Battle for Bengal

At stake is not only the Bengal assembly but rather a fiercely fought battle with the 2024 general elections firmly in sight

By Jan Arden

This could be the title of a swashbuckling British colonial-era movie with tigers, elephants and “natives” thrown in for good exotic measure. In today’s tetchy geopolitics, it could even be the unwanted fictional title for a naval confrontation between the Indian navy and Air Force against an attempted blockade by a foreign fleet of submarines and aircraft carriers!

Mamata Banerjee. Photo Indian Express

The Bay is admittedly somewhat removed from our shores yet the political battle for Bengal under way in eight stages, should be an interesting one for India’s political direction, if only because the BJP juggernaut is striving hard to drive East and South for an undisputed pan-India presence. In the vast South, with strong regional culture, traditions and political lore, this battle is being waged through proxies or allies.

West Bengal, with its 90+ million inhabitants, is equally drenched in its own culture of “exceptionalism”, perhaps fully deserved as a former colonial capital with a remarkable tapestry of language, traditions, culture, freedom fighters, intellectual life, literature icons and spiritual masters. It had a prolonged 34-year uninterrupted left-front reign, which only fell apart when astute and charismatic Mamata Banerjee, splintering from the Indian Congress in 1998 to form the TMC, riding the waves of discontent and disaffection, stormed the impregnable red citadel.


“A redoubtable street-fighter, a charismatic Bengali, a self-professed “daughter of the soil”, an adulated leader (nicknamed Didi) with a simple lifestyle and promising welfare schemes, jobs and development, Mamata Banerjee has consistently brushed the leftists and all flavours of crypro-communists to the sidelines over her own 23-year rule. An undoubted political mind with firebrand oratory, she had coined the catchy slogan “Ma, Mati o Manush” (Mother, Land and People) in those intense days…”

A redoubtable street-fighter, a charismatic Bengali, a self-professed “daughter of the soil”, an adulated leader (nicknamed Didi) with a simple lifestyle and promising welfare schemes, jobs and development, she has consistently brushed the leftists and all flavours of crypro-communists to the sidelines over her own 23-year rule. An undoubted political mind with firebrand oratory, she had coined the catchy slogan “Ma, Mati o Manush” (Mother, Land and People) in those intense days. But we may as well remember that as a high-profile theatrical “survivalist” in India’s complex and dynamic political scene, she had been Union Minister both under the 1991 Congress cabinet of PM Narasimha Rao and later, that of BJP Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee for a few years.

Since 2014, CM Banerjee has provided strong regional opposition to the Centre, making vociferous critiques of some of the most crucial policies of the BJP-led Union government. From anti-CAA rhetoric, through a National Register for Citizens, to more recent anti-farm reform laws, her regional government has been a consistent thorn in Central government policies and their local administration. But anti-incumbency, allegations of mismanagement, mis-governance and corruption, defection of key former TMC figures to BJP, accusations of “appeasement” politics and a permeable frontier, have wounded the tiger.

Her own brand of grassroots populism is intriguingly being taken head-on by the BJP clarion motto “Sabka Saath, Sabka Vikas, Sabka Vishwas” (‘Together, for everyone’s growth, with everyone’s trust’). The Bengal election exit poll averages as reportedly estimated by Mamata Banerjee’s own election strategist, Prashant Kishore, signals the shift (below) that may translate in State Assembly seats.

BJP:                           40%
Left-INC:                   10-15%
Others:                      12%
Therefore, TMC:     33% to 38%

In a prolonged electoral process spread over 8 stages, neither Bengalis, nor Indians generally, will know the seat outcome and State governance until beginning of May. With a vacillating and somewhat leaderless Congress, a win for Mamata would give her undoubted figurehead credentials to lead the national Opposition to the BJP. No doubt why Congress and its strange concoction of allies did not give her more leeway by abstaining from the trench fights. Even a hung state parliament, through the annoying bite of lefties, Congress and others, would still leave the TMC with a taste of failure.

