If there’s one thing that embarrasses politicians it is being seen to be playing politics. Especially when faced with a horrific tragedy like the crash of a flyover in Kolkata on Thursday. So the favourite phrase prefacing the reactions of politicians to Thursday’s disaster was: “This is not the time to play politics, but…” and never has a ‘but’ been more eloquent. Because finally it is all about politics, of course, all the more so at election time.
The first thing Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee said after rushing to the accident site was: “It is a disaster, no one should indulge in politics over it. But the project was initiated in 2007 and construction started in 2009 (i.e., during the Left regime).The contract should not have been given to a company that was blacklisted.”
The retort came swift and sharp. At the CPI(M) headquarters in Kolkata on Alimuddin Street, party MP Mohammad Salim said, “This is not the time for politics but the Chief Minister has left us with no choice. It’s no different from the way she behaved over the death of children soon after coming to power.” (Salim was referring to Mamata Banerjee’s response to a spate of simultaneous deaths in a government-run children’s hospital when she said, “Remember these children were conceived during the earlier regime.”)
At the Centre, which too has a role to play in the making (and hence in the unmaking too) of the flyover as it is a JNNURM project, that is partly funded by Delhi, junior urban development minister Babul Supriyo said, “While I don’t want to bring politics into this, this was a joint venture of the UPA at the Centre and the CPM government in Bengal.”
Since the Centre can only vet the projects and release the funds, monitoring being limited to sending reminders and pushing for compliance if the states fail to implement them, Bengal’s sole BJP minister in the Capital did not forget to add, “It is the failure of the state government. It is responsible.”
The flyover may never come to be. Many experts are now voicing doubts over the choice of the location itself, narrow, busy, built-up, congested streets in the heart of the city. And the local people’s objections, who had never welcomed it, are now getting a hearing.
Whatever its fate, the imminent question playing on many minds is, will it have played its historic role by becoming an election issue, touched as it is by all the leading players in this state? Surely it should, there ought to be some accountability somewhere and the polling booth is the ultimate court of appeal. Otherwise, all those innocent people will have lost their lives or limbs in vain.
The political bosses are not quite sure which way the people will go or whether they will all be blamed equally and thus cancel each other out. So they are taking no chances.
The ruling Trinamool Congress has understandably most to lose. There were troubling signs yesterday when city mayor Sovon Chatterjee and local MLA Smita Bakshi, both candidates in the imminent elections, were booed and heckled by the crowds during their visit to the accident site.
The air rang with cries of “chor hai, sab chor hai.”
The mayor is one of the people shown to be taking money in the Naranda sting videos. No other TMC leader other than the Chief Minister visited the area on Thursday. Friday morning saw local MP, TMC’s Sudip Bandopadhyay, standing amid the debris, reading out a list of disasters that took many lives during the Left Front’s years.
Mamata Banerjee gave the cue last night when she lashed out, even while making sure of adequate supply of floodlights and drinking water for the rescue workers that “Dirty politics is being played over blood. I will not allow this. We have enough blood. There is no need for a blood donation tamasha. If blood is needed there are enough of us around. I just have to give a call, one lakh people will turn up to give blood.”
The provocation for her outburst: the overwhelming response to blood donation camps organised last evening by Left student unions at one of the city’s Central Blood Banks for the disaster victims. It was not long before TMC’s all-powerful doctor-MLA Nirmal Majhi put a stop to it, accusing the Left of coercing people to donate blood.
“Utterly meaningless,” he said, and demanded an explanation from the blood bank authorities for taking what was tantamount to tainted CPM blood.
Meanwhile, the Left is busy performing its own deflecting manoeuvres. Siliguri mayor and former urban development minister Ashok Bhattacharya, whose Siliguri model is the blueprint for the current Left-Congress electoral alliance, has a heavy cross to bear.
He had commissioned the flyover and given the job to the Hyderabad-based infrastructure company IVRCL. He is screaming hoarse that “the company was not blacklisted when it was given the project. It got blacklisted two or three years ago. I would ask why Firhad Hakim (the current urban development minister) did not get rid of the company after it got blacklisted. “We suspect there was compromise on the quality of materials.”
He was hinting at Trinamool’s already much-maligned building materials supply syndicates.
According to Bhattacharya, “The bulk of the construction began in 2013. By pointing fingers at us, they are trying to evade their responsibilities.”
The cry for the head of urban development minister Firhad Hakim is growing louder by the day. Hakim is also the chairman of the Kolkata Municipal Development Authority, an agency of the urban development ministry which was directly responsible for the implementation of the flyover. Hakim is also part of Narada’s sting videocast.
The BJP, the Congress and the CPI(M) have all demanded his resignation. But Mamata Banerjee usually puts huge storage by loyalty. It’s the people’s loyalty in the time of disaster that she needs to worry about.