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Demonetisation: Opposition fails to capitalise on govt’s poor management of crisis

We are going through a strange political phase in India. On the one hand, for the first time in two and half years, there is a sense that the government is in trouble. On the other hand, there is also the feeling that the Opposition doesn’t really have the talent and the ability to either express popular sentiment or to capitalise on the moment.

The issue being debated is of course demonetisation, an exercise that has entered the second fortnight of its second month. Banks are still relatively low on supply, ATMs are still often not fully stocked with the right bills. But most importantly, the initial violence of the move to take out most of India’s cash is still passing through the system. The economy looks to have been put through an action which has damaged it and there does not seem to be sufficient control over managing the instability.

Opposition leaders after meeting President Pranab Mukherjee. PTI

Opposition leaders after meeting President Pranab Mukherjee. PTI

There was a moment, one week after the demonetisation announcement, when it may have been possible to reverse it. This was when the first hearings on the matter began in court and when most of the old currency was lying in the hands of the public. That moment has passed. The money has vanished in physical terms also, into the coffers of the RBI or banks, and the new notes have not been fully distributed through the system. The government says it will take another month, till the middle of January, before the system is stable. Even if that is true, merely printing the money doesn’t mean that the economy has received it. The cash has to be distributed across the system and there is no real estimate of how long that will take.

Few, including the prime minister who warned us about this in his latest speech on demonetisation, believe that there is no further pain ahead. This is the sort of moment and sort of political issue which any Opposition in a democratic space would have capitalised on. A deliberate action that slows the economy and inconveniences hundreds of millions of people daily for months is the sort of gift that politicians in Opposition dream of.

Incredibly, the government was actually able to make gains on this in the first couple of weeks. The media was strongly on the side of demonetisation then, and the public was shown as happy to be queuing up in support of the nation and against black money and terrorism. The Congress said it supported demonetisation but would insist on good management so that people were not inconvenienced. This position showed a lack of confidence and, more importantly, a lack of understanding about what was about to unfold. It could be said, rightly, that most people including experts, had no idea that things would drag on so long. But the Congress has decades of experience governing this country at the level of Centre and state. Surely it has enough input and data to be able to have known, and if it doesn’t then that is incompetence.

Instead it was two grassroots leaders, Arvind Kejriwal and Mamata Banerjee, who from the first instance opposed the act of demonetisation unconditionally. They perhaps recognised that the action was reckless and that popular support would wane. Sure enough, this euphoria began to blow away from the queues as the discomfort continued and the nature of the goal changed from attacking black money to securing a digital economy.

It speaks poorly of the Congress and its leader Rahul Gandhi in particular that they have not been able to introduce original phrases that would capture the tragedy of demonetisation. In popular politics it is vital that you rally your support base with slogans. Gandhi was excellent at doing this against the British and so is Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who is the most talented politician of our time. The Congress has no such ability and it bumbles along, having been handed a priceless political opportunity and not knowing how to properly grasp it.

The way in which Rahul has approached the crisis makes no sense. He has first been tentative, then he has senselessly broken Opposition unity by unilateral Congress action. He has threatened to reveal the prime minister’s personal corruption and then changed the subject to farmers’ distress when he eventually met Modi. There seems to be no discipline and no strategy in his approach. Very few people believe the prime minister is personally corrupt. It was not the sort of allegation that was to be made casually, yet it does seem to have been made in that fashion.

And so here we are, in the middle of the biggest self created crisis of this government. A crisis which involves and includes citizens and affects the way we go about our lives. A crisis that promises to continue into the first weeks of the new year at the level of individual inconvenience and the first few months at the level of the economy. It is crisis that is being managed poorly by the government and, it is absolutely clear, even more shoddily by the Opposition.

First Published On : Dec 18, 2016 09:38 IST

Narendra Modi is correcting Congress, Indira Gandhi’s mistakes: BJP leaders

On the last day of the Winter Session of Parliament, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) made some scathing remarks against the Opposition and specifically the Congress on Friday stating that the Narendra Modi government is doing what Congress failed to do since 1971.

Referring to the Wanchoo Committee report of 1971, which had suggested demonetisation of certain bank notes as a mean to curb black money in Indian economy and tax evasion, BJP said that demonetisation was a necessity to keep Indian economy on track in a closed-room parliamentary party meeting on Friday, reports said.

Narendra Modi. Reuters

Narendra Modi. Reuters

Modi addressed Party MPs on a variety of issues including demonetisation at the meeting.

The meeting was called on the last day of the Winter Session of the Parliament as the deadlock on demonetisatin continued to disrupt regular business in both houses. Congress vice-president Rahul Gandhi had also alleged that he had proof of corruption by Modi on Thursday.

According to ANI, sources told the news agency that Modi specifically spoke about how former Indian prime minister Indira Gandhi had snubbed a report of the Wanchoo Committee that had recommended demonetisation of certain bank notes in 1971 because she was afraid to lose election. Firstpost had written about the Wanchoo Committee report in November.

Mentioning a conversation with YB Chavan, ANI quoted a source as saying:

Speaking with the press live on television, BJP leader Ananth Kumar echoed similar words stating that BJP-led government is trying to do correct Congress’ mistakes. Speaking on CNN-News18, Kumar said, “The prime minister said that digital economy should be a way of life” and that it would help make India a transparent and effective economy. The BJP leader also took a jibe on the opposition saying that “earlier the Opposition used to carry out scams, now they are working for black money”.

Interestingly, initial reports said that Modi will speak in a televised address about various issues around demonetisation and the Winter Session of the Parliament in a fashion similar to the announcement of the scheme in November. However, it didn’t happen.

Union Minister Venkaiah Naidu, who spoke with the press after the party meet, criticised the Opposition and Congress Party for creating a ruckus inside the Parliament and outside on demonetisation. Naidu also criticised parties like CPM, Trinamool Congress and the Congress of working for giving vested interests preference over national interest and accused them of trying to tarnish the prime minister’s image with wild accusations.

“While the ruling party is fighting corruption and black money some opposition parties are fighting for the corrupt and terrorists. Many people are shaken because vested interests are shaken. They are trying to create panic in the public. And therefore, they are trying to tarnish prime minster’s image,” Naidu said on television.

Meanwhile, Kumar also attacked the Congress party and the Opposition for demanding proof for the strikes that the Indian Army carried out in September in retaliation to the Uri Attack.

First Published On : Dec 16, 2016 13:02 IST

Mamata Banerjee-Manohar Parrikar war of words over army deployment in Bengal intensifies

The political row over the recent army drill at toll plazas in West Bengal flared up again on Friday, with Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar dashing off a stinging letter to Trinamool Congress chief Mamata Banerjee, saying her allegations can “adversely” impact the morale of the force, and Banerjee hitting back over his “wild assertion”.

In the two-page letter, Parrikar told her that he was “deeply pained” over the allegations regarding the deployment of army personnel and the same was not expected from a person of her standing and experience in public life. Parrikar said that while political parties and politicians may have the luxury of making “wild and unsubstantiated allegations against each other”, one needs to be extremely careful while referring to the armed forces.

Mamata Banerjee. PTI file imageMamata Banerjee. PTI file image

Mamata Banerjee. PTI file image

“Your allegations in this regard run the risk of adversely impacting the morale of the country’s armed forces and the same were not expected from a person of your standing and experience in public life,” he said.

