Nervous TMC turns to freebie politics in Bengal

Amitabh Tiwari
·Columnist
·4 min read

The Trinamool Congress has unveiled the party manifesto for Bengal elections. Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee released the document at her residence sitting in a wheelchair.

“This is not a political manifesto. This is a developmental manifesto. This is a manifesto of the people, by the people, and for the people,” Banerjee said.

In a marked departure from the 2016 manifesto, which focussed mainly on achievements of the first tenure, the TMC has announced cash doles for various sections of the society, amidst a serious threat by the Bharatiya Janata Party.

Bengal will become the first state to adopt a Universal Basic Income scheme for all economically disadvantaged families of the state if TMC comes to power. The party has promised Rs 500 per month for general category family and Rs 1,000 per month for SC/ST category family.

Almost 1.6 crore families will benefit from the scheme and the amount will be credited to the woman head of the family. Women account for 49% of the voting population of the state.

This is likely to cost the government around Rs 13,000 crore annually and cover 80% of the population of the state.

Mamata has also promised to increase the support to small and marginal farmers from Rs 6,000 per acre per annum to Rs 10,000 per acre per annum. This has also been done to deflect criticism from the BJP and other quarters for the TMC’s failure to implement the PM Kisan Nidhi scheme in the state.

The manifesto has also promised that a student credit card — with a limit of Rs 10 lakh with a 4% rate of interest backed by the guarantee of the state — will be provided to youngsters pursuing higher studies.

This will provide money to students on demand at their convenience and benefit 30 lakh students annually over the next five years.

This sort of ‘freebie politics’ has not been witnessed in the state in the past and highlights the TMC’s nervousness with the BJP breathing down its neck.

The manifesto promises OBC status to four castes — Mahishya, Tili, Tamul and Sahas — and ST status to Mahatos. The TMC government will appoint a Special Task Force to examine and propose OBC status to all the communities which are not recognised as OBCs.

With this announcement, TMC has signalled the arrival of caste politics in the state. Bengal is known for class-based politics with the caste factor not playing a major role in elections in the state.

Former West Bengal chief minister Jyoti Basu had once said, in response to the Mandal Commission, that Bengal had just two castes: the rich and the poor.

OBC politics is very much prevalent in the cowbelt/Hindi belt of Bihar, Uttar Pradesh, Jharkhand, Uttarakhand, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh. The BJP has championed the cause of the OBCs across these states and created a formidable vote bank.

The fact that Prime Minister Narendra Modi belongs to the OBC community has helped BJP’s efforts to make inroads.

The BJP attempted a Hindu awakening in the state in the 2019 general elections securing 40% vote share and winning 18 out of 42 seats. The TMC still received 30%-35% of the Hindu votes in the Lok Sabha polls.

The saffron party then devised a strategy to wean away a section of these politically crucial Hindu backward community voters and has been working on them, promising them inclusion in OBC/ST category and reservations in jobs.

Accusing Mamata of indulging in appeasement politics, the BJP has charged that people of Hindu castes like ‘Mahisya’ and ‘Teli’ have been deprived of OBC status in Bengal. The ‘Telis’ and the ‘Mahisyas’ have a strong presence in the state’s Bankura and Purulia districts.

JP Nadda, the BJP president, in many rallies has promised setting up of a committee and taking steps for their inclusion and bringing them to the mainstream as per recommendations of the Mandal Commission.

The BJP has repeatedly charged that 99% of the Muslim population have benefited from OBC reservation in the state during the TMC regime, depriving several backward Hindu castes of the benefits of OBC reservation.

Mamata has attempted to steal the BJP’s thunder on this point by this announcement in the TMC manifesto. She said during the release of the manifesto that she thinks the BJP has copied the ‘reservation for backward Hindu castes’ point from the TMC document.

However, with the promise related to OBCs, Mamata has indirectly helped the BJP to succeed in challenging and disrupting the notion that Bengal is different and culturally coherent.

This will help the BJP counter the TMC’s insider versus outsider campaign.

Moreover, it signals the onset of cowbelt politics in the state. A template has been drawn which BJP could copy in other eastern and southern states to gain entry.

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