West Bengal

From Tough Talk On Monday To Climbdown On Thursday, Here’s Decoding Mamata Banerjee’s Turnaround On Encroachments

Jaideep Mazumdar

Jun 28, 2024, 02:12 PM | Updated 02:11 PM IST

West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee
West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee
  • The Bengal chief minister put on a show to contain the erosion of support among the urban middle classes while keeping her crucial vote bank — the urban poor — intact.
  • Monday (24 June) saw Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee launch a 70-minute diatribe against her party colleagues, ministers, and officials (read this) for sloth, graft, and misgovernance.

    The focus of Banerjee’s ire was encroachments on public spaces by vendors and small traders. She accused her party colleagues and civic and police officials of allowing encroachments in lieu of hefty bribes.

    Immediately after her sharp censure, Trinamool leaders, civic officials, and cops hit the streets to remove all encroachments from various parts of Kolkata. For the first time in decades, many areas of the city that had been overtaken by hawkers wore a pleasant and tidy look.

    But that was clearly not the sole purpose of Banerjee’s ‘Monday act’. The motive was to boost her image among urban voters. 

    A close analysis of the just-concluded Lok Sabha election revealed that the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) performed better than the Trinamool in a majority of wards in 60 per cent of the 125 urban bodies in the state (read this). 

    This alarmed Banerjee, who knows that the support of the urban folk is crucial to her remaining in power in the state. The Trinamool chairperson, known for her political acumen, correctly diagnosed the reason for the urban voter's growing disenchantment with her party.

    Civic woes, such as poor garbage collection and waste management, potholed roads, and non-functioning street lights, coupled with encroachments on public spaces like pavements and parks and rampant extortion by local Trinamool functionaries, were identified by the Chief Minister as the reasons behind the urban anger.

    The urban voters, she also realised, were deeply unhappy over the endemic corruption in civic bodies and local governance. A nexus of Trinamool politicians, policemen, and babus in all urban centres has made life difficult for the urban middle class. 

    It is not that Banerjee was unaware of the deeds of her party colleagues and officials. Given the strong grip she has on the state and the official intelligence machinery that keeps a close watch over everything happening in Bengal, it is inconceivable that Banerjee was oblivious to what was happening under her nose. 

    But Monday’s comments absolved her of all the sins of her netas, babus, and cops. Her long diatribe against her party colleagues, including senior ones who are ministers in her cabinet, and civic officials and police officers, delivered in the presence of reporters and TV cameras, restored the shine in her image. 

    In one fell swoop, Banerjee shifted all the blame for the widespread graft and sloth that have made urban folk unhappy onto her party colleagues and officials.

    "The Chief Minister stage-managed this brilliantly. She made sure her sharp censure of her own party leaders and functionaries, as well as police and civic officials, received wide publicity," said political analyst Bishwabrata Talukdar.

    "And she came across as a lone but determined crusader against corruption. There’s no way she could not have known what was going on in the state, but she shifted the entire blame to others and came out clean."

    While it may seem improbable to some, especially leaders and sympathisers of opposition parties, that urban folk would be impressed by her 'stunt', that is precisely what has happened. 

    A cross-section of Kolkatans that Swarajya spoke to over the last three days took the Chief Minister’s ‘act’ at face value. The consensus among almost everyone was that Banerjee is personally clean and not responsible for the misdeeds of her party colleagues and officials. And they were impressed by her plainspeak as well as the stern warning that she issued to the corrupt among her party colleagues, cops, and officials.

    Mission accomplished, Banerjee then sat silent for two days and allowed the police and civic officials to remove encroachments (vendors and their roadside kiosks) from different parts of Kolkata. The urban middle class was happy to get back the public spaces that had been taken away. 

    But, as usual, she kept her ears close to the ground. And when she realised that the lakhs of vendors who clog Kolkata’s pavements and roads were getting angry, she swiftly hit the pause button on the anti-encroachment drive. 

    That’s because vendors and their families form the core of the urban poor, who are strong supporters of her party. In fact, the urban poor form the backbone of her support base in cities and towns and provide foot soldiers who play a crucial role in ‘election management’ (read: rigging). 

    Banerjee convened another meeting Thursday (27 June) — also held with mediapersons in attendance — with police officers, representatives of the Kolkata Municipal Corporation (KMC), and her party colleagues. 

    She not only ordered civic officials and police to halt the anti-encroachment drive but also prohibited them from using bulldozers to remove encroachments. 

    At Thursday’s meeting, Banerjee sided with the lakhs of vendors and again played the populist card by chiding police and civic officials as well as her party colleagues. 

    “You (police and politicians) first take bribes and regular hafta from hawkers and allow them to encroach on pavements, and then you use bulldozers to evict them. This is not done,” she said. 

    “Politicians and cops think they can give away roads, collect money, and get monthly bribes. But this will not work. No one should collect bribes from poor people,” she thundered. “Greed is not good; control your greed.”

    Banerjee then set a month-long timeframe for police and civic officials to conduct surveys of street vendors and identify vending zones and buildings where vendors can store their wares at night after business hours. 

    She made it clear that while she does not want to take away the livelihood of vendors, she also wants pavements to be largely free of encroachments so that pedestrians can walk unhindered on them. 

    As for the other concerns of the urban middle classes — poor civic amenities, corruption, and extortion — the Chief Minister’s dire warnings to her party colleagues, police, and officials are sure to shape things up, at least for the time being. 

    Banerjee has, thus, managed to contain the erosion of support among the urban middle classes while keeping her crucial vote bank — the urban poor — intact. She has the cake and has eaten it too. And she has, once again, lived up to her name (which translates to ‘compassion’).

    It remains to be seen if Bengal’s urban voters wake up to her clever ‘act’ before the 2026 assembly election. 

    Also Read:

    Why Mamata Banerjee Suddenly Realised Her Party Leaders Are Corrupt

    Urban Bengal Is Turning Away From TMC And Mamata Banerjee's Outreach Is Unlikely To Work

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