Banerjee, who is a strident opponent of the Centre’s demonetisation move, had accused it of deploying the army at toll plazas in West Bengal without informing the state government and described it as “unprecedented” and “a very serious situation, worse than Emergency”.

The Trinamool Congress stayed put in her office in Kolkata overnight on 1 December in protest against the deployment and had asked whether it was an “army coup”.

Terming it as “avoidable controversy” over the exercise carried out by the Eastern Command in West Bengal and other states under the jurisdiction to collect information about the movement of heavy vehicles at toll gates, Parrikar, in his letter dated 8 December, said it is carried out by all formations of the army all across the country for many years. He said the exercises are held as per the dates convenient to the army in consultation with agencies of the state government.

“I have been deeply pained by your allegations as reported in the media. If only you had enquired with the agencies concerned of the state government, you would have come to know of the extensive correspondence between the army and state agencies, including the joint inspection of sites carried out by them,” Parrikar said.

Hitting back, Banerjee said, “I take strong exception to your wild assertion that my articulation of the rights of the state government vis-a-vis army deployment without clearance has impacted the morale of the armed forces. Your general observations about the political parties and politicians to have the luxury of making wild and unsubstantiated allegations may be apt for your party, but we do not belong to that group,” she said in a two-page reply.

The chief minister also maintained that the Ministry of Defence has not taken prior permission of the state government for large deployment of army personnel in civilian areas. Parrikar said the army authorities were forced to put the record straight in the matter by presenting evidence of their communication with the state agencies concerned including rescheduling of the data collection operations on their response.

TMC MP Derek O’ Brien charged the Centre with playing politics on the issue. “Look who is playing politics. The letter has not even reached the chief minister of Bengal and it has already been leaked in the media in Delhi,” he said.

First Published On : Dec 9, 2016 20:05 IST

Six pilots suspended over TMC chief Mamata Banerjee’s flight controversy

Six pilots who had reported fuel shortage when TMC head Mamata Banerjee was on board the flight 6E 342, from IndiGo, SpiceJet and Air India were suspended by the Directorate General of Civil Aviation on Tuesday, according to a report by The Times of India. However, according to ANI, IndiGo Airlines have said that the pilots operating flight 6E 342 have been kept off flying duties till investigations and discussions with DGCA are complete.

Allegedly, the regulatory action was a ‘strict’ warning to airlines to refrain from cutting any corners, especially in winter when visibility is low, according to the same Times of India report.

The inquiry conducted by the regulator was supported by the IndiGo safety department, the IndiGo airline has said, adding that as an airline it always complies with the DGCA guidelines.  According to the airline, the IndiGo captain had followed all SOPs as laid by the regulator and at no stage the captain declared a fuel priority or an emergency.

A private airline plane carrying the Bengal Chief Minister hovered for over half an hour in the city sky before landing at the NSCBI Airport in Kolkata on 30 November, prompting Trinamool Congress to allege that it was a conspiracy to eliminate the party supremo.

“This is nothing but a conspiracy to kill our chief minister as she has raised voice against demonetisation and is touring the country to organise a mass movement against the anti-people decision,” said Senior Trinamool Congress leader and state Urban Development Minister Firhad Hakim, who was accompanying Banerjee in the flight. The issue was also later raised in the parliament, turning it into a political row.

“The flight took off from Patna at 7.35 pm, an hour behind schedule, and landed in Kolkata shortly before 9 pm, after hovering over 30 minutes in the sky due to technical reasons,” airport officials said, adding that such an incident was nothing new in any airport.

However, Hakim alleged:”The pilot sought permission for landing from the (Air Traffic Control) ATC as the plane was flying short on fuel but the ATC kept the flight on hold,” also claiming that even as the pilot announced 180 km away from Kolkata that the plane would land within five minutes, it ultimately touched down after over half an hour,” seriously inconveniencing the chief minister and other passengers”. But when contacted, a senior ATC official said he was not aware of such incident.

Representational image. Reuters

Representational image. Reuters

On 1 December, IndiGo said that the plane was delayed due to congestion before making a normal landing and that the fuel on arrival was more than the minimum diversion fuel and there has been no violation of regulatory requirements.

In a detailed statement, IndiGo said that the flight 6E 342 with 174 passengers on board, made a “normal landing” at Kolkata airport and that its captain did not declare a fuel priority or an emergency, though there was some misunderstanding between the Air Traffic Controller and the pilot. “The flight was kept on hold for landing due to air traffic congestion at Kolkata. The pilot operating 6E 342 had advised the ATC that he has eight minutes of extra holding fuel over Kolkata (destination) before commencing diversion to the planned alternative (airport). However, this information was misunderstood by the Air Traffic Controller who assumed that the aircraft had only eight minutes of total fuel left,” it said. It went on to say that this misinterpretation led the ATC to instruct fire engines and ambulances to be stationed at the airport, clarifying that the IndiGo captain at no stage declared a fuel priority or an emergency.

When TMC raised the issue in both houses of the Parliament, the government denied any designs by saying that at the same time as Banerjee’s flight reported low on fuel, two other flights of Air India and SpiceJet also called in with the same problem. Other opposition members, including Samajwadi Party’s Ram Gopal Yadav, Bahujan Samaj Party’s Mayawati, Janata Dal United’s Sharad Yadav, Rashtriya Janata Dal’s Prem Chand Gupta, Communist Party of India-Marxist’s TK Rangarajan, Trichuri Shiva of AIADMK and Rajiv Shukla of the Congress demanded a thorough inquiry in the matter and tabling of the report in the Rajya Sabha. But Minister of State for Civil Aviation Jayant Sinha said as per the “facts”, all laid down procedures and regulations were followed by the ATC and assured the upper house that a probe will be conducted and its report tabled.

Even in the Lok Sabha, TMC leader Sudip Bandopadhyay had raised the issue alleging that the Air Traffic Control (ATC) delayed giving the green signal to land despite the pilot pointing out that the plane was running out of fuel. Civil Aviation Minister Ashok Gajapati Raju, however refuted the claim and announced that the DGCA has ordered a probe into the matter to find out how three flights at the same time could fly low on fuel into Kolkata when the norms mandated them to carry enough fuel enabling them to hover for 30-40 minutes, as well as to reach the nearest diversion airport, which in this case would be Bhubaneshwar.

With inputs form agencies

First Published On : Dec 7, 2016 13:33 IST

Mamata Banerjee locks herself up in office, refuses to leave until army is withdrawn

West Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee has reportedly locked herself up in her office in the state Secretariat in Kolkata, citing the alleged presence of Indian Army trucks outside as the reason. She has further claimed that she would leave her office only once the army is asked to move.

Mamata had earlier alleged the large presence of army vehicles deployed at toll booths across highways, saying the state government was kept in the dark over this move.

“Army has been deployed in the state without informing the state government. This is a very sensitive issue. This is unacceptable. We do not know anything about it. It has never happened,” Banerjee told the media. “We want details. Federal structure has been disrupted and democracy twisted. Has Emergency been declared? We had no information.”

A Defence Ministry spokesman said there was “nothing alarming about this” and the exercise is carried out as per government orders. “The army conducts the annual exercise throughout the county with the aim of getting statistical data about the load carriers that could be made available to the army in case of a contingency,” said the spokesman.

The three-day exercise, now being conducted within the Eastern Command area, would end on Friday.

