Year 2021: Mamata magic prevails in Bengal as BJP bites dust
Kolkata, Dec 29: Mamata Banerjee's battle cry 'Khela Hobe' (game will happen) was emblematic of the hostility and confrontation that lay in store for West Bengal in 2021 amid a raging pandemic and political turmoil, as a string of bitterly fought elections left the state on edge for major part of the year. Banerjee, the stormy petrel of West Bengal politics, led her TMC to emphatic victories in all elections despite her personal loss in Nandigram, the scene of an anti-land acquisition movement years ago that had catapulted her to power in 2011.
A decade after scripting history by defeating the longest-serving democratically elected Communist government in the world, Banerjee emerged as the most formidable opposition leader as she stormed back to power for a third straight term trouncing the BJP in the assembly elections. Flashpoints in Bengal were one too many, as political violence rocked the state and allegations of electoral fraud flew thick and fast. The CBI and a Special Investigation Team (SIT) of the West Bengal Police are probing the cases of post-assembly poll violence that left scores dead and injured, and reduced houses and other property to ashes.
The BJP, which established itself as the main opposition party after the last Lok Sabha polls, had its top leaders go all out with its rallying cry of 'Hindutva', only to find that there were not too many takers for its narrative. The TMC invoked 'Bengali pride' to checkmate the saffron party and clinch 213 seats in the 294-member House, leaving 77 for the BJP and one each for an Independent and an ISF candidate. In the do-or-die assembly election, the Left Front, which had ruled Bengal with an iron fist for 34 years, ended up empty-handed. The Congress, too, was pushed to the margins, failing to open its account. While Banerjee destroyed any dreams that the BJP had of ruling West Bengal, her defeat in Nandigram against freshly minted BJP leader Suvendu Adhikari, a confidant-turned-bete noire, came as a huge embarrassment. She, however, emerged victorious from her home turf Bhabanipur in a bypoll by a record margin.
Fresh from the impressive victory, the feisty TMC boss, who had called BJP leaders from Delhi "outsiders" during her assembly poll campaign, wasted no time trying to spread her wings beyond Bengal's skies, with an eye on her next target - the 2024 general election. The TMC forayed into Tripura in civic body elections. It gained little in terms of seats but managed to pitch itself firmly as a major opposition party in the BJP-ruled state. In Meghalaya, where it was hardly a force to reckon with, her party pulled off a coup of sorts as 12 of the 17 MLAs of the Congress deserted the ship and joined the TMC, making West Bengal's ruling party the main opposition in the northeastern state in a jiffy. In Goa, where elections are due early next year, the TMC has decided to contest all 40 seats, and netted a prize catch in former Congress chief minister Luizinho Faleiro in the run up to the polls.
The face-off between the BJP and the TMC in Bengal continued through the year. Within a week of the new government taking oath, the CBI arrested two ministers, a TMC MLA and a former party leader in the Narada sting operation case, provoking accusations of the Narendra Modi government using central agencies to settle political scores. A combative Banerjee led hundreds of her supporters at a dharna outside the CBI office in Kolkata demanding unconditional release of those arrested. The court later granted them bail. Banerjee's national ambitions came in the way of TMC's ties with the Congress, as she held the grand old party responsible for the BJP's rise across the country. The war of words escalated between the two parties, with the TMC claiming it was now the "real Congress" and the Congress's leader in the Lok Sabha Adhir Ranjan Chowdhury returning fire, calling Banerjee "BJP's Trojan horse".
COVID-19 held the state in a vice-like grip with over 16 lakh people having been infected with the deadly virus as on December 28. Altogether 19,733 people have lost their lives to the disease. As West Bengal battled the contagion, the TMC blamed the Election Commission's decision to hold a staggered eight-phase assembly polls for the surge in COVID cases. Nature unleashed its fury as cyclone Yaas buffeted the state, leaving a trail of death and destruction. The acrimony between the state government and the Centre touched a new low, when Banerjee skipped a review meeting on cyclone Yaas chaired by Prime Minister Narendra Modi while taking exception to the presence of Suvendu Adhikari, the Leader of the Opposition. Shortly after, the Union government ordered the recall of Chief Secretary Alapan Bandopadhyay to Delhi. The state government, however, refused to release Bandopadhyay, who subsequently retired and was appointed chief adviser to Banerjee for a three-year term.
The BJP, smarting under its assembly poll defeat, faced desertions with many of its leaders quitting and joining the TMC. The party's national vice-president and MLA Mukul Roy was the first to quit in June to return to the TMC. Four other BJP MLAs followed suit. Former central minister and MP Babul Supriyo, who was dropped during the reshuffle in July, also switched over to the TMC in September. Plagued by infighting, the BJP brought about changes in the organisation, replacing its two-time state president Dilip Ghosh with party MP from North Bengal Sukanta Majumdar, and axing several members of the old guard from important committees. The TMC's success at the hustings continued in the second half of the year as the party registered a landslide victory in Kolkata civic polls, clinching 134 out of the 144 wards.
The state government also claimed credit for the UNESCO 'Intangible Heritage' tag for Kolkata's Durga puja. As another eventful year drew to a close, the Union home ministry's refusal to renew the Foreign Contribution Regulation Act (FRCA) licence of Missionaries of Charity - the Calcutta-headquartered organisation founded by Mother Teresa - became a talking point. Opposition parties slammed the Centre over its decision, while officials of the charity organisation said efforts to resolve the matter were underway. PTI