The alchemy of anti-incumbency -Varghese K George
Mamata Banerjee’s assumption that Bengali nationalism could block anti-incumbency and Hindutva may be optimistic
The Trinamool Congress (TMC) government in West Bengal is a unique specimen in understanding anti-incumbency. Welfare schemes that usually make incumbents popular have added to the anti-incumbency woes of Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee, as the workers of her party made those the easy and only option for rent-seeking. ‘Cut money’, or the cut for TMC local leaders on welfare disbursement, is the most important reason for anti-incumbency in the State. The unaccountable nature of power at the panchayat level after the 2018 elections were rigged by the ruling party, made it into an apparatus of extraction rather than a dispenser of patronage. The balance between patronage and extraction, which sustains political parties, was lost. Second, Ms. Banerjee, sought to compensate for her past alliances with the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), by an overuse of Muslim symbolism, which has caused a backlash among Hindus and Muslims.
Usually, smart politicians use a crisis to neutralise accumulated resentments and reinforce their popularity. In Kerala, Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan could turn two floods (2018 and 2019), a cyclone and the COVID-19 pandemic as opportunities to demonstrate his governance; in Assam, pandemic relief helped the BJP government quieten any public dissatisfaction and Finance Minister Himanta Biswa Sarma became the face of a caring government. In contrast, Ms. Banerjee’s wayward workers made the Amphan cyclone (2020) in the midst of the pandemic a spectacle of corruption and inefficiency. The weakness of the state in West Bengal that the CPI(M)’s organisational capacity could camouflage earlier became more pronounced under the TMC. The key strategist of the party has acknowledged that anti-incumbency is a major factor. In fact, it is the overarching theme.
Ms. Banerjee is trying to control the damage. Welfarism is an important tool in her kit — the TMC is offering a universal basic income for all families, if elected to power for a third term in West Bengal. She also realises that economic promises without emotional appeals are just not good enough. She is appealing to Bengali exceptionalism, and questioning Delhi imperialism, invoking the fear of the outsider, accompanied by a show of her Hindu anchorage.
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The Hindu, 6 April, 2021, https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/lead/the-alchemy-of-anti-incumbency/article34247969.ece?homepage=true