She iterated that a civil operation cannot be launched by the army without informing the state and claimed it was the result of a “political vendetta”.

“What was the magnitude of the incident that the central government didn’t inform the state government? This is a political vendetta,” she said.

Continuing her tirade against the Narendra Modi-led central government, she said: “Is it some kind of planning to start a war within the country? The road is ours and is administered under the state’s law and order although it is categorised under the Centre’s National Highway Authority of India.”

She claimed public is being harassed and their vehicles are being stopped along the toll collection points.

“Even if the Army carried out a mock exercise, the state government should have been kept in the loop. The public is panicking. If this is happening in a civil area in Bengal, this could happen in Bihar, next in Uttar Pradesh, then in Tamil Nadu and other states as well. It is a very serious situation and it is dangerous than Emergency. We are facing an extremely black day,” she said.

With inputs from IANS

First Published On : Dec 1, 2016 23:09 IST

Akhilesh Yadav outsmarts Mamata Banerjee, stays away from Lucknow demonetisation rally

Assembly elections in Uttar Pradesh have a great political allure. Leaders from afar are attracted to this vast state to come here and try their luck. After all, it is said that the path to Delhi goes via Lucknow, and a good show in Lucknow make people in Delhi take notice.

So, it was West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee who staged a protest rally in Lucknow on 29 November after a shrill campaign against demonetisation initiated by her in Delhi that attracted Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal. In Lucknow, Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Akhilesh Yadav in an expression of bonhomie went to the airport to receive her, turning it into a great photo opportunity. It was unofficially given out to the media that Akhilesh had given full support to Mamata’s protest show in Lucknow and he might possibly share the stage with her the next day. Incidentally, Mamta did not meet the Samajwadi Party president Mulayam Singh Yadav.

A file image of Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Akhilesh Yadav and West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee

A file image of Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Akhilesh Yadav and West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee. PTI

But the next day was a different story. The venue chosen for Mamta’s protest meeting was a busy road intersection, one that is identified with the office of the Women Helpline (1090) started by the Akhilesh government. The area is splashed with hoardings of Akhilesh Yadav smiling down amidst a description of his government’s achievements. And there is a huge LED screen that displays videos of his government’s schemes and their success. The venue is a little more than a kilometre from the Chief Minister’s official residence as well, and the road intersection is very busy throughout the day as it connects the trans-Gomti part of Lucknow through two bridges.

Any disruption on this roundabout causes huge traffic snarls within minutes and it so happened that day also, creating an impression that the huge crowd was there to listen to the fiery Didi.

Her party’s hoardings lined the roads leading to the venue, on which there was a single line: Notebandi wapas lo (Withdraw demonetisation) with a picture of Mamata with her stern face and an outstretched hand and a raised finger which resembled the famed posture in BR Ambedkar statues.

The meeting was scheduled to start at 10.30 am with Mamata expected to be at the venue around 1 pm and the crowd — some that had come on purpose and some that had to perforce stop there because of the traffic jam — waited patiently for her. In fact, the venue very soon looked more like a Samajwadi Party gathering with SP banners, slogans and SP flag-waving supporters swarming the place. Akhilesh supporters were shouting slogans for him and it was announced that he would be coming there soon.

But Mamata was delayed by nearly an hour and Akhilesh decided to stay away. In his place, one of his ministers Arvind Singh Gope and the party’s senior leader Kiranmoy Nanda graced the stage. Mamata spoke in her typical style, asking Prime Minister Narendra Modi to withdraw demonetisation, but as news of Akhilesh not arriving on the spot spread, SP supporters started moving away in large numbers. Besides accusing Modi of hurting the poor with this move, she said she would continue to oppose the prime minister, and dared him to arrest her.

If Mamata was smart enough to choose a busy road crossing for her meeting so that the traffic disruption could give the impression of a crowd, Akhilesh Yadav proved to be smarter. He not only stayed away from what was essentially a Trinamool Congress and Mamata Banerjee show but also avoided sharing the stage with her, as it would possibly have given a signal that he had accepted her leadership in this anti-BJP movement on the issue of demonetisation. But Akhilesh succeeded in giving a signal that despite reports of him being amenable on the issue he was against demonetisation in principle even though he has so far never called for a rollback as Mamata has been demanding from day one. He has also managed to isolate Bahujan Samaj Party chief Mayawati on this issue as no senior opposition leader has sided with Mayawati on her anti-demonetisation stance till now.

Mamata is the second non-BJP and non-Congress chief minister to have marked her political presence in Uttar Pradesh in the last few months. Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar was the first to stage a series of meetings in the state some months ago on total prohibition alcohol. But he has been with Modi on the issue of demonetisation. Mamata, on the other hand, has been on the forefront this time in the anti-demonetisation campaign, demanding nothing less than a rollback. And, she has left Bahujan Samaj Party’s Mayawati far behind in acquiring national opposition leadership on this issue. So, a splash in Lucknow was quite in order.

Incidentally, no leader of the Samajwadi Party owing allegiance to Mulayam Singh Yadav or Shivpal Yadav was present at the Mamata show. Mulayam is not known to be particularly eager on any alliance with Mamata given the past acrimony between the two since the issue of the previous Presidential election in 2012. It would thus appear that Akhilesh’s token support to Mamata and her rally may not be the Samajwadi Party’s stand as far as future alliances are concerned. But Akhilesh could well use Mamta’s support in the Uttar Pradesh Assembly Election 2017 campaign that could begin in the coming weeks even if Trinamool Congress is not going to be in the fray for the game of numbers. Akhilesh would remain the party’s undisputed face for UP, but he could well be won over to support Mamata over Nitish in 2019.

First Published On : Nov 30, 2016 13:01 IST

Demonetisation day 20: Jan Akrosh Divas, or the ‘Bharat Bandh’ that wasn’t?

The panning out of the Jan Akrosh Divas, a ‘nationwide bandh’ against the demonetisation by the Narendra Modi government, announced by the Opposition, took place on Monday.

Both the Congress and the TMC had quelled rumours about a bandh on Saturday itself, clarifying that parties have only planned protests, and JD(U) in Bihar was consistent with its earlier stance of supporting the demonetisation of higher denomination notes.

According to an article by Akshaya Mishra of Firstpost, not too much should be read into the joint action of the Opposition parties, as it is neither reflective of any index of opposition unity, nor of a building political formulation against Narendra Modi and the news updates of day 20 go to show how the protest gradually became the bandh that wasn’t.

Left Front no show in Bengal

The state-wide 12-hour strike called by the Left parties to protest demonetisation failed to evoke much response in Bengal. Government and private buses, trams and other private vehicles were seen plying on the road while most of the shops and markets were open. Train services of Eastern Railway in Sealdah and Howrah sections, besides Metro Rail services were also normal, Railway sources said, in a PTI report.

The strike called by the Left Front has been opposed by the ruling TMC in Bengal and the state government has ordered all its employees to attend offices on Monday and Tuesday. Exceptions would be made only in case of bereavement, maternity leave, hospitalisation and other ‘genuine reasons’, a circular issued by the state finance department said. Transport Minister and senior Trinamool Congress leader Suvendu Adhikari said his department is plying 3,000 more buses to maintain normalcy.

Andhra Pradesh, Telangana give mixed response

The bandh evoked a partial response in Telangana and Andhra Pradesh. Shops, business establishments and educational institutions remained closed in some areas while there was not much impact elsewhere.

