Artboard 3 Created with Sketch.
West Bengal Stares At A Bleak 2017 Under Mamata Banerjee

West Bengal continues to do poorly in many key parameters like investments, state GDP and law and order.

Given that Mamata’s opposition to Modi and BJP is only expected to rise in 2017, a turnaround in the state’s fortunes seems very unlikely.

2016 was a dismal year for West Bengal and its people. And 2017 promises to be bleaker yet.

That’s because the fierce battle lines that Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee has drawn with the Union government, and more specifically Prime Minister Narendra Modi, cannot bode well for the state. Caught up in her ambition of projecting herself as a national-level politician who can throw a serious challenge to Modi, Mamata has neglected her most important task: governing the state.

West Bengal continues to wallow at the bottom of the pile: the state’s GDP (gross domestic product) has remained stagnant, its earnings from state taxes (except excise, and that just goes to show that more and more people are taking to alcohol to drown their despairs) has been going down, the state has not attracted any major investment, and the law and order situation has only gone from bad to worse. Industrial production has declined, the ranks of the unemployed has swelled, and only the number of people engaged in petty trading, which yield marginal earnings, has increased.

Mamata, buoyed by her spectacular victory in the assembly polls held in April-May 2016 (she bagged 211 of the 294 assembly seats), started harbouring illusions of playing a larger role in the national arena. With that in mind, she started attacking the Bharatiya Janata Party-led National Democratic Alliance government at the centre and Modi in particular at every available opportunity. She had set the stage during the campaign for the assembly polls with ugly, intemperate and wild remarks against Modi. Her attacks increased in frequency and shrillness after the polls, which also saw the BJP winning three seats and garnering 10.2 per cent vote share.

When not spewing venom at the BJP and Modi, Mamata spent a major portion of her time in 2016 on political activities: conferring with her aides to strategise on scaling up her profile to the national level, building links with non-BJP parties and chief ministers, touring other states and making a vain bid to whip up opposition to demonetisation within West Bengal and outside it. She had little time for governance, and as a result, the wheels of the state administration slowed down to a slothful pace.

In 2017, things will get worse for West Bengal because Mamata will only intensify her opposition to the NDA government and Modi. The stage for this was set on 30 December 2016, when the Central Bureau of Investigation arrested her Lok Sabha MP Tapas Pal over his involvement in a ponzi scheme. As was indicated before, the CBI, the Enforcement Directorate and other investigating and prosecuting agencies will tighten the noose around the Trinamool’s neck and many Trinamool leaders and maybe even some close relatives of Mamata will be booked in 2017. It has started with Pal, and the anti-corruption net that is being cast wide will ensnare more people close to Mamata.

This will only make the mercurial Mamata angrier, provoking her to scale up her attacks on Modi. As her skirmishes with the central government and Modi escalate into a long-drawn battle, governance will suffer more as she will have little time for that. And with that, the law and order situation will continue to deteriorate.

West Bengal, thanks to Mamata’s blatant and shameless pursuit of the policy of minority-appeasement, will continue to witness a polarisation on communal lines. The communal riots that have been breaking out in parts of the state – the latest one occurred in mid-December – will only increase in frequency and ferocity. This will hamper and stymie whatever little economic development that the state is witnessing.

Investors who may have been inclined to look favourably towards Bengal, or at least consider the option of investing in the state, will give the state a wide berth. Who, after all, would like to invest in a state whose chief minister is on a perpetual battle mode with New Delhi, where the law and order situation is dismal, and which sees little governance? Which investor would like to come to a state where the police have been reduced to an adjunct of the ruling party, where the state administration is totally politicised, where criminals have a free run and where ruling party cadres, who are above the law, dictate terms to business and industry?

What will also make West Bengal a more politically volatile state is the continuing rise of the BJP in the state. The state president for the BJP, Dilip Ghosh, has no love lost for Mamata, and has been focusing on strengthening the party’s organisational structure in the state. Apart from a massive membership drive, Ghosh has initiated a number of other steps in anticipation of the fact that it is the BJP which will replace the Left and the Congress as the principal challenger to Mamata in the 2019 Lok Sabha polls and the 2021 assembly polls.

The BJP’s rise in the state is anathema to Mamata, who feels a compulsive need to oppose the BJP much more than she opposes the Left and the Congress. This compulsion arises not only in order to keep her minority vote bank happy, but also because she knows that she will not be able to subdue the BJP through intimidation and strong-arm tactics like she has done to the Left and the Congress. The BJP, she knows, will give her a tough fight and, under Ghosh, will seek to extract the whole jaw for a tooth.

The BJP polled 56 lakh votes in the 2016 assembly polls, and in 262 of the 294 assembly seats, it polled more than 10,000 votes. Impressive performance for a party that could manage only a 4.06 per cent vote share in the 2011 assembly elections. The BJP is slowly but steadily gaining ground in the state. Despite the pains of demonetisation, people are joining the party or coming out in open support of it in large numbers. This is unnerving Mamata more and more.

The BJP’s rise in West Bengal and Mamata’s growing desperation to stymie this rise will invariably lead to an increase in political violence in 2017. Unlike the Congress, which yielded ground to Trinamool goons and whose leaders sought refuge in the Trinamool to save their skins, Ghosh and his men are made of a different mettle. This expected rise in political violence in 2017 will have a negative impact on the state’s economy and will act as a huge deterrent for investments.

One of Mamata’s biggest drawbacks is that she cannot draw a line between politics and governance. She allows her politics to dictate her actions as an administrator and the state’s chief executive. Thus, she refuses to depute her ministers or bureaucrats to important meetings convened by the central ministries where implementation of plans and projects are discussed. As a result, the state suffers huge losses. Her childish refusal to submit many centrally-sponsored schemes and projects for audit or oversight by the Union government (as constitutionally mandated) has led to such schemes and projects being starved of funds.

All these will only increase in 2017, a year that will see Mamata being more of a politician than a chief minister. West Bengal, and its long-suffering masses, will be pushed further into poverty, violence, darkness and hopelessness as a result.