|1. WEST BENGAL||2. KERALA||3. TAMIL NADU||4. ASSAM|
Key Fights For The Big Victory
TMC looks primed to win. But much depends on skirmishes on the ground, says Partha Dasgupta
FOR THE Left Front, elections have been a carnival over the past 35 years and for the Opposition, funereal. Not this time around, though. Riding an unprecedented tide of anti-Left sentiments that first surfaced in the 2008 panchayat polls, the Opposition led by the Trinamool Congress (TMC) is all set to evict the long-term occupants of Writers’ Building.
The CPM-led front has christened the Assembly election “the mother of all battles”. And for Mamata Banerjee, the firebrand TMC supremo, it is the first realistic shot at a longcherished dream of becoming CM. Much as she would have liked to go it alone (and in all probability would have made it just the same), Mamata is constrained by being part of the coalition at the Centre and has to share seats with the Congress, the party which she deserted to form the TMC on 1 January 1998. To any political observer, however, the Congress is just incidental to the process, just as the smaller parties of the Left Front are. The real battle is between the CPM and the TMC. Here’s a look at five constituencies that epitomise the tectonic face-offs this election will be full off:
CM Buddhadeb Bhattacharya won this seat the past five times, starting 1987. Never has his vote share dipped below 54 percent. Last time, he won by close to 60,000 votes while leading the Left Front to a record 235 seats in the 294-member Assembly. Interestingly, his rival this time will be Manish Gupta, his chief secretary at one point. If ex-serviceman Gupta can defeat his ex-boss, he will automatically be a key member of Mamata’s Cabinet. It will be the biggest upset in Bengal’s political history.
KEY ISSUE: Buddhadeb’s personal profile has to be alluring enough for voters to remain loyal at a time when the common perception is that his party will lose
The fact that Gautam Deb, the minister for housing and public health engineering, has ‘fled’ from his bastion Hasnabad is a talking point, as the move is seen as signifying the defensive attitude of the CPM in general. The outcome at Hasnabad, from where he won thrice, borders Bangladesh along the Ichhamoti river, and is said to be heavily dependent on immigrant voters. Hasnabad has become part of Basirhat North constituency after delimitation. The automatic choice for Deb would have been the Rajarhat- Gopalpur seat. But the growing TMC presence there and the possibility that dispossessed farmers would vote the CPM out has forced the new-found ‘turnaround man’ for the CPM to seek a safer haven. The CPM won Dum Dum by a margin of 30,000 in 2006, but was defeated by a thin margin in the 2009 Lok Sabha poll. Mamata has pitted veteran actor Chiranjit against Deb, who is tipped to be the Opposition leader should the CPM lose. If Deb wins and so does his CM, it would be interesting to see what political equations develop within the CPM.
Perhaps the most fascinating of all battles will be the one between Ashim Dasgupta, the finance minister and Amit Mitra, FICCI general secretary. Dasgupta, an MIT alumnus, is dubbed by many as the man responsible for the dire straits of the state’s economy. His populist measures and inability to garner revenues have meant that the state spends 96 paise of every Rs.1 it earns in salaries and has a debt of close to a Rs. 2.2 lakh crore. Mitra, who has worked closely with Mamata as the chairman of the expert committee to advise the railway ministry on innovative financing and implementation of projects, has apparently drawn the blueprint for the state’s economic turnaround. It remains to be seen if his statistical analyses can cut the ice with voters who are long used to CPM doles. Should Mitra win and go on to become the FM, his rapport with industrialists could stand Mamata in good stead.
KEY ISSUE: The outcome of the face-off between two strong candidates will depend on the voters’ perception of whether West Bengal needs industrialisation
In 2006, the TMC won this seat by less than 2,000 votes. It was like an oasis in the Left Front desert. The Nano factory would have meant, among other things, a complete sway of the region by the CPM. This time, the CPM has fielded a new candidate in place of Srikanta Chattopadhyay, the party war veteran. Singur will set the tone for the political future of West Bengal in many ways. If TMC loses in Singur and still goes on to win the elections, it will be a moral defeat for Mamata. If she wins Singur by a bigger margin, she can redeem some of the guilt for having driven the Tatas away.
