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Political Brinkmanship in India’s West Bengal

In order to improve West Bengal, Banerjee must work out her issues with Narendra Modi and the Indian central government.

Mamata Banerjee, the chief minister of the Indian state of West Bengal, has been highly authoritative since she entered office. However, in the aftermath of Narendra Modi’s surging victory in the general elections in May, Banerjee will have to rethink her strategies on water sharing in the Teesta River and border disputes with Bangladesh. Her hard-line stance toward the Indian central government also affects West Bengal’s interests.

In West Bengal, Banerjee’s attitude toward policy formation is questionable, considering the decisions she has made so far. For instance, the Kolkata Municipal Corporation, which is under Banerjee’s Trinamool Congress (TMC) party, recently vouched for a tax waiver for those who paint their buildings white and blue, her favorite colors.

The Banerjee-Modi Rivalry

Banerjee has expressed her disapproval of Modi ever since he began campaigning for the elections. In fact, she called him a “gadha” (donkey) in response to statements about “illegal infiltrators” from Bangladesh. Banerjee had the option to attend Modi’s inauguration on May 26, a chance for her to improve ties with the new prime minister, but she skipped the ceremony and even banned other TMC members. This proves how rigid and authoritative she is with respect to her own party. Taking a hard-line approach could prove detrimental to her and the TMC.

She has often engaged in political brinkmanship to achieve her goals. For example, in September 2011, then-Prime Minister Manmohan Singh visited Bangladesh for strategic talks and to rejuvenate bilateral ties. Singh wanted Banerjee to accompany him but she declined. She opposed the move to share the Teesta River with Bangladesh, as it would have hurt the interests of West Bengal and the TMC. In addition, Singh did not discuss the issue with Bangladeshi Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina because the TMC threatened to pull out of the United Progressive Alliance (UPA).

Following this year’s elections, the TMC has 34 out of 42 seats in West Bengal, but Banerjee’s capacity to influence the central government’s policies will be her litmus test. She will not be able to engage in brinkmanship as she did with the UPA, because the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), led by Modi, achieved an  absolute majority at the polls. The Indian prime minister and his government do not have to depend on the TMC to introduce and pass policies in the Lok Sabha, India’s lower house of parliament. The BJP, however, is a minority in the Rajya Sabha, the upper house of parliament. The party may turn to Tamil Nadu’s All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK), led by Jayalalitha, to pass legislations in the upper house, but it is unlikely that Modi will turn to the TMC due to Banerjee.

Banerjee has expressed her disapproval of Modi ever since he began campaigning for the elections. In fact, she called him a “gadha” (donkey) in response to statements about “illegal infiltrators” from Bangladesh. 

Modi signaled his intent on the international scene by inviting member states of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) to his inauguration. He wants to improve relations with India’s neighbors. A case in point is Bangladesh. Hasina’s Awami League was reelected in January. As international observers such as Ali Riaz, a professor at Illinois State University, predicted, the Bangladeshi government might engage in talks with the BJP. It is widely believed the Awami League is pro-Delhi, as India liberated Bangladesh from Pakistan in 1971.

Sushma Swaraj, the Indian external affairs minister, visited Dhaka for her first foreign visit and held talks on water sharing and multiple-entry visas for Bangladeshi citizens under 13 years old and over 65. Modi also invited his counterpart in Dhaka to visit India. In this instance, Modi extended an invitation to Banerjee before Swaraj’s trip to Dhaka as a gesture of goodwill to the TMC. Despite Banerjee’s reluctance to hold talks with Bangladesh on the Teesta River and the Land Boundary Agreement (LBA), she will be unable to influence policies of the Indian central government. The Indian government is also likely to hamper Banerjee’s “vote bank” politics over “infiltrators” from Bangladesh.

Problems Within West Bengal

Banerjee and the TMC came into power in West Bengal after ending more than three decades of rule by Communist Party of India (Marxist ). She promised to restore the prestige of the state with education reforms, by increasing investment at the Presidency University. Banerjee also promised employment for the youth. According to an official statement, the government of West Bengal created over 200,000 jobs for the youth since it assumed power. However, staff at the Presidency University are leaving the institution due to low pay, poor infrastructure and cases of corruption. Similarly, the recruitment process has been obstructed for dubious reasons. On average, teaching is the preferred profession for youth in West Bengal, but their wait to get jobs becomes indefinite.

Administratively, West Bengal is divided into three parts: Bardhaman, Presidency and Jalpaiguri. The first two divisions represent South Bengal, which is a developed area. The Jalpaiguri division is in North Bengal, which has remained largely underdeveloped since the Linguistic Reorganization of Indian States in 1956. In response to the forceful land acquisition and underdevelopment, the Naxalite movement began in 1967 in Naxalbari, a village in the Darjeeling district. Even the region comprising northern Malda, bordering areas of North Dinajpur and some parts of South Dinajpur have endlessly faced a crisis of identity. The people of this region want their unique culture that is intermingled with the surrounding areas to be recognized. The previous central government and the TMC have never attempted to integrate the region.

The Demand for Gorkhaland

The Darjeeling Hills pose serious challenges to the TMC government. There is a strong demand for a separate state of Gorkhaland. Banerjee formed the autonomous Gorkha Territorial Administration (GTA), so residents could manage their own affairs. However, the demand for Gorkhaland has gained impetus after the creation of Telanagna from the south Indian state of Andhra Pradesh.

The BJP secured its victory from Darjeeling in the general elections. Pro-Gorkhaland leaders such as Bimal Gurung, the president of the Gorkha Janamukti Morcha (GJM), see an opportunity to persuade Modi to form Gorkhaland. The BJP promised to consider the issue during the prime minister’s election campaign. The UPA, despite internal opposition, created Telangana and Seemandhra. The Modi government, having secured an absolute majority, will not need the TMC’s support to form Gorkhaland. Therefore, the possibility of Darjeeling being taken away from West Bengal is high — Banerjee’s opposition notwithstanding. She cannot afford to lose Darjeeling for economic reasons. Banerjee and the TMC’s image will take a beating if Darjeeling is split from West Bengal. The Indian public might blame Banerjee and her stance toward Modi. If she tries to ease tensions, the creation of Gorkhaland might be put on the backburner for the time being.

Although the prime minister praised Banerjee for her achievement in developing West Bengal, her continued anti-Modi approach will create more difficulties for her and the state. The previous government left office with a huge debt of over $330 million. Banerjee must address the debt repayment problem, but she is distancing herself from the central government. She has little choice but to work out her issues with New Delhi in order to improve West Bengal.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.

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