Activists of Communist Party of India (CPI), Communist Party of India-Marxist (CPM), Congress and YSR Congress Party staged sit-in at RTC (Road Transport Corporation) depots. However, the employees union stayed away from the shutdown, and the bus services by and large remained unaffected. Main opposition YSR Congress and Congress clarified that they have not called for ‘Bharat Bandh’ but were only participating in protests against the people’s sufferings due to demonetisation of Rs 500 and Rs 1,000 notes.

Representational image. PTI

Representational image. PTI

Bihar’s partial response

Workers of RJD, Congress and Left parties disrupted train services at many places, but offices and schools registered normal attendance. Road traffic was as usual as well.

The protest had its echo in both Houses of the Bihar legislature where legislators of Congress, RJD and CPI-ML raised slogans. BJP legislators countered them by raising slogans against them. JD(U), a member of the ruling alliance, kept away from the stir in view of Chief Minister Nitish Kumar’s consistent support to demonetisation of high value notes to fight black money in the economy.

Kerala paralysed

The shutdown called by Kerala’s ruling LDF on Monday appeared to be total as only private vehicles plied, offices registered minimal attendances, and normal life was crippled. However, even though it was a state-wide shutdown, the organisers have left tourism activities and also the banking establishments out of the ambit of the call. They have also sought the pilgrims to the famed Sabarimala temple to be left unaffected by the shutdown.

The Congress-led opposition, however, expressed strong reservations over the shutdown. Following the demonetisation move, normal life has already turned upside down in the past 20 days and to further strain it would not be an answer to the woes, Congress was quoted as saying.

Life as usual in Karnataka

The ruling Congress party in Karnataka held protests and rallies throughout the state. The protest affected the functioning of both the Houses of Karnataka Legislature as they did not sit today in line with the decision taken by the Business Advisory Committee (BAC). However, life in Bengaluru and elsewhere remained normal with commercial establishments, educational institutions, banks and private offices working as usual and public transport and Metro maintaining their regular services.

Official reports said barring protests by Congress, the situation in the entire state, including the districts of Mysuru, Gadag, Haveri, Belagavi, Kalaburgi, Chamrajanagar, Dharwad, Uttara Kannada and Kolar, was normal. ‘Jan Aakrosh Diwas’ did not strike chord as expected as the state has seen five days of bandhs, protests and strikes in the last four months, including one on Cauvery water issue with Tamil Nadu which was marked by large-scale violence.

With inputs form PTI

First Published On : Nov 28, 2016 17:44 IST

West Bengal Assembly: Muslim candidates from TMC and Congress increase, Left’s share plunges by half

Kolkata: Muslim representation in the new West Bengal assembly remained at 59, the same as last time, constituting 20 percent of the total house strength of 294.

However, the Trinamool Congress and Congress have more members from the community, while the Left’s share was reduced to half.

Among the newly elected Muslim members, 32 won on Trinamool Congress tickets, five more than the previous house.

The Congress managed to increase the number of its Muslim faces to 18 from 13 last time, reaping the benefit of its alliance with the Left Front.

On the other hand, the Left Front’s strength has gone down to nine from 18 five years back.

Representational Image. ReutersRepresentational Image. Reuters

Representational Image. Reuters

The Communist Party of India-Marxist (CPM) had 13 Muslim lawmakers in 2011. Now it has only eight.

Among other Left Front constituents, in the previous house the Revolutionary Socialist Party (RSP) and the All India Forward Bloc (AIFB) had two Muslim members each.

The Samajwadi Party had one legislator from the Muslim community in the previous house.

This time, none of the Muslim candidates nominated by the RSP made it to the assembly, while the AIFB managed only one. The Samajwadi Party will have no representation in the new house.

The prominent Muslim winners include Firhad Hakim, Javed Khan, Abdur Rezzak Mollah and Mohammed Siddiqullah (all Trinamool Congress), Abdul Mannan (Congress), Anisur Rahman (CPI-M) and Ali Imran Ramz (AIFB).

Among the major losers were minister Abdul Karim Chowdhary of the Trinamool from Islampur constituency, Sahajahan Choudhury of the CPI-M from Mangalkol, and Touab Ali of the CPI-M from Samserganj constituency.

Abu Nasar Khan Choudhury, the younger brother of late Congress stalwart A.B.A. Ghani Khan Choudhury, won from Sujapur constituency in Malda district as a Congress nominee in 2011.

But contesting on a Trinamool ticket, he lost to Congress nominee and his nephew Isha Khan Choudhury this time around.

The Trinamool Congress emerged victorious in 211 seats as the single largest party in the 294-member house.

The Congress won 44 seats and the Bharatiya Janata Party managed to win three seats. Among the Left parties, the Communist Party of India-Marxist won 26 seats, the Revolutionary Socialist Party got three, the Communist Party of India secured one and the All India Forward Bloc won two seats. Independents and others won one seat.

TMC leader Tapas Mallick arrested for allegedly lynching ITI student in West Bengal

Diamond Harbour (WB): Local Trinamool Congress leader Tapas Mallick, one of the 10 persons named in the lynching of an ITI student in Diamond Harbour of South 24 Parganas district, has been arrested, police said on Friday.

Tapas, the TMC Upa-Panchayat Pradhan of the area, was absconding ever since his name surfaced in the FIR lodged by the family of Kaushik Purkait who was beaten to death on Monday night.

He was arrested from near Duttapukur in neighbouring North 24 Parganas district late Thursday night, a senior police officer said.

He was accompanied by a youth named Biltu from the car in which they were travelling, the officer said. The youth has been detained.

Representational image. ReutersRepresentational image. Reuters

Representational image. Reuters

Four others had earlier been arrested in connection with the murder of the youth, who was mercilessly beaten up on suspicion of being involved in theft of cattle from the area, the officer said.

Koushik, who came to visit his aunt in the area, was roaming around when he was confronted by members of a local club and forcibly taken to a room on Monday night.

He was later rescued by his relatives who rushed to the spot on hearing about the incident and took him to Diamond Harbour Hospital. He died hours later at SSKM Hospital in Kolkata on Tuesday.

The incident triggered a public outrage in the area with a mob vandalising houses of the accused when the youth’s body was taken to the house of his aunt in a procession on Wednesday.

Opposition CPM, Congress and BJP visited the family of the deceased and demanded punishment for those involved and immediate arrest of Tapas, alleging that he was deliberately not being arrested by the police despite playing a key role in the confinement and lynching of the youth.

While the four other arrested have already been remanded to 13-days’ police custody by SDJM court,

Diamond Harbour on Wednesday, Tapas would be produced in the same court later in the day.
Nine others were also been named in the FIR by the youth’s family.

Has Mamata conceded defeat? How else can her bitter rant against cops be explained?

Has Mamata Banerjee conceded defeat?

Is the Trinamool Congress headed for the exit door after just one bite at the power cherry? Predicting election outcomes is always fraught with danger, even more so in such a tight contest. But telltale signs and Trinamool Congress chief’s own behaviour in the last few days suggest that West Bengal may be in for the mother of all surprises on 19 May (the day of the results).

