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Kolkata flyover collapse: Mamata faces poll bouncer

By Ishita Ayan Dutt
April 02, 2016 17:56 IST
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The timing of the flyover collapse, says Ishita Ayan Dutt, couldn't have been worse for the CM with the assembly elections just days away.

IMAGE: West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee and Governor Keshari Nath Tripathi during a visit to the accident site in Kolkata, March 31, 2016. Photograph: PTI Photo

It's not the best of times for Trinamool Congress chief and West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee.

The buzz around the Narada news video, allegedly showing ministers, members of legislative assembly and members of Parliament from the ruling party taking cash for extending favours to a fictitious company, was just dying down when disaster struck on a busy afternoon on Thursday in one of the most congested areas of the city.

The 2.2-km under-construction Vivekananda Road flyover collapsed, claiming 25 lives and counting as rescue operations continue.

The timing couldn't have been worse for Banerjee with the assembly elections just days away. The first phase starts on April 4 in West Medinipur. The more immediate repercussion of the mishap, however, is likely to be felt in the city where elections are due on April 21 and April 30.

Banerjee, who was campaigning in West Medinipur on Thursday, immediately rushed to the spot on hearing news of the flyover collapse and got into character. With a microphone in hand she started micromanaging the rescue operations.

A makeshift Nabanna (state secretariat) was set up some 500 metres from the site with a fax machine, et al. It was important to be seen at the disaster site and Banerjee stayed till late into the night.

She had already absolved her government's involvement by saying the flyover contract was given to the Hyderabad-based contractor IVRCL in 2009 by the Left Front government. But right now, no one is buying that argument. The Left Front is accusing not just the government, but Banerjee personally.

Last November, Banerjee had announced that the flyover would be completed by August 2016. 'In an authoritarian regime, no one questions the queen. There was a mad rush to complete the flyover, which has caused this tragedy. The chief minister should take moral responsibility for this mishap,' Communist Party of India-Marxist leader Mohammed Salim said.

The flyover had missed the deadline at least six times with the original deadline being 2011. According to the contract, the Kolkata Metropolitan Development Authority was supposed to supervise at every stage, Salim pointed out. 'What were they doing when a fault was detected the previous night by the contractors?' he asked.

The Bharatiya Janata Party and the Congress, too, are raising the pitch against Banerjee. The BJP has asked for a Central Bureau of Investigation probe. Both the parties have said it smacks of corruption.

'The urban development minister has been caught taking a bribe in the video, so what can we expect? This is under his ministry. Why is it that the contractor has changed the design and the course so many times?' Salim asked.

A Trinamool MP added to confusion on Friday by saying that the design was faulty and he had informed the state government, but 50 to 60 per cent of the work had been completed.

Banerjee on her part is set to take IVRCL to task. The Kolkata Police has lodged three FIRs against the company. Seven IVRCL executives have been detained for questioning.

This will not be the first time that Banerjee has punished a company for loss of lives in a tragedy. Months after she took charge as CM, there was a major fire at the Emami co-promoted AMRI Hospital that killed 90 people. The Emami promoters were taken into custody immediately, which had a wide repercussion on the city's Marwari business community that felt discriminated against.

This time, however, with elections knocking on the door, it is a different ball game.

Till a few months ago, the elections were meant to be a cakewalk for Banerjee. After the Narada incident, however, an ABP Ananda-Nielsen opinion poll has given Trinamool 178 seats in the 294-member assembly as opposed to the 190 that it had bagged in 2011.

The Left-Congress combine is expected to bag 110 seats, while the BJP is likely to remain a marginal player with one seat.

In terms of vote share, the TMC-Congress alliance had secured 48 per cent in 2011 while the Left was at 39 per cent. 

This time the TMC is expected to garner a 45 per cent vote share and the Left-Congress close on its heels at 44 per cent, according to the opinion poll.

Banerjee is still slated to win, but suddenly calculations on margins are no longer a certainty.

Thursday's mishap just made things hazier. 'In 2011, many of the Left Front supporters voted for the Trinamool. This time, many Trinamool supporters may vote for the Left,' a Left leader suggested.

Till Thursday, a feel-good factor was working in Mamata's favour what with festive lights burning bright across the Kolkata. The lights are still there, but today no one is feeling good.

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Ishita Ayan Dutt in Kolkata
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