[dropcap]A[/dropcap]t long last, the gloves have come off in the highly intriguing political face-off between the BJP and Trinamool Congress (TMC) in Bengal. Three statements and two recent visits by Union ministers to Kolkata, slamming the Bengal government for its less-than-stellar administrative record, provided evidence that the central BJP leaders felt they had had enough of the TMC’s tantrums. With the 2019 Lok Sabha elections approaching, the TMC can no longer count on Mamata Banerjee’s self-proclaimed ‘personal equation’ with Rajnath Singh, Sushma Swaraj, or Arun Jaitley to stop BJP hardliners from gunning for her.
After firing the opening salvo against the TMC by exposing its poor governance, the BJP upped the ante on the political front, as well. It launched its political campaign as PM Narendra Modi tore into the TMC’s record of corruption and inefficiency in a hard-hitting speech in Midnapore on July 15. The same day, the Supreme Court blasted the CBI for its apparently aimless and endless probe into the Sarada chit fund and Narada bribe scams, where the involvement of many TMC MPs, ministers and leaders had been exposed. At its party headquarters in Kolkata, senior TMC leaders gloated that, in directing the CBI to approach Calcutta High Court first, the SC had all but shown the door to the agency.
These leaders kept deliberately silent on the significance of certain other observations of the apex court. The SC berated the CBI for dragging its feet, as state and central investigating agencies fought each other in an eternally long blame game. Then came the clincher, which sent a chill down the most intrepid TMC spine by now, as the judges said the matter should have reached the trial stage and, yet, politicians arrested earlier were now out free on bail!
Further, a significant comment made by railway minister Piyush Goyal indicated how hard Delhi could squeeze Kolkata if it really wanted to. Outlining the Railways’ stand in the ongoing infra projects in Bengal, Goyal said money would be made available only when the state authorities acquired at least 75% of the land needed for projects. He targeted two Metro projects from the North to Kolkata airport and the Joka-BBD Bag route, where there had been major cost overruns because of long delays over land acquisition. The reason for such delay: illegal, politically backed encroachment by squatters who were always compensated by the state government before they agreed to move out after long persuasive sessions with local TMC leaders (read syndicates). Investors and entrepreneurs privately admit this is the strongest reason they fear to put their money into Bengal projects. Even the common people know this in Bengal. Referring to the inevitable delays, difficulties and cost escalation in Bengal infra schemes, Goyal asked officials to consider whether the Joka-BBD Bag Metro project should be scrapped! Said one official, “A stronger, more negative warning could not be given by a central minister on an ongoing project.” The matter assumed importance in that any mishandling of rail projects on Bengal’s part could mortally hurt the TMC. CM Mamata Banerjee had announced that, by way of priority, the state government would spend around Rs15,000 crore on the new infra projects, the bulk of them in the rail sector and official agencies would work round the clock to complete all stalled projects to ensure job creation and accelerate development.
Besides Railways’ money, the state finance department arranged to take over all unspent funds lying with different departments to avoid financial glitches that could hamper work. Opposition parties had seen in this move the TMC’s last desperate bid to quicken the pace of economic development, a major area of concern in Bengal, prior to the 2019 Lok Sabha polls. Goyal’s tough ‘no land acquisition, no money’ approach, however, would effectively torpedo the TMC’s attempted projection of itself as a dynamic, forward-looking, pro-development party. The state government has not been able to make much headway in any of its proposed major development projects at Kowakhali township in North Bengal, the expansion of Bagdogra airport, railway project at Bhabadighi, power supply project at Deganga, and two other projects in Burdwan and Katwa because of stubborn resistance from landholding peasants and local people.
Net outcome: A deadly combination of massive joblessness, economic stagnation, brain drain, rural poverty and backwardness in many parts of Bengal creating ‘the devil’s own brew’ in the state, as an observer put it. But the message from Delhi is clear: No more soft treatment for TMC-ruled Bengal. These developments follow the recent visit to the state by BJP president Amit Shah, whom his Bengal party followers had urged strongly to declare war against TMC once and for all!
(The writer is a political commentator)