Water and Fire

Mamata Banerjee’s simmering confrontation with the BJP

Mamata Banerjee’s TMC was once an ally of the BJP, but her present relationship with the party, and with the central government under Narendra Modi, is anything but friendly. SUBHENDU GHOSH / HINDUSTAN TIMES / GETTY IMAGES
01 April, 2017

In the latter half of 2011, the Indian government was on the verge of finalising an important water-sharing agreement with Bangladesh over the Teesta, a 414-kilometre-long river that orginates in Sikkim and swirls through the north of West Bengal before crossing the two countries’ border and merging with the Brahmaputra. After decades of delay, Delhi and Dhaka reached an agreement that, for 15 years, their respective sides would use 42.5 percent and 37.5 percent of the river’s waters during the dry season, with the remainder left unallocated until a later decision. The agreement was to be signed on a visit to Dhaka by the then Indian prime minister Manmohan Singh, who was to be accompanied by the chief minister of West Bengal, Mamata Banerjee. Water is a state subject in India, so finalising the deal, and implementing it, would require the cooperation of West Bengal. But Banerjee, whose Trinamool Congress, or TMC, was part of Singh’s ruling coalition, protested the agreement and refused to go. The Teesta helps irrigate nearly 120,000 hectares of farmland in West Bengal, and Banerjee declared that the proposed deal was against the interests of her state. The agreement was shelved.

Since then, the Teesta has remained a sticking point in the India-Bangladesh relationship. Sheikh Hasina, the Bangladeshi prime minister, is scheduled to visit India in early April. Delhi is eager to use the occasion to finalise an agreement on India’s use of two ports in Bangladesh. But a Bangladeshi diplomat in Delhi told me that Dhaka is keen to resolve the Teesta issue before any agreement on the ports. According to the diplomat, Bangladesh wants 51 percent of the river’s water, with India being apportioned the remaining 49 percent. The TMC member of parliament Sugata Bose told the Economic Times in 2015 that Banerjee could agree to a 60:40 ratio, with the larger share going to India, “if interests of Bengal are protected.” A TMC leader told me last year that the central government would have to compensate West Bengal “adequately” in the event of any agreement, much in the way it was paid Rs 3,000 crore as part of the 2015 agreement between India and Bangladesh to exchange their enclaves on either side of the border.

How Banerjee positions herself now will be key in whether the two countries’ negotiations are successful. The TMC has, in the past, been a BJP ally, and Banerjee served as the railways minister in a government under Atal Bihari Vajpayee. But her present equation with the BJP, and with the central government under Narendra Modi, is starkly different. Although Banerjee was in Dhaka for Modi’s visit to the Bangladeshi capital in June 2015, after being assured that the Teesta deal was not on the agenda, she has since adopted a strikingly combative stance. After Modi’s demonetisation move in November, she took to the streets in Kolkata, Delhi, and elsewhere, slamming the prime minister for “working against the people, from the poor to the middle class.” She has somewhat softened her tone following the BJP’s landslide victory in the Uttar Pradesh assembly election, but the battle between the TMC and the BJP continues on multiple fronts, of which the Teesta dispute is just one. Among the things at stake are Banerjee’s national aspirations, and the BJP’s desire to win power in West Bengal, where it has gained significant ground in the past decade.

When she was sworn in for her second term as chief minister, in May 2016, Banerjee invited to the ceremony a host of non-BJP and non-Congress leaders, including the Bihar chief minister Nitish Kumar, the then Uttar Pradesh chief minister Akhilesh Yadav, the Rashtriya Janata Dal boss Lalu Prasad and the Delhi chief minister Arvind Kejriwal. This was widely read as an overture to these leaders with an eye to creating an alliance to challenge the BJP nationally. “We have to spread the roots of Trinamool Congress to Delhi,” she told TMC workers in Kolkata after she won her second term. “You have to take us to a position where we can serve the people from Delhi.”

Banerjee’s combativeness is understandable given the BJP’s steady rise in her home state. The party won 17 percent of the vote in West Bengal in the 2014 general election—its highest ever share there. In the 2016 assembly election, it won just over 10 percent of the vote—a considerable improvement from the preceding assembly vote, in 2011, when it polled just 4 percent. A 2014 by-election delivered the party its first ever assembly seat in West Bengal, and in the 2016 election, held at the start of the summer, it managed to win three seats. Late last year, the BJP presented another shock to the TMC by polling 28.5 percent and 15.25 percent of votes respectively in Lok Sabha by-elections in the constituencies of Cooch Behar and Tamluk.

The Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, the BJP’s parent organisation, is also fast spreading its influence across the state. According to Jishnu Basu, a senior RSS functionary, the number of RSS shakhas in West Bengal has increased from less than 800 in 2013 to over 1,500 at present. In Kolkata alone, Basu told me, some 250 shakhas operate either daily or weekly. A few fringe groups such as the Hindu Samhati have also become increasingly active. These champion the “Hindu cause” especially in the districts of Murshidabad, Malda, and North and South 24 Parganas, which lie along the India-Bangladesh border.

Banerjee has repeatedly accused the BJP of fomenting religious polarisation for electoral gain. In the last two years or so, there have been sectarian disturbances in several parts of the state—including large-scale violence in Malda district in January last year, and in Howrah district in December. In both these instances, the state administration firmly kept BJP leaders away from disturbed areas.

Even as Hindutva outfits have gained ground, Banerjee, since she came to power in 2011, has made overtures to the Muslim community to try and bolster her electoral base—prompting accusations by the BJP that she is playing appeasement politics. Muslims make up a little over 27 percent of West Bengal’s population, and play a vital role in the state’s politics. Banerjee’s government has sanctioned higher-education scholarships worth nearly Rs 1,456 crore for over eight million Muslim students, and issued loans worth hundreds of crores to nearly 350,000 Muslims. Banerjee also claims to have brought 94.5 percent of the state’s Muslims under the Other Backward Class category, making them eligible for reservations in jobs and higher education. Meanwhile, the state budget for the minorities and madrasa education department has been raised manyfold since 2011, and the government has been paying thousands of imams a monthly stipend. The TMC has fielded large numbers of Muslim candidates in panchayat, municipal and assembly elections, and brought prominent Muslim figures into its leadership. Such efforts contributed to the TMC increasing its seat tally from 184 in the 2011 election to 211 in 2016.

In recent months, several high-profile arrests and investigations have intensified the feud between the BJP and the TMC. In January, the TMC member of parliament Sudip Bandyopadhyay was arrested by the Central Bureau of Investigation in connection with a chit-fund scheme. Banerjee slammed the arrest, describing it as an act of political vengeance. Meanwhile, three serving or former BJP leaders in West Bengal were arrested on criminal charges. Manish Sharma, a candidate in the 2016 election, who was later expelled from the party, was arrested in December on charges of money laundering; the BJP’s state vice-president, Jay Prakash Majumder, was arrested in January on charges of cheating job-seekers; and Juhi Chowdhury, the secretary of the BJP’s women’s wing in West Bengal, was arrested in March in a child-trafficking case that shocked the state. The BJP removed Chowdhury from her post, but has alleged that the other arrests are politically motivated.

In mid February, the party received a shot in the arm after the Calcutta High Court ordered that the investigation into the Narada sting videos be handed over to the CBI, taking it out of the hands of the state administration. The videos were shot in the run-up to the 2016 election, and showed 11 TMC leaders—including four ministers in Banerjee’s cabinet and three members of parliament—and a senior police officer thought to be close to the party, allegedly taking cash from a man posing as the representative of a company looking to do business in West Bengal. Last month, the Supreme Court rejected an appeal against the high-court decision, and asked the CBI to complete a preliminary investigation in a month. Although the investigation report is to be submitted only to the Calcutta High Court, Banerjee now fears that the Modi administration will use the case to settle scores.

As this fight plays out, Banerjee has just recently opened a new front of political action. Seemingly anticipating that the BJP could appeal to middle-class voters, she has begun to woo them by taking on an issue that has long been a sore point with this constituency: the price and quality of private healthcare. After summoning bosses of private hospitals to an “urgent” meeting in Kolkata on 22 February, Banerjee, surrounded by top bureaucrats and police officials, lashed out at them in front of television cameras for “overcharging the patients in an unscrupulous manner.” In early March, she enacted stringent legislation against negligence or deficiencies in care at private hospitals, which allows doctors to be fined and jailed, threatens hospitals with cancellation of their licences, and promises compensation to victims in such cases. A quasi-judicial regulatory commission has been set up to probe charges of malpractice. The legislation has drawn criticism from the Indian Medical Association, largely for leaving government hospitals and their doctors beyond its ambit, but that has not stopped Banerjee’s administration from launching a full-blown criminal investigation into the death of a young man and allegations of overcharging at a major private hospital in Kolkata. Banerjee is also taking aim at private educational institutions—which also deeply affect the middle class. Last month, Banerjee told the state assembly that though West Bengal has “very good private schools, colleges and universities,” some of them “are charging so much and demand so much. I think there must be control at some point.”

How the BJP responds to these tactics remains to be seen, but the confrontation between it and the TMC shows all indications of carrying on for the foreseeable future. Whatever happens on the Teesta issue during Sheikh Hasina’s visit will offer an indication of the current temperature of the two parties’ relationship.