Mamata‘s bitter rant against police force

For a doughty, firebrand leader, it made for strange viewing when the chief minister on Sunday launched an explosive tirade against her own police force which is temporarily under the command of EC. She claimed that police has unleashed “a reign of terror” in the state and will face “consequences” if she returns to power. And in what is being seen as a barely concealed attack against new top cop Soumen Mitra, the chief minister said officers enjoying power for 15 days should not take it for granted.

“If someone is given a responsibility for just 15 days and starts thinking their life’s dream of wearing a gold crown will be fulfilled, that is the biggest mistake,” Mamata thundered during an election rally in Chandipur, around 110km from Kolkata.

“I am gentle to those who are good, but if anybody shows red eyes to me, then he will have to face the consequences.”

Incidentally, the chief minister had reinstated some officers whom the EC had removed after the 2014 General Elections was done.

The TMC supremo also accused the police of being “cowards” and said they were working at the behest of a ‘grand coalition’ of CPM, Congress and the BJP.

West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee. AFPWest Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee. AFP

West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee. AFP

“I am the chief minister of the state, even I could not sleep for two-three nights due to police tandav (mayhem). The paramilitary forces are being egged on by some coward police personnel. These coward policemen have worked at the behest of Congress, CPI(M) and BJP.

She also threatened retribution.

“I have kept a record of everything, what each has done, whether good or bad. I will give appropriate answer for all the atrocities if I am alive,” Mamata said at the rally in east Midnapore on Sunday.

“Those responsible will have to face the consequences. Election Commission’s duty is to ensure free and fair poll, but they have unleashed terror with the help of a section of police officers,” she warned.

What prompted the rant?

It is common knowledge that Mamata wasn’t amused when Election Commission, in an unprecedented move, replaced incumbent Kolkata Police Commissioner Rajeev Kumar with Mitra bang in the middle of Assembly elections. She made that clear on several occasions since EC took the step on 12 April. Kumar, handpicked by Mamata in January this year, was at the receiving end of a torrent of allegations from the opposition.

Since taking charge, Mitra has delivered a stellar performance. In the last two phases (fourth and fifth), the police bared its teeth and showed what it is capable of when it doesn’t have to obey political masters.

In a spectacular show of planning and execution, cops (aided ably by the Central paramilitary forces) ensured a virtually trouble-free election. That is no mean a feat in Bengal where elections are synonymous with bloodshed. The police has been particularly tough with the goons and activists of the ruling party.

It is important to understand that though EC has at its disposal a huge number of paramilitary forces, this punitive arm is heavily dependent on local intelligence — which only the state police force can provide — to preempt and prevent trouble.

Since coming to power, Mitra has ensured that cops ensure a multi-pronged strategy. Before every phase, it made a list of known trouble makers and history sheeters and either took them in custody or kept them under strict vigilance.

During voting in and around Kolkata, cops targeted the local clubs. The ruling party had turned these youth associations in every mohalla into their strongholds by doling out cash. Police, in an unprecedented move, shut them down the day before the polls fearing that these may be used for mobilisation of ‘quick action gangs’.

On Friday, for instance, cops had shut down several clubs in south Kolkata after crude bombs were found nearby or on the premises of a few. Fourteen bombs were found in a club in Chetla, the heart of the city.

As a final measure, cops liberally imposed Section 144, chased down and wielded its baton if even two or three people assembled within 200 metres of a polling booth. It employed quick response teams, mobile units and even drones in sensitive zones. Ministers, too, were not spared. Firhad Hakim had to dismantle the red beacon before his car was allowed to pass.

It became hard to believe that during last year’s civic elections, one police constable was shot at by goons allegedly affiliated to the ruling party.

“Please let us be cops for one day, today I am a policeman. I will neither listen to anyone except my seniors nor do I know anyone who breaks the law,” a detective department officer was quoted, as saying in Times of India.

Even if it doesn’t last, the change is dramatic and severe.

Heavy voting and other telltale signs

Heavy turnout is usually associated with anti-incumbency. On this count, Trinamool Congress has reasons to worry. Rural hinterlands in Bengal have a tradition of high voting percentage. This time, even Kolkatans followed suit. The cops ripped out the poison teeth of goonda raj and city dwellers came out to vote in droves.

In 2011, when Bengal decided to vote for ‘poriborton‘ (change) after 34 years of Left rule, the voting percentage in several city constituencies was abnormally high. In the four seats in south Kolkata, for instance, it was 65.87 percent, a steep surge by city standards. This figure looks in danger of being surpassed. Till 5pm on Saturday, it stands at 63.05 percent and when EC finally releases last-hour voting data, it may erase 2011 record.

The rumour mill is also working overtime. Since exit polls are banned, fake exit polls via social media are doing the rounds about a possible upset, rightly dismissed by TMC leaders. A Business Line report mentions police sources as saying that: “Nothing short of a miracle can save the Trinamool from defeat.” A comment which the report claims was corroborated by three other officers.

West-Bengal

Fracturing of minority votes

As chief minister, Mamata Banerjee has assiduously courted the minority votes which amount to around 27 percent of the electorate in Bengal and even 50 percent in some districts. The chief minister had frequently been criticised by the opposition for her crude and blatant tactics. Soon after coming to power in 2011, she offered honorarium of Rs 2,500 for imams and Rs 1,500 for muezzins through the state Waqf Board (later stopped by Calcutta High Court). Not a small sum in a state where per capita monthly income is around Rs 4,500.

She allotted free land to “homeless, landless imams” and even made Urdu the second official language in areas where 10 per cent of the population is Muslim.

Syed Noor-ul-Rehman Barkati, the shahi imam of the Tipu Sultan mosque, bragged in 2013 that he stopped writer Salman Rushdie from entering Kolkata by a mere phone call to the CM. The same year saw Kolkata police reportedly stalling indefinitely a TV serial, Dusahobas, scripted by Taslima Nasreen after Muslims groups complained that it would hurt religious sentiments.

Huge cutouts of Mamata Banerjee, face covered with hijab and offering namaaz, are a common sight in Bengal.

This votebank, however, is at the danger of getting fractured faced with an alliance of CPIM and Congress — both parties who enjoy equal popularity with the Muslims. Given the free and fair election, therefore, the result will depend on performance, not gimmicks.

Bengal Assembly polls: EC’s blemish-less century and TMC infighting mark 5th phase

It was Trinamool vs Trinamool on a day the Election Commission cracked yet another almost blemish-less century and ensured free and fair voting in the fifth phase of West Bengal Assembly polls.

If Mamata Banerjee had the sounded the war bugle against EC and its “heavy-handed tactics”, Saturday saw the reason why the ruling party has been feeling increasingly nervous. Using muscle power to subvert polling process is a blueprint created over decades by the Left and perfected in the last five years by Trinamool Congress. Last year’s civic polls showed to what extent can violence decide the outcome of a democratic procedure.

Voters shows their voter cards as they stand in queues to cast their votes in Kolkata on Saturday. PTI

Voters shows their voter cards as they stand in queues to cast their votes in Kolkata on Saturday. PTI

This time, however, the EC under Chief Election Commissioner Nasim Zaidi has proved a very tough nut to crack.

From the minute fourth-phase voting ended on 25 April up until the morning of Saturday, the EC and Kolkata police took a series of well-planned, calibrated and stringent steps that ensured Phase 5 remains almost as incident free as Phase 4, notwithstanding a few stray incidents of violence and rigging that is unavoidable in an exercise involving 14,500 booths for a 1.2 crore electorate.