For the BJP, an Assembly win would be a huge success and provide a formidable plank for the future in a state where it has been to-date a political and cultural outsider with little organizational presence. As for Home Minister Amit Shah, it would vindicate the ‘Look East and South’ strategic gamble and beef up his predictable claim to the immense Modi mantle as the latter plans to end his second and final term in 2024.

At stake therefore is not only the Bengal assembly but rather a fiercely fought battle with the 2024 general elections firmly in sight.

* * *

Open Learning initiatives & COL

Over the recent past there have been several Distance and Open learning initiatives across the world to help, in particular, developing countries in large parts of Africa, Latin America and Asia to upgrade the skills and employability of both their youngsters and adults. The Canada based Commonwealth of Learning (COL) is one such multi-country initiative, a laudable one which has garnered support from Google and a couple of private course providers. As with most distance and e-learning skill upgrade platforms and initiatives, it is relatively easy to reach a broad range of interested parties across the globe and even attract some of them by offering a waiver of course fees over a certain time period.

However, the distance learning mode without tutor support and practical hands-on supervised work does tend to limit the scope, variety and depth of subject matter of courses on offer, these being often general in nature or mostly IT-specific skill development courses. Nevertheless, with the advent of the pandemic and lockdowns or stay at home policies across the planet, these opportunities for distance-education towards technical skill upgrades got a boost and the Commonwealth of Learning provides a platform where many youngsters and adults can register for such skill-oriented self-learning and self-paced development courses. The whole registration process, the courses and certificates are free and applications can be done online in two batches, the next to start on 15 September 2021.

It is certainly a very worthwhile adjunct to the broad palette of technical and trade or IT-related courses being already offered by several of our private and public vocational and training institutions to varied levels from certificate to tertiary (MITD, Ecole Hoteliere SGD, Fashion and Design Institute, Polytechnics, among others) in the traditional class or tutored mode that is reckoned to generally provide better student guidance, learning, supervision and support.

The COL question cropped up through the Cabinet Decisions communiqué of 9th April, where it was duly recorded that the Higher Education Commission (HEC) jointly with the Ministry of Education would “implement the COL initiative” and its already in place system of waivers for fees. It is certainly most welcome if these two institutions were to promote those self-paced free technical technical courses as useful opportunities for youngsters and adults.

But what is exactly the “implementation” to be carried out is somewhat unclear and neither the role of the rather more august Higher Education Commission in matters that could have been more appropriately and effectively handled by either the MITD, the Mauritius Qualifications Authority or even the freshly minted Skills Development Authority, which, we gather, has yet to start operations.

If we consider that the Ministry is in the legislative process of setting up yet another Agency in the technical and vocational field, the case might be made that there is a definite air of administrative clutter and overlap of institutions, personnel and resources. As for the HEC, one would be sorely tempted to think that its considerable resources and authority could be put to better use.

* * *

A question of spin

Early in October 2020, Donald Trump caught the coronavirus and an opinion piece in the ‘Washington Post’ was titled: “Trump thought he could beat the virus with spin”. We might have thought Trump’s spin-based handling of the pandemic in the USA was the worst example of spin over science, leading to a catastrophic level of deaths and infections that the incoming Biden administration has an uphill battle to contain.

By December 2020, we had been exposed to a prolonged narrative Mauritius as a Covid-safe destination, collectively relieved or rejoicing at the prospect of slow but necessary economic reopening without endangering public health. Events that have unfolded since have considerably delayed that horizon. That is not in any way to diminish the diligence of the obviously harried Minister or the selfless dedication of overstretched medical and para-medical staff but it has become more than apparent that we have been playing catch-up in a deadly game to the point where we have even run out of vaccines when barely 16% of the population has received a first dose.

Later analysis might weigh whether politically-correct spin might have seriously limited our state of sanitary preparedness for a second wave that was taking place or threatened around the globe.


* Published in print edition on 13 April 2021

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