For some time now, Congress leaders in West Bengal have never been sure how many of its faithful are contemplating a switch to the Trinamul Congress. The recent exodus headed by eight mlas including Saugata Ray and Tapas Roy only strengthened their sense of deja vu. There were other parallels to bring to mind the split of 1998, when the Trinamul Congress was launched.
Official Congress reactions this time did not differ markedly from 1998, when leaders in Delhi and Calcutta played down the emergence of Mamata Banerjee’s outfit and accused her of helping the Left Front. This time too, state president Pranab Mukherjee, in a damage-limiting exercise, said that "Mamata Banerjee had shot down the proposed Mahajot concept". So much for the long-awaited one-on-one fight against the Left Front which detractors of the Left had predicted would see off Buddhadev Bhattacharyya’s red brigade.
The two crucial questions Mukherjee left unaddressed were why Congressmen were so keen to cross over, and whether the exodus would continue. Answering them would have involved an admission that all these years, the state Congress, much like the party at the Centre, has remained a token—and totally ineffective—Opposition. Congressmen admit in private that Mamata, on the other hand, in many ways symbolises a proactive Opposition.
But the immediate reason for Congressmen deserting their ship is that on the eve of elections, the Congress remains a divided house, bereft of any coherent strategy. Its central and state leaders are pulling in opposite directions in a manner tailor-made to spread total pessimism among the ranks.
At the core of the centre-state leadership divide is the Congress position vis-a-vis the Left. The party’s high command feels that it cannot be stridently anti-Left since the Congress would need the support from that camp in the next general elections. The central leadership also prefers to be set against any truck with any party linked to the bjp. That is why Mamata’s effort to rope in the Congress failed even though state-level leaders were all for the Mahajot.
The Left for its part has made it clear that it will support the Congress against the bjp, to the extent of campaigning for it in areas where it has no following. Says Congress rebel Ray: "Men like Harkishen Singh Surjeet and Sitaram Yechuri wield considerable influence these days in the Congress."
State Congress leaders, out in the cold for over two decades, have run out of patience. With the cpi(m)-led front having firmly entrenched itself, the Congress had lost all credibility as a party that could jockey for power. On the other hand, Congressmen have seen Mamata Banerjee carve out a slice of power for herself within two years! Many in the Congress are of the view that with the incumbency factor catching up with the Left Front, an alliance with the Trinamul would have been a winning combination.
Ironically, trapped in an awkward situation, Mukherjee elicited warmer support from the Left, even as the new symbiotic Congress-Left Front political equation began to emerge, than from his own party. And why not, any strengthening of the Trinamul could only cause concern to the beleaguered Left. But they claim not to be unduly worried over the mass movement to the Trinamul. Says cpi(m) state secretary Anil Biswas, "There would be problems of accommodation within the Trinamul with so many Congress leaders joining it." Biman Bose, cpi(m) politburo member, adds: "These men left the party mainly to ensure their political survival, an opportunistic move that people will see through." And, says cpi state secretary Manju Majumdar, "Their decision was hardly unexpected."
Unfortunately for Mukherjee, who dutifully toes party president Sonia Gandhi’s no-truck-with-the-bjp line, Mahajot or not, the response from his own party colleagues has been less sympathetic. Former state unit president A.B.A. Ghani Khan Choudhury wonders, "How could we ask Mamata to ditch the bjp if we weren’t going to abandon the cpi(m)? We should talk sense." At the organisational level, pradesh Congress and trade union leader Milan Choudhury admits, "The situation looks grim and more desertions cannot be ruled out." State secretary Manas Bhuyan too agrees.
In concrete terms, it is too early to declare that the Trinamul has made major gains. Most of the mlas were Calcutta-based, where the Trinamul has established its constituency among the urban middle class. However, the party has yet to make inroads into the core area of the Congress support base, in Malda, Murshidabad or Nadia. Says an observer: "The Trinamul still remains confined to south Bengal, without any advance into the central districts or the north. Otherwise it would not require any adjustment with the Jharkhandis in Midnapore or the Kamtapuris in the north." The Congress’ Somen Mitra points out that only a few mlas have left the party. "The workers, our grassroot support are still with us and our recent district meetings have all been well-attended," he says.
However, there are other trends that Congress leaders gloss over. Between the 1998 and 1999 Lok Sabha polls, the voteshare of the Congress was reduced to 16.45 and 13.53 per cent respectively, as against the Trinamul/bjp share of 34.62 and 37.95 per cent. The LF share was, interestingly, 46.83 and 46.79 per cent respectively, about 5 percentage points below the combined votes polled by the Congress, the bjp and the Trinamul. A cpi inner party document also outlines an impressive growth in the Trinamul-bjp voteshare since the 1998 parliamentary polls in Bengal, in rural, agricultural, industrial and even minority areas. This effectively demolishes the Congress-Left sponsored myth that the very mention of the bjp drives the minorities away in hordes from the Trinamul.
Some observers take a different view, pointing out that these figures were taken from a period when the nda government had not yet been tested. "Now that we are into the second year of the nda’s tenure, people certainly know what this government is all about. Where are the 10 million new jobs the nda had promised? What about this year’s budget, which makes cars cheaper, income-tax less stringent, but sugar, bidi, fertilisers costlier and allows employers to sack workers at will? Now Mamata Banerjee will have to answer these questions and earlier voting patterns may not hold good this time," says a Left leader.
The erosion within the Congress is at best mixed news for the ruling Left Front. For the long term, the proposed Mahajot idea has not jelled, which remains the best guarantee for the survival of the Front. No wonder the Left has been the first off the blocks in its election campaign this year. Left leaders feel that Yashwant Sinha’s budget proposals will provide plenty of ammunition in the weeks ahead.
In the final analysis, the traffic from the Congress to the Trinamul helps no party or combination significantly in the long run and invests the Trinamul with a sense of optimism that is more apparent than real. Indeed, the presence of Congress rebels among its ranks could sharpen dissensions within the Trinamul, if the smashed furniture in its borough offices and the filing of "dummy" nominations against official candidates is any indication. As for the state Congress, it could just close shop and hope for miracles at the hustings. And of course, for the Left Front a depletion within the Congress is no long-term help in its fight against the Trinamul.