The 349 candidates across 53 seats in Kolkata, South 24 Parganas and Hooghly that went to vote on Saturday included the who’s who of Bengal politics: the Chief Minister, mayor of Kolkata and members of Mamata Banerjee‘s core team — many of whom have found it difficult to erase the indelible ink of Sarada and Narada scams.

To contain trouble and ensure that outsiders do not queer the pitch on Saturday, the EC had a clear plan.

They started by liberally using Section 107 of IPC which ensured history sheeters were either put inside bars or had to fly their area of operation. The cops kept a close eye on all tainted criminals of port, Tiljala-Topsia, Tollygunge and Jadavpur area. The Kolkata police, under new Police Commissioner Soumen Mitra, prepared 43 quick response team. The EC also had at its disposal a 90000-strong security force (including state police) which was used to comb search for troublemakers.

Another significant step was to shut down all local clubs in every mohalla. This unprecedented step was triggered by an apprehension that clubs — hangout joints for local youths — were TMC strongholds and could be used as base to create trouble or rig the polls.

As a final step, the poll panel ordered imposition of prohibitory orders under Section 144 of CrPc in all the constituencies on polling day. Taken together, these steps ensured that violence was kept at a minimum.

Some incidents did take place though till about 5pm in the evening, an hour before official end of voting, sporadic violence in different parts of the state left 7 people injured while 27 so far have been arrested. The EC received nearly 3000 complaints and the biggest one came from Baruipur, a municipality in South 24 Paragans district.

In booth No 162 of Nabagram area under Baruipur constituency, four Trinamool Congress workers were injured in firing during a clash with CPIM activists. One 14-year-old, Ahmed Mollah, reportedly took a bullet in his hand while three others including a differently-abled individual were also hurt in firing. The injured have been admitted to the Baruipur Mahakuma Hospital. The Election Commission took suo motu cognizance of the incident and has sought an urgent report on the incident.

In the dock is one Rafikul Mollah though Sujoy Mistry, CPIM candidate in the area, has denied all charges. However, Kolkata mayor Sovon Chatterjee, the president of South-24 Parganas district TMC, blamed the CPIM for launching a calculated attack and accused the EC of inaction. Cops have so far arrested six, according to latest reports.

Other incidents of violence were reported from Goghat and Arambagh in Hooghly district. In Goghat, Forward Bloc candidate Biswanath Karak and his bodyguard were beaten up with the butt of a rifle by TMC-linked hooligans sparking off a massive search operation by central forces. Karak, who was on his way to visit some booths after getting reports of rigging, was waylaid by a biker gang. Police have arrested 5 TMC workers.

Sonali Guha, the new Didi in town

Mamata Banerjee isn’t the only firebrand female leader in Bengal. Other women leaders have shown during this election that they can be quite incendiary as well. If it was BJP’s Roopa Ganguly and Locket Chatterjee in earlier phases, this time it was Didi’s colleague Sonali Guha’s turn.

The TMC leader and candidate from Satgachia constituency landed in trouble after TV channels caught her inciting party workers over the phone. Guha, TMC candidate from South 24 Pargana’s Satgachia constituency, was seen instructing party activists to “thrash and drive out CPM agents from booths”. A malfunctioning EVM, which paused voting for over an hour in Kashibati Hindumoyee School (booth No 108), drew Guha’s ire as she accused the CPM of damaging the EVMs and asked party members to drive them out. She also engaged in confrontation with paramilitary jawans when they prevented her from entering the booths.

The EC subsequently filed an FIR against her.

Trinamool vs Trinamool

As cops kept things under tight control, Trinamool’s infighting came to the fore. Marxist-turned TMC leader Abdur Rezzak Mollah, who joined Mamata Banerjee’s party in February this year, brought charges of sabotage against party colleague Arabul Islam.

Back when Mollah was a CPIM leader, Islam was his bitterest rival. That the relationship hasn’t changed for the better despite a desperate attempt by TMC supremo to make Islam the ‘poll manager’ for Mollah’s campaign became clear on Saturday. Amid reports that Mollah’s men have been targeted in many places by Islam’s followers, the veteran TMC candidate from Bhangar constituency told local TV channels that “there is 100% chance of sabotage”.

CPIM rebel Mollah joined TMC in February this year. Mamata Banerjee’s decision to field him as a candidate in Bhangar didn’t go down well with firebrand leader Arabul and his men who have, for a long time, been at the receiving end of violence from CPIM under the veteran Marxist leader.

If Mamata calculated that Mollah’s inclusion may consolidate the minority votes, it seemed to have backfired as Saturday saw prolonged clashes and infighting between TMC workers. In many places, Mollah’s followers were beaten up those close to Islam. An irritated Mollah kept his temper in check all throughout the day until the final hours when it became clear that friendly fire may ruin his chances.

On being asked whether his poll manager Islam’s action will be the deciding factor in this seat, Mollah quipped: “He was a factor. Now he is a tractor.”

West Bengal polls: EC outsmarted as strategy of violence takes a curious turn in West Bengal

Election Commission has run into Hydra, the nine-headed serpent in Greek mythology, while trying to tackle poll violence in West Bengal.

When the EC announced polls over six phases in the state, more than a few eyebrows were raised. Spreading elections over a month and a half is a logistical nightmare. Apart from deployment of central armed forces — who are not conversant with the local language — in distant locations, it also involves realigning the state’s own punitive machinery which temporarily comes under the EC’s supervision.

But what seemed a paranoid measure was actually a prudent tactic given West Bengal’s history of bloodshed. Mindful of the gory statistics which date back to decades and repeated complaints from the opposition (especially in light of last year’s civic body polls), the EC put in place an apparently foolproof strategy.

Representational image. ReutersRepresentational image. Reuters

Representational image. Reuters

Consider the arrangements for the recently concluded third phase of Assembly Polls.

On Thursday, when polling was held in 62 seats across Kolkata north, Murshidabad, Nadia and Burdwan, the EC fielded a ring involving one lakh security forces. It included 714 companies of central paramilitary personnel in election-bound areas and a contingent of 25000-strong state police force to assist them in tackling the language barrier.

There were police observers in each district (three for sensitive Murshidabad). The forces were asked to do routine flag-marches to instill confidence among voters.

The thrust of the effort was to prevent and tackle violence on the polling day. It has to be admitted that so far, the EC has been largely successful in limiting the spilling of blood during the time that ballots were cast starting 4 April.

But what about the time in between?

In addition to the security forces, the media also play a crucial role in bringing incidents of violence and rigging to light. On polling days, teams of reporters, TV journalists swarm every far-flung booth with their OB vans and paraphernalia. So effective has the media been in their vigilance that in many cases, the EC has acted on the basis of reports which have emerged on TV channels. But the media, too, remain centred on polling activity. What happens after the last ballot is cast, lights are switched off, wires recoiled and scribes return home?

A factoid may put things in perspective. While one person, CPIM’s Tahidul Islam, has died so far in violence during the time of polling, the death toll since the announcement of election since 4 March stands at 12.

Though the EC has said it takes incidences of post-poll violence “seriously”, no sooner did polling ended for the third phase on Thursday there were renewed clashes between the ruling Trinamool Congress and alliance partners CPIM and Congress, resulting in the deaths of three party workers, two from CPIM and one Congress.

