Trinamool Congress dominating the campaign for Kolkata civic polls on December 19

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By: Ashis Biswas

Delayed by a year, the Kolkata Municipal Corporation elections on December 19 will be dominated by two somewhat negative features: first, parties opposing the ruling Trinamool Congress (TMC) are at their weakest and secondly, no party has designated any contestant as the next city Mayor.

In consequence, pre poll campaigning even as it warms up, is palpably short on the usual excitement as 2021 rolls to a close. As of now, the only outcome most people expect is a big TMC victory. But for unforeseeable developments, this election might well go down as one of the most dreary political battles, where only the eventual scale and margin of victory would be a point of possible interest.

This is not to rule out possible upsets in a few wards. The 40-lakh plus strong electorate that will elect a fresh bunch of councillors in 144 wards, stands sharply divided in the abnormal Covid-19 pandemic in terms of party-centred loyalties.

To give one example, for some time past, the middle class and more affluent people have been generally positive in their endorsement of the KMC’s (Kolkata Municipal Corporation) functioning. Among them one finds people who appreciate the sight and sounds of the new city emerging as their incoming flights land. An eminent Bengali author, while deploring the water logging and traffic jams, has showered his praise on Kolkata’s civic fathers for ensuring much cleaner roads and lanes, and the reliability of the garbage clearance system in recent years, in an article.

On the other hand, 46 year old cycle rickshaw driver Ram Swarup Yadav openly abuses corrupt Corporation staff who allows illegal car parking on certain major as well as side roads for the resultant jams that reduce his daily earnings. There is also a general feeling cutting across class divides that palm greasing among corporation staff has increased remarkably during the past decade – a part of the infamous ‘syndicate’ (illegal commissions and bribe taking) culture prevailing in the state. ‘Improved civic service comes at a cost’ has been a major opposition charge. Illegal building constructions have become more difficult than before, but securing birth/death certificates and other documents expeditiously remain as difficult as ever, most people complain.

As Ram Swarup correctly explains, such corruption hurts him and people like him – who are after all an overwhelming majority among voters! – far more than  regular salaried people like bank employees, school/college teachers, government employees. “Paying bribes is no issue for them’, he insists. There can be no denying that most people prefer to get their work done asap, paying a small bribe in the process. How is it then, that the TMC has been running the KMC since 2010, if the poorer people are unhappy? ‘We don’t vote for it,’ says Ram Swarup, ’But others, whom we do not know, do ….”

Which brings the average citizen, taxpaying or not, in direct contact with the power of the ubiquitous illegal ‘syndicate money’ in west Bengal. A survey conducted by an Economist at the Indian Statistical Institute reported that the annual illegal earnings of beneficiaries engaged in the present system, including politicians as well as government/civic employees and ‘middlemen’, were around Rs 34,000 crore!

No wonder candidates in 2021, whether belonging to the TMC, the Left Front (LF) Congress or the opposition front runner Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)  all promise that they would end the existing ’cut money’ culture and serve them as sincerely as possible. On this score, the ruling TMC is understandably on a stickier wicket than others, having won 114 out of 144 wards in the 2015 KMC elections. In contrast, the Congress (5 seats in 2015), the LF (15) and the BJP (7) are more comfortably placed.

TMC campaigners, led by ex mayor and former Municipal Minister Firhad Hakim naturally stress the ‘Development and improvement in civic works’ theme in their street corner rallies and processions, to offset this.

As for pre-poll trends and campaigning, there has expectedly been a major scramble within all parties to secure nomination. As an observer explained, these days, a councillor gets to handle more money through local developments projects and other related work during his five year tenure, in comparison with an MLA. “Unless ruled out by restrictions such as fulfilling the mandatory seat quota for women among candidates in different parties, few incumbent Councillors are willing to resign on their own … I do not suggest that all are corrupt, either,’ he said, ’Some genuinely enjoy the hands-on nature of their work, the direct contact with common people, on a daily basis.”

This view is endorsed by the refusal of second tier leaders and activists in all parties including the TMC, to quit after failing to secure nomination. Many would fight the polls on their own steam as independents after they were ruled out for nomination. In the TMC, Tanima, sister of the late, eminent ex Municipal Minister Subrata Mukherjee, has taken such a step, after she was ruled out as a contestant on second thoughts by the party leadership from Ballygunge ward. So also with the veteran Sacchidananda Banerjee, one of the TMC founders, who has decided to contest from his old Bhowanipur ward, causing many eyebrows to rise.

The BJP has had its share of dissidence over candidate selection spilling out in public. None other than Rupa Ganguly has protested against the nomination given to a particular candidate, while a lesser stature local leader has been expelled by the state leadership as he protested publicly after having been denied nomination.

In general the Congress and Left parties do not face much inner party dissidence. As things stand, the LF candidates should enjoy a decisive edge over their rivals in other parties in several wards in north and south Kolkata. Some of them worked hard and helped local people, arranging for emergency food and medicine supplies in special camps run during the pandemic. This at a time when other parties were not so active.

However, the incumbent TMC is not worried about the prospects of major losses. Its recent major success in winning Assembly elections with well over 200 seats, followed by its sweep in winning all 7 Assembly by elections, clearly indicate which way the political winds blow in West Bengal – for now.

In terms of campaign matters, especially the opposition parties have chosen new, well educated, relatively younger men and women with some political background. The idea is to project youth and a corruption-free image. Most are carrying out brief rallies and going on house to house visits, with a marked degree of first time enthusiasm. The BJP has not made the mistake of rewarding ‘political migrants’ from the TMC with instant nominations for the civic polls, having burnt its boats disastrously in the Assembly elections.

Most candidates promise improvements in local civic services, in resolving water logging, improving poor lighting or garbage cleaning work, the general upkeep of parks and civic shelters. However, given the politically overarching nature of the larger battle in India between the TMC and the BJP, major national issues such as employment, the state of the economy and the social standing of minorities – all figure as unavoidable campaign topics. The temperature and pace of campaigning is expected to pick up significantly in the days ahead. (IPA Service)

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