Why growing discontent among youth will be the biggest electoral challenge for Mamata Banerjee in Bengal

The Trinamool Congress and Mamata Banerjee, the chief minister of Bengal, have now chosen to use the police to put an end to the gathering protests against various teacher recruitment scams. Along with taking harsh measures against the protesters, the government also keeps up its shameful political attacks on the opposition factions that are attempting to support the demonstrators. The protesters’ futures and their employment status are still up in the air. But due to betrayal, Mamata Banerjee, who once had a lot of support from Bengal’s youth, is beginning to lose favour with them.

Remarkably, Banerjee has not offered any political or policy solutions to address the youth’s sense of betrayal caused by the widespread corruption for which they were unable to obtain jobs despite having the necessary qualifications.

Police launched a massive crackdown against the demonstrating youth who had passed the Teacher Recruitment Test (TET) on Thursday at midnight. At Karunamoyi in Kolkata, they were on an ongoing hunger strike. According to the police, there are 144 people in the area, so they had to take action.

Faulty subsidy model

West Bengal underwent severe economic decline and high unemployment during the Left’s rule. Amit Mitra, an economist who later served as the state’s finance minister, provided Mamata Banerjee with advice when she took office in 2011. While Mamata Banerjee insisted that the party had brought numerous industries and produced a large number of jobs in the state, the government actually introduced a new subsidy model of governance. The Bengal government launched several subsidy programmes for women and young people. For example, consider the Kanyashree, Roopasree, Lakshmi Bhandar, student credit card, and many others. All of these programmes were not introduced at once; instead, Banerjee frequently unveiled new subsidy programmes prior to the assembly elections.

A senior TMC leader who did not want to be named said, “These subsidy schemes helped many people to survive. But yes the state is under an economic crisis. The Center is not helping us we have limited resources.”

While this subsidy model wreaked havoc on West Bengal’s economy, Mamata Banerjee was able to politically manage youth discontent. Youth support for Mamata Banerjee was overwhelmingly positive from 2011 to 2021. But the subsidy model of governance also has a number of drawbacks, just like free gifts. The TMC leadership believed that people would be easily diverted and content with the subsidies, but in actuality, people were searching for jobs that were not available.

The Reserve Bank of India had recently put out the massive debt burden of West Bengal. According to a report published by Outlook, “Based on the debt-GSDP ratio in 2020-21, Punjab, Rajasthan, Kerala, West Bengal, Bihar, Andhra Pradesh, Jharkhand, Madhya Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh and Haryana have turned out to be the states with the highest debt burden, accounting for around half of the total expenditure by all state governments in India.”

Ignoring warning bells

Today the Bengal government under Mamata Banerjee is under massive pressure from the judiciary and the central investigating agencies like the Enforcement Directorate and the Central Bureau of Investigation because of several alleged scams under this regime. However, this did not happen in one day. For example, let’s take the example of the school service commission recruitment scam. The protest against the alleged irregularities in the recruitment of the school service commission in Bengal started around 2019. This was the year when there were no assembly elections and the polls were scheduled to take place after two years. Hundreds of students took to the streets of Kolkata in protest of the irregularities. Trinamool Congress completely ignored these protests and rubbished their demands with fake assurances from every level.

A senior TMC leader on the condition of anonymity said, “There is no doubt that we failed to read the early warnings. As a government, we are doing our best before the election season there were several projects which were required to be finished and that is why maybe the government ignored some warnings. But we should have worked differently accepting those allegations.”

Multilayered corruption

According to the political observers of Bengal, the key issue with the teacher recruitment scam and the alleged regularities in the education system under Mamata Banerjee is the involvement of corruption at every level. The Trinamool Congress and Mamata Banerjee have maintained that there is no involvement of the party in this scam. However, the grassroots TMC leaders are now getting disenchanted with the current situation. This is because they are failing to address the anger within the youth.

A TMC district-level leader from North Bengal, “Mamata Banerjee is still very popular among the youth of Bengal. One thing which we all need to understand is that the aspirants of the SSC or TET come from families of lower economic backgrounds. Majority of these aspirants or from the towns, rural and semi-urban areas of Bengal. Here the situation is that on one side these families are the detailed beneficiaries of several subsidy schemes of Mamata Banerjee but on the other hand due to these irregularities the youth of the same families are angry as they did not get a job.”

Sense Of betrayal

The TMC government is perceived as having betrayed the youth throughout the state. The corruption problem is continually brought up by opposition political parties like the Congress, the Communist Party of India, and the Bharatiya Janata Party. The arrests of senior TMC officials, allegations of involvement by government officials, and other issues surrounding this entire protest episode, however, have shaken the youth of Bengal.

A TET protester said, “ We know that the opposition cannot solve this issue. We also understand that our demand can only be legitimated by the government. We had high hopes for chief minister Mamata Banerjee because she has repeatedly assured us that she will not betray eligible students. But now that the TET protesters have been violently suppressed, we no longer have any faith in her. The TMC government is mistaken if they believe they can bulldoze our protest.”

Strategical void

Every political establishment and government will experience setbacks. Several opposition parties have alleged that the central government is exerting pressure on several state governments that are not with the BJP. For instance, the RJD in Bihar, the Delhi government led by the Aam Aadmi Party, and even the Congress party. However, at the end of the day, each political party should have a plan that the people of Bengal cannot see.

Mamata Banerjee has consistently denied all claims of corruption made against her and her close lieutenants since the very beginning. A few months back the Enforcement Directorate recovered over 50 crores from the house of Arpita Mukherjee. She was a close associate of Partha Chatterjee, a suspended cabinet minister and the TMC’s secretary general. Both of them are now in jail. The people of Bengal now believe that this money has a direct connection with the recruitment scam and the investigative agencies have also claimed the same in court.

The party distanced itself from Chatterjee and the scam. Anubrata Mondal, the TMC’s strongman and district president of Birbhum, was arrested by the CBI for allegedly trafficking cattle, but Mamata Banerjee gave him her full support. In private conversations, several TMC leaders expressed their opinion that the party’s contradictory stance is damaging its reputation and, more importantly, sending the wrong message to the youth.

A TMC leader who did not want to be named said, “As MLAs, organisational leaders and other grassroots workers we need to interact with the people every day. What should we answer if they tell us that they are suspicious of us? We need to take a single stand on these issues.”

Future troubles

The TMC will continue to face pressure from the opposition, these accusations, and anti-incumbency sentiment. The party will require a solid strategy in this circumstance to deal with these challenges. Mamata Banerjee’s image won’t improve in the slightest if she only plays defence and ignores the facts. Everyone is aware of Banerjee’s popularity as the TMC’s largest and sole political capital in Bengali politics and TMC politics.

In addition to being significant voters, Bengal’s youth also represents the state’s future. In a state with higher unemployment and an unstable economy, this is also the most vulnerable population. In this case, Mamata Banerjee’s chances of winning future elections in Bengal will undoubtedly suffer if the youth’s resentment grows and the TMC fails to exert control over the situation. For instance, the youth and every candidate who is protesting the government, not just one person.

The entire family suffers when an aspirant feels betrayed. Due to this, the TMC’s problems are very ingrained, and Mamata Banerjee needs to wake up to what a huge mess her party is in. This situation will require accountability from the TMC and Mamata Banerjee, who will also be required to change the course of action.

The author is a columnist and pursuing a PhD In Media & Politics. He tweets @sayantan_gh. The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not represent the stand of this publication.

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