KEY ISSUE: The ghost of the Nano factory will haunt Mamata’s party as the electorate decides whether it was right or wrong to drive away a major corporate house
The riverine landmass has been the fountainhead of the common people’s struggle against the ruling Left Front and in a large way, symbolic of the Opposition’s massive victory in the Lok Sabha polls. There are accusations of large-scale embezzlement of panchayat funds by the TMC district board and a collective local grudge against the TMC candidate, Firoza Bibi, whose son, SK Imdadul was killed in the police firing of 14 March 2007. As was anticipated, Firoza is a puppet in the hands of the TMC local satraps who strong-armed the Nandigram byelections by 50,000 votes last year. Ironically, it is now a free-for-all looting zone for local TMC leaders.
KEY ISSUE: This constituency is now an established TMC stronghold, but it is time to weigh the benefits of being always in the grip of local goons
Dasgupta is Senior Correspondent with Tehelka
OOMMEN CHANDY, Leader of the opposition, Congress
In spite of corruption charges levelled against him, the CM-in-waiting is confident of an outright Congress win, says Jeemon Jacob
The Special Vigilance Court in Thiruvananthapuram has initiated an inquiry into your role as finance minister in the palmolein case. Will this adversely affect your chances?
I am confident it will not. I will fight the case morally and legally and never take shield under political patronage. I know that I have done nothing wrong. Let the law takes its course of action.
Should you not be owning up to your involvement in the palmolein tangle?
As finance minister, I had certain duties and I have delivered whenever I have held a Constitutional post. The deal was finalised in 1992, after which there were two Left governments. Investigations were prompted by them. There is not a single evidence to frame me in the deal. Why is my name coming up now? That is for the Left to explain.
What about VS Achuthanandan’s claims that the Left has been good for Kerala?
Those are all tall claims. The Left Front is a divided house. We have levelled serious allegations against his son intervening in government affairs and taking undue advantage of his position. But Mr Clean CM just entrusted the Lokayukta with the probe. The people of Kerala will judge the Left for its dismaying performance and we are going to get a minimum of 100 seats (out of 140).
Jacob is Chief Of Bureau-South with Tehelka
NOT IN THE FRAY FOR MONEY
A young, idealistic party mocks corruption with zero-rupee notes. Sai Manish reports
ON POLL eve, Tamil Nadu is being flooded with zero-rupee notes with a five-point blue star emblazoned on them. Inscribed on these fake notes are names and promises of candidates of the Makkal Sakthi Katchi (MSK), which is the TN chapter of Lok Satta Party (founded by Dr Jayprakash Narayan, a retired IAS officer of the 1980 batch in Andhra Pradesh).
“Both the DMK and the AIADMK have proved to be corrupt,” says Vijayanand, president of the MSK. “The zerorupee note symbolises that we are not here for the money but to do what every candidate in this party has been chosen for — serve the people.” For a debutant party looking to field 120 candidates, that seems to be the USP. The first question popped to ticket-seekers is their background in social work across the state. To fit this, they claim to have arranged a blood donation or medical camp or mobilised poor farmers whose lands have been usurped.
Says Udayakumar, a steering committee member who runs a medical supplies business and runs free health camps from his own savings, “Many candidates are simply budding politicians and pass off anything as social work. What we are looking for is someone who is grounded with the community and knows what households in their constituency want.”
‘We want to encourage youth to enter grassroots politics,’ says MSK chief Vijayanand
At 22, J Venkatesan, formerly with Wipro, is one of several young people who turned up from places as far as Coimbatore, Tuticorin and Kanyakumari for interviews in Chennai, braving the summer sun. “We want to encourage young people to enter grassroots politics. Dravidian parties have become monarchies,” says Vijayanand, while going through the application of a temple priest who wants a party ticket for the Mylapore constituency.