Lodhna village in Khandaghosh constituency in Bengal’s Burdwan strict witnessed two gruesome killings. CPIM’s Sheikh Fazal Ali, 58, was hacked to death with sharp weapons while 57-year-old Dukhiram Dal’s veins were cut as he bled to death right before the eyes of his son Sisir, who hid behind a wall to save his life.

In a report carried by The Telegraph, Sisir, who assists his dad in selling vegetables, recalled how alleged TMC workers attacked them with bombs and hatchets after voting ended on Thursday.

“As bombs exploded all around, I hid behind a wall and saw my father being chased. He tripped and several TMC men, armed with cleavers and hatchets, pounced on him. One of them told the others how to cut the veins in my father’s legs. I shall never forget the scene,” Sisir was quoted, as saying.

Ali, CPIM’s polling agent for booth No 108, also met his death in a similar fashion though his son Sajal, who hid in a nearby bush, was spared the ordeal of watching his dad being killed.

The men lay bleeding and gasping till 9 pm when the cops arrived and eventually took them to the Burdwan Medical College and hospital where they died a few hours later, according to Burdwan SP Gaurav Sharma.

In Burdwan’s Raina, Congress worker Khandekar Ali was killed in the Mathnurpur area when alleged TMC workers, who had got into a spat with him over casting of votes, hit him with a rod.

In each of these cases, the ruling party has denied involvement, blaming it on either intra-party skirmish between alliance partners or family feud.

Elsewhere on Friday, TMC leader Chanchal Debnath was beaten up by alleged CPIM activists in Nadia district’s Haringhata area. In return, a group of TMC workers allegedly ransacked the house of former MLA Nani Gopal Malakar and beat up former CPIM minister Bankim Ghosh.

In his complaint, Ghosh, who is now admitted with injuries and respiratory problems, said 12 TMC miscreants were involved in the attack and the “mayhem went on for about 20 minutes.”

“The TMC men also took away money and valuables and escaped through the back door when police came,” Dipti, Nani Malakar’s wife, was quoted as saying by news agency PTI.

West-BengalWest-Bengal

“In the day of polling, police, central forces and media keep strict vigil. So the TMC strategy is now to indulge in violence immediately after the polls or to intimidate voters before the day of voting. Villager are being told they will face dire consequences if they so much as go near the booth,” CPIM MP and politburo member Mohammad Salim told Firstpost.

“Law and order is a state subject. It is the responsibility of the administration and the Election Commission to prevent such incidents from happening. The killings are a sign of TMC’s insecurity. Facing defeat, Mamata Banerjee has increased her rhetoric,” he added.

“The killings are a desperate step to instill a sense of fear among voters who have so far refused to be cowed down by such tactics and are answering TMC’s reign of terror by casting their ballots,” added the CPIM MP.

Surjya Kanta Mishra, state CPIM leader and the alliance partner’s CM candidate, repeated the charge on Twitter.

Amid the rhetoric and counter-rhetoric, the EC’s job is cut out in West Bengal. Three phases are still left.

West Bengal polls: Congress approaches EC for cancellation of TMC’s recognition in view of sting video

New Delhi: On Wednesday Congress approached Election Commission demanding cancellation of the recognition of Trinamool Congress in view of a sting video in which a TMC candidate is purportedly seen as accepting working closely with syndicate mafia in West Bengal where assembly polls are underway.

West-BengalWest-Bengal

Noting that the media has highlighted the “role” of the Syndicate in sudden fall of Kolkata flyover recently, the AICC legal department secretary K C Mittal wrote to Chief Election Commissioner Naseem Zaidi, drawing his attention to a sting operation on a TMC candidate in which he allegedly said that most of the money required to fight assembly elections comes from syndicates.

In the complaint sent through e-mail, Mittal referred to the purported conversation in the sting operation and said, “the revelation by the media discloses a shocking state of affairs and it will substantially affect the conduct of polls.

“This involves the commission of various criminal and electoral offences, apart from the violations of the Provisions of Representation of People Act.”

Urging the EC to “immediately requisition” the video footage of the sting, Mittal said, “keeping in view the gravity of the allegations, it would also be appropriate to cancel recognition of TMC under the Election Symbol (Representation and Allotment) Order, 1968 and take further action as may be considered appropriate.”

If Trinamool detects real injustice, we will take responsibility: Mamata Banerjee hits back at Congress, BJP

Kolkata: With the West Bengal’s ruling Trinamool Congress facing fire from the opposition parties over the Kolkata flyover collapse incident that killed 26 people, chief minister Mamata Banerjee on Saturday asserted that her government takes responsibility and acts in instances of “real injustice”.

File image. PTIFile image. PTI

File image. PTI

“Our government is the common man’s government. It will never do anything to burden the common man. Our government is not CPI-M or Congress. We have the capacity to label injustice as injustice, but if somebody lies and says ‘this is injustice’, then we do not accept that,” she said.

“If Trinamool Congress sees that there has been real injustice, then it takes responsibility and corrects it. But if someone lies and makes something seem wrong, then we do not believe in that action,” said Banerjee at a poll rally in West Midnapore ahead of the first phase of polls on Monday.

At least 26 people died while many others are still in hospital, some of them injured seriously, following the collapse of the under-construction Vivekananda Road flyover in north Kolkata’s market area Posta on Thursday.

The Bharatiya Janata Party sought a CBI probe, calling the incident an “act of fraud protected by the West Bengal government” while Congress vice-president Rahul Gandhi, during his visit to Bengal on Saturday, alleged that Trinamool leaders were involved in the construction of the collapsed flyover.

Banerjee hit out at Gandhi. “Some leaders from Delhi, who do not love Bengal, come down to the state during elections all of a sudden and go on talking in an unbridled fashion,” she said, adding, “Do not listen to them. They have always ignored Bengal.”

Firing salvos at the CPI-M and Congress over their tie-up, Banerjee said both the parties have no work except to spread lies and canards. “Congress has no capability on its own. It is going to all states and forging alliances and strengthening its base,” she said.

She also took potshots at a local media house for participating in the nexus and misleading people. “Their owner is the chairman of this alliance. Reporters are not to blame. Sometimes that person (the owner) goes to Delhi and falls at the feet of BJP, the Congress and sometimes CPI-M. That person wants to acquire land from farmers through guns,” said Banerjee.

Kolkata flyover collapse: With politicians passing the buck, it seems the dead lost their lives in vain

If there’s one thing that embarrasses politicians it is being seen to be playing politics. Especially when faced with a horrific tragedy like the crash of a flyover in Kolkata on Thursday. So the favourite phrase prefacing the reactions of politicians to Thursday’s disaster was: “This is not the time to play politics, but…” and never has a ‘but’ been more eloquent. Because finally it is all about politics, of course, all the more so at election time.

A file photo of the collapsed Vivekanand flyover. PTIA file photo of the collapsed Vivekanand flyover. PTI

The collapsed Vivekananda flyover in Kolkata. PTI

The first thing Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee said after rushing to the accident site was: “It is a disaster, no one should indulge in politics over it. But the project was initiated in 2007 and construction started in 2009 (i.e., during the Left regime).The contract should not have been given to a company that was blacklisted.”

The retort came swift and sharp. At the CPI(M) headquarters in Kolkata on Alimuddin Street, party MP Mohammad Salim said, “This is not the time for politics but the Chief Minister has left us with no choice. It’s no different from the way she behaved over the death of children soon after coming to power.” (Salim was referring to Mamata Banerjee’s response to a spate of simultaneous deaths in a government-run children’s hospital when she said, “Remember these children were conceived during the earlier regime.”)

