacks credible governance skills. The Trinamool has been exposed as a party of corrupt functionaries who don’t hesitate to siphon off rations meant for the poor in the midst of a grave crisis,” said Bharatiya Janata Party state president Dilip Ghosh.

If the resentment against the Trinamool continues to rise, Banerjee will have a tough time retaining her south Bengal bastion a year from now.

Jaideep Mazumdar is an associate editor at Swarajya.

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