The MSK, unlike some other first-timers in the past, is gearing up for the long haul, irrespective of this verdict. They intend to form a shadow Cabinet, continuing to build a following in the villages, apart from winning over more young urban voters who have become disillusioned with the increased venality on display among the Dravidian parties.
The MSK experiment reminds one of another outfit, a much more radical party of young IIT-ians called Lok Paritran that contested the 2006 Assembly poll. Young men and women dressed in kurtas and jeans would campaign in Chennai on bikes and scooters, seeking votes from “people of their type”. Though they didn’t win a single seat, they did manage to register five-digit voting figures in some constituencies. However, when demoralised leaders started pointing fingers at each other after the poll drubbing, the party splintered before eventually fading into oblivion.
Lok Paritran’s Chepauk candidate, Elan Thirumaran, who stood against M Karunanidhi in 2006, will be contesting on the MSK platform this time. In a state like Tamil Nadu, what stacks the odds against new outfits are overwhelmingly populist manifestoes and poll promises. With no history to lean on and no goodies to dole out, the message of change gets lost. Vijayanand is unfazed. “Forty-five percent people don’t vote in Tamil Nadu because they don’t care about the existing parties. It’s this section we want to draw out of their homes and into polling stations to vote for us,” he says.
THE DIRTY TRICKS BAG
The AIADMK office at Chennai’s Poes Garden, the abode of supremo J Jayalalithaa, has hundreds of candidates for party tickets lining up on the tree-lined, SUVdotted road leading to Amma’s bungalow. The buzz is that the ‘fee’ for appearing for a selection interview for the AIADMK is Rs. 15,000. While for a similar chance of being interviewed for finalising candidates at the DMK headquarters, Anna Arivalayam, is Rs. 5,000.
Anna Arivalayam, also the headquarters of the now infamous Kalaignar TV, is also buzzing with prospective candidates who come every day, resumés in hand, to be interviewed by Deputy Chief Minister MK Stalin and other senior party leaders.
Here the ‘fee’ is much less. A mustachioed AIADMK prospect, twirling his whiskers with fingers adorned with ‘Amma rings’, has a ready explanation for this big gap in rates. “With all the 2G money in their pocket, they (DMK) can afford to charge less, you see,” he says.
Incidentally, candidates from all across Tamil Nadu, even from places as far as Abu Dhabi and Chicago, have turned up to take a shot at contesting elections this time.
Manish is Correspondent with Tehelka
REBELS ON THE OFFENSIVE
The Congress is jittery as anti-talks factions of ULFA and NLFB unleash violence, reports Ratnadip Choudhury
THE LAW and order situation is far better now, the death toll in insurgency-related cases this year has been the lowest in the recent past. These are indicators that militants are cornered and people believe in our developmental work,” boasted Assam CM Tarun Gogoi at a recent press meet. He spoke too soon as a powerful blast rocked the Congress HQ in Guwahati on 14 March.
A day after the Congress announced its list of candidates for the two-phased Assembly election to be held on 4 and 11 April, the anti-talks faction of United Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA) hit back, making Gogoi regret his words. The same evening, suspected ultras from the National Liberation Front of Bodoland (anti-talks faction) ambushed a BSF patrol, killing eight troopers in Ultapani, Kokrajhar district.
While the Congress was riding high after a successful initiation of the peace process with the Arabinda Rajkhowa-led pro-talks faction of ULFA, Paresh Baruah, leader of the anti-talks faction, had warned of dire consequences for trying to divide the outfit. Claiming responsibility for the attack, a press release issued by the ULFA stated: “This attack is just a small show of what we can do. It is to make the Congress realise that ULFA still has the ability to strike anytime, anywhere.”
The result: fear and tension has gripped not only the people but members of the ruling Congress too. It is no secret in Assam that in every election since 1991, ULFA has cast its shadow. However, the fact remains that ULFA has renewed attacks in upper Assam, particularly the Baruah stronghold of Tinsukia. This suggests that the Centre’s ploy to sideline Baruah and talk peace will not bring respite to the people. And it will barely keep the Congress afloat.
Choudhury is Principal Correspondent with Tehelka