From the Gorkhaland agitation to the Narada scam, communal violence in Basirhat to the Mamata government’s ire over demonetisation and GST, and a major TMC leader jumping ship to arch-rival BJP, West Bengal witnessed major events in 2017 that spurred the state and Centre to lock horns, setting the political stage for the next two years.
The state is set to undergo panchayat elections and two bypolls in 2018, while the Lok Sabha polls will take place in 2019. Last year began on a fiery note, with Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee mincing no words in criticising the Centre’s decision to implement demonetisation, launching a social media war against BJP. As the year progressed, Prime Minister Narendra Modi became the focal point of her barbs. On November 8, the anniversary of the note ban, she turned her Twitter profile picture black and referred to the anniversary as a “Black Day”, while referring to demonetisation as a “big scam” and a “devil act”.
Soon after, she again battled with the Centre when it introduced the Goods and Services Tax (GST). Referring to it as “Great Selfish Tax” and a “stunt”, she demanded a probe into both of the Centre’s decisions.
Independence Day and Teachers’ Day celebrations saw the state government and Centre at loggerheads once more. The Union Ministry of Human Resources Development (MHRD) issued a circular, instructing schools to undertake “additional activities” during Independence Day celebrations in October. However, the state government issued a directive asking schools not to follow the MHRD format. Similarly, for Teachers’ Day in September, the MHRD sent a circular to all states recommending a structured format promoting its “Swachh Bharat Mission” during celebrations in schools. The Mamata government, however, issued a counter-circular to schools, snubbing the Centre’s orders. State Education Minister Partha Chatterjee had told reporters, “The circular is ridiculous. The state government knows how to celebrate Teachers’ Day in schools…Our schools have been observing the day all these years and they know how to do it the right way.”
One of the biggest challenges that the Mamata administration faced in 2017 was the 104-day shutdown (June to September) of the Darjeeling hills during the agitation for a separate statehood of Gorkhaland, helmed by the Bimal Gurung-led Gorkha Janmukti Morcha (GJM). There was widespread violence including riots and arson. Mass rallies were taken out, vehicles and government properties — including the Darjeeling Himalayan Railway, a UNESCO World heritage site — were torched. At least 11 people died during the agitation, shops were shut down and the tea and tourism industries were paralysed. However, the chief minister succeeded in putting an end to the movement. A rift was soon seen in the GJM leadership, and the party’s second-in-command, Binay Tamang, soon announced the end of the strike. He was later made chairman of the Board of Administrators for the Darjeeling hills.
Another major event that the state government struggled to cope with was the communal violence in Basirhat sub-division of North 24 Parganas district in July. Violent clashes erupted in Basirhat when a Class XI student in neighbouring Baduria posted an “objectionable image’’ linked to the Prophet and Kaaba Sharif in Mecca on Facebook. The tension claimed the life of a 65-year-old man, leading to a serious law and order situation. Mamata and Governor Keshari Nath Tripathi got into a war of words over the violence.
While the CM alleged that the communal violence was orchestrated by BJP and RSS combine, and accused Tripathi of talking a like a “BJP block leader”, the governor slammed the state government for not taking adequate measures to control the situation. In another incident in December, Mohammad Afrazul, a labourer from Malda, was hacked and burnt to death in Rajsamand district of Rajasthan. BJP chief Dilip Ghosh had said that people of West Bengal were going to other states as the TMC government had failed to create jobs. Mamata then slammed the BJP for resorting to a “false propaganda” to malign her party. “One person from our state was burnt alive in Rajasthan. How long will this keep happening? I do not want to know whether he was Muslim or Hindu. In West Bengal, we do not create differences between Hindus and Muslims, between Sikhs and Christians. We consider everybody as our family members,” she had said at a public meeting.
The year 2017 saw the BJP and other Sangh Parivar outfits gain more prominence in West Bengal. The Vishva Hindu Parishad (VHP) and RSS took out armed processions during Ram Navami and Hanuman Jayanti celebrations across the state, which also resulted in clashes between their workers and the police. The TMC fought bitterly with the BJP over its “Hindutva politics”, and slammed the saffron brigade for creating a divide among people of the state.
Investigations into the Rose Valley and Narada scams created a significant dent in the TMC’s armour. TMC MPs Sudip Bandyopadhyay and Tapas Paul were arrested by the CBI early in the year in connection with the multi-crore Rose Valley scam. Meanwhile, a number of TMC leaders were interrogated by the CBI and ED in connection with the Narada scam, prompting Mamata to renew her tirade against the Centre. She had described the arrests as “vendetta politics” pursued by the central government to silence the Opposition’s voice in and outside the Parliament. However, Sudip was later granted bail.
Former TMC second-in-command Mukul Roy joining the BJP was a watershed moment in Bengal politics. After months of speculation, Roy quit TMC and targeted TMC MP and Mamata Banerjee’s nephew Abhishek over the Biswa Bangla logo controversy. Roy had alleged that Abhishek had applied for ownership of Biswa Bangla logo, which was officially owned by the state government. Abhishek later slapped a defamation case on Roy and denied the allegations. Meanwhile, several Congress MLAs such as Manas Bhunia, Shankar Singh and others defected to Trinamool. This was a shot in the arm for the party, which successfully wrested the Sabang Assembly seat from Congress after fielding Bhunia’s wife Gita Rani Bhunia as its candidate in last week’s bypoll.
In bypolls and municipal elections, TMC continued its winning streak from the 2016 Assembly polls and emerged victorious. However, the BJP emerged as the main challenger to the TMC and increased its vote share in every election. It also pushed the CPM and Congress to the third and fourth positions. The panchayat polls, slated to be held in April-May, is expected to be a strong contest between TMC and BJP. Next year’s rural polls will be crucial before the 2019 Lok Sabha elections, as the TMC has vowed to dethrone the BJP-led NDA government at the Centre.