At the Centre, which too has a role to play in the making (and hence in the unmaking too) of the flyover as it is a JNNURM project, that is partly funded by Delhi, junior urban development minister Babul Supriyo said, “While I don’t want to bring politics into this, this was a joint venture of the UPA at the Centre and the CPM government in Bengal.”

Since the Centre can only vet the projects and release the funds, monitoring being limited to sending reminders and pushing for compliance if the states fail to implement them, Bengal’s sole BJP minister in the Capital did not forget to add, “It is the failure of the state government. It is responsible.”

The flyover may never come to be. Many experts are now voicing doubts over the choice of the location itself, narrow, busy, built-up, congested streets in the heart of the city. And the local people’s objections, who had never welcomed it, are now getting a hearing.

Whatever its fate, the imminent question playing on many minds is, will it have played its historic role by becoming an election issue, touched as it is by all the leading players in this state? Surely it should, there ought to be some accountability somewhere and the polling booth is the ultimate court of appeal. Otherwise, all those innocent people will have lost their lives or limbs in vain.

The political bosses are not quite sure which way the people will go or whether they will all be blamed equally and thus cancel each other out. So they are taking no chances.

The ruling Trinamool Congress has understandably most to lose. There were troubling signs yesterday when city mayor Sovon Chatterjee and local MLA Smita Bakshi, both candidates in the imminent elections, were booed and heckled by the crowds during their visit to the accident site.

The air rang with cries of “chor hai, sab chor hai.”

The mayor is one of the people shown to be taking money in the Naranda sting videos. No other TMC leader other than the Chief Minister visited the area on Thursday. Friday morning saw local MP, TMC’s Sudip Bandopadhyay, standing amid the debris, reading out a list of disasters that took many lives during the Left Front’s years.

Mamata Banerjee gave the cue last night when she lashed out, even while making sure of adequate supply of floodlights and drinking water for the rescue workers that “Dirty politics is being played over blood. I will not allow this. We have enough blood. There is no need for a blood donation tamasha. If blood is needed there are enough of us around. I just have to give a call, one lakh people will turn up to give blood.”

The provocation for her outburst: the overwhelming response to blood donation camps organised last evening by Left student unions at one of the city’s Central Blood Banks for the disaster victims. It was not long before TMC’s all-powerful doctor-MLA Nirmal Majhi put a stop to it, accusing the Left of coercing people to donate blood.

“Utterly meaningless,” he said, and demanded an explanation from the blood bank authorities for taking what was tantamount to tainted CPM blood.

Meanwhile, the Left is busy performing its own deflecting manoeuvres. Siliguri mayor and former urban development minister Ashok Bhattacharya, whose Siliguri model is the blueprint for the current Left-Congress electoral alliance, has a heavy cross to bear.

He had commissioned the flyover and given the job to the Hyderabad-based infrastructure company IVRCL. He is screaming hoarse that “the company was not blacklisted when it was given the project. It got blacklisted two or three years ago. I would ask why Firhad Hakim (the current urban development minister) did not get rid of the company after it got blacklisted. “We suspect there was compromise on the quality of materials.”

He was hinting at Trinamool’s already much-maligned building materials supply syndicates.

According to Bhattacharya, “The bulk of the construction began in 2013. By pointing fingers at us, they are trying to evade their responsibilities.”

The cry for the head of urban development minister Firhad Hakim is growing louder by the day. Hakim is also the chairman of the Kolkata Municipal Development Authority, an agency of the urban development ministry which was directly responsible for the implementation of the flyover. Hakim is also part of Narada’s sting videocast.

The BJP, the Congress and the CPI(M) have all demanded his resignation. But Mamata Banerjee usually puts huge storage by loyalty. It’s the people’s loyalty in the time of disaster that she needs to worry about.

TMC indecisive over legal recourse on sting video controversy

New Delhi: The sting operation in West Bengal, which allegedly showed some TMC MPs taking bribe, has led to complications for Trinamool Congress(TMC) as party leaders are now in “two minds” about taking legal course against the news portal responsible for it.

After posturing initially that the video footage in circulation showing party leaders and sitting MPs receiving currency notes as “manufactured”, a section of leaders has briefed party supremo Mamata Banerjee in Kolkata that to “prove the charges as malicious and motivated in a court of law will be a herculean task”.

Representative image.  ReutersRepresentative image.  Reuters

Representative image. Reuter

“A section of party leaders are in two minds. There is a growing sentiment that the legal course can only add to the agony of the party,” a Trinamool Congress leader told IANS here requesting anonymity.

“Things may turn difficult once court takes cognizance of the charges and order either a judicial probe or an investigation by the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI),” the leader added.

The legal course was earlier considered seriously by the party leadership. Former railway minister Mukul Roy, a close confidant of Mamata, had said that the video footage that went viral on TV news channels and social networking were “manufactured”.

Roy had even threatened to move court.

“But once the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the Congress moved Calcutta High Court separately seeking a CBI probe, the party’s think tank has developed cold feet about going to court,” party sources said.

“Even the Saradha scam earlier that hit Trinamool credibility went out of control once the court ordered CBI investigation,” they added.

A number of party MPs including two former ministers have taken objection to the manner their colleague Saugata Roy reacted to the sting operation charges in the Lok Sabha.

“Protesting and questioning Lok Sabha Speaker Sumitra Mahajan’s ruling when she ordered a probe by the Ethics Committee was unnecessary. Saugata, himself shown receiving currency, should have either kept mum in the house or taken a high moral ground and said our party is not scared of any probe,” said another leader adding that it would have been politically more sound a decision.

Two party leaders Dinesh Trivedi and Sugata Bose have already expressed their reservation on how the party has reacted initially to the sting operation charges.

The 15-member ethics panel of Lok Sabha headed by Bharatiya Janata Party veteran L.K. Advani has been asked to conduct its “examination, investigation and report” into the issue by Lok Sabha Speaker Sumitra Mahajan.

Five Trinamool members from the Lok Sabha — Saugata Roy, Sultan Ahmad, Suvendu Adhikari, Kakoli Ghosh Dastidar and Prasun Banerjee — and one from the Rajya Sabha, Mukul Roy, are shown allegedly accepting bribes in the sting operation.

Incidentally, Saugata Roy is the younger brother of a key BJP leader from West Bengal Tatagatha Roy, who is now Tripura governor.

“Saugata Roy is a senior party parliamentarian and knows the parliamentary decorum well. He should have instead supported a probe by the house panel itself. On the contrary he questioned on the first day under which rule Congress, Communist Party of India, Marxist (CPI-M) and BJP MPs were raising the issue in Lok Sabha,” the party source said.

The party leaders also remained divided on the stance taken by their Rajya Sabha floor leader Deren O’Brien when he said foreign money was pumped in from Dubai for the sting operation.

“Even in such a case, we should have preferred if not order a probe at the state government level itself,” the party source added.

IANS

Well done! By stripping Rohith Vemula down to his Dalit identity, we ensured the death of what he stood for

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Only in Kolkata: Will 2015 prove to be a different year for TMC’s Bhaskar Dam?

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Only in Kolktata: Will 2015 prove to be a different year for TMC’s Bhaskar Dam?

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