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How Cyclone Amphan adds a new twist to the West Bengal elections

Pratim Ranjan Bose Kolkata | Updated on May 23, 2020 Published on May 23, 2020

West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee   -  PTI

Cyclone Amphan has added a new challenge for Mamata Banerjee’s quest to return to power in 2021

In 2009, a year after Tata Motors left Singur, super cyclone ‘Aila’ destroyed vast areas of South and North 24-Parganas, East Midnapore and Howrah districts in West Bengal.

After the disaster, anti-Left sentiment peaked in these districts over the alleged mismanagement in rehabilitation and reconstruction. In 2011, the Left was wiped out in these districts.

Even before Cyclone Amphan hit West Bengal, the State government was tackling allegations of mismanagement of Covid crisis. The cyclone has destroyed the same districts as Aila. Kolkata, which has already reported two-third of coronavirus deaths in the State, has suffered a major blow. The city has never seen such destruction in recent memory, not even in 2009.

 

What will happen next? Apparently, the ruling Trinamool Congress appears safe till 2021 Assembly election. There is no tangible proof of its popularity — or lack of it — as the urban local body elections have been postponed.

Delayed elections

West Bengal has nearly 125 urban local bodies, and a majority are due for election. In March, when the country went under lockdown, 17 urban bodies were already under administrators or a committee of administrators, allegedly chosen from the faithful.

Roughly 85 urban local bodies – including the Kolkata Municipal Corporation (KMC) – were due for election in May-June. Now, none will face election, but this time for more convincing reasons.

Thes KMC Act does not provide for administrator. This could be mitigated by ordinance. But the government chose to use its executive power to make the erstwhile Mayor (who is also the minister for municipal affairs), Firhad (Bobby) Hakim, as the administrator.

Many suggest, ordinance route was taken to avoid Governor Jagdip Dhankhar, who had been openly criticizing the dealings of the State government in coronavirus emergency, and accused it for not sharing information to the extent of non-cooperation.

An irate Dhankhar, who is also a top legal expert, invoked Article 167 of the Constitution to seek details on the KMC issue.

It is not known where this contest will lead to, but apparently Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee’s government was not in a comfortable situation, either politically or administratively, when cyclone Amphan came.

Suppressing the Opposition?

Both the BJP and CPM have accused the government of using Covid emergency to suppress opposition. Many BJP MPs in West Bengal have said that they were not even allowed to distribute relief during the lockdown. The CPM staged two protest demonstrations in Kolkata.

The accusations are not new, and the BJP is most vocal about it. During a recent incident of arson and violence at Telenipara in North 24-Parganas, BJP MP Locket Chatterjee had to wait a number of days before the local police chief gave her a hearing. She was also barred from entering the area.

Meanwhile, a series of angry protests against the ruling party were reported from districts, including minority-dominated areas, on alleged diversion of free foodgrain (offered by the Centre through the Public Distribution System) during the lockdown.

The Trinamool, however, denied the allegations and accused the BJP for involvement in malpractices and creating social tension. But that didn’t stop the barrage of allegations.

There are reports of alleged efforts to gag the media for not toeing the line.

The latest in this list had been a Kolkata-based news channel CN News, which became popular for airing anti-establishment news. A day or two before Amphan hit, a top MSO in the State stopped airing the channel. CN News has blamed the government for the fiasco. The MSO said the problem was a technical error.

Conflicting Covid numbers

Administratively, the government is looking a bit unsettled or undecided.

Throughout April, the Chief Minister and the Chief Secretary were at the forefront in briefing media on issues related to the coronavirus pandemic. On April 24, when a central team was visiting the State, the Chief Secretary revealed comorbidity data, which was many times of the official death figure. The prevailing practice of death audit was also done away with.

A few days later, in end-April a letter by the State Principal Secretary Health to the Centre revealed that the actual Covid infection numbers were much higher than those briefed by the Chief Secretary. After this revelation, the Principal Secretary Health was transferred.

Delay in relief and rehabilitation work

At the same time the Khalil Ahmed, Commissioner of KMC, was given additional charge of the Municipal Affairs department.

After cyclone Amphan, Ahmed was relieved from his charge in the KMC. This is apparently in response to widespread criticism against the civic body and the government for failing to restore basic services, like electricity and water, even after three days since the cyclone.

Amphan hit Kolkata on May 20. According to the KMC, roughly 5,000 trees gave way to the cyclone. Till today (May 23), many roads in the city are yet to be cleared. Electricity and water supply are to be restored in large parts of the city.

Mobile telephone and internet services are in disarray with Reliance Jio and BSNL proving better than peers. Service providers blame it on lack of electricity supply.

The mobile towers in the city have no back-up system in place to keep the services running in such emergencies.

The lack of basic services is inviting the wrath of citizens. Kolkata witnessed a number of protests on Friday and Saturday. There have been reports from other districts about protests against the State government for the alleged delay in relief and rehabilitation work.

There are also reports of infighting within ruling party and preventing opposition from undertaking relief work. The State BJP president, Dilip Ghosh was disallowed from visiting some of the worst affected areas on Saturday.

 

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Published on May 23, 2020
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