With the budget session on, it was a busy day in the West Bengal state assembly. Amidst the hubbub, signs of a thaw—CPI(M) leader Sujan Chakraborty was called to the chief minister’s chamber, and an hour-long meeting ensued. Other Left MLAs started joking about a beleaguered Mamata Banerjee’s new-found interest in the Opposition. Meanwhile, Manoj Chakraborty, a Congress MLA and former minister in Mamata’s cabinet during 2011-12 but her vocal critic nevertheless, entered the Left MLAs’ room. He started cautioning them, “Don’t trust her. Now that she is in deep trouble, she is approaching you with a begging bowl. Once she recovers, she would go for your throats.” Nobody tried to counter him.
Ironically, for all the established parties in West Bengal—the ruling TMC and the Opposition Left and Congress—the rude pretender to power in West Bengal is a sworn enemy. Yet, they are unable to make common cause against the BJP. Mamata’s offer to close ranks against the BJP a few days back was faced with outright rejection from the Left and the Congress. To lighten the embarrassment of rejection, TMC leader and parliamentary affairs minister Tapas Roy later issued a statement saying that the CM’s speech was misinterpreted by the media. Actually, she did not talk of joining hands with the Opposition; she was talking about the national scenario.
In recent days, the state assembly witnessed two different motions—on the growing menace of communalism in Bengal and issue of post-poll violence and mob lynching, one jointly drafted by the Left and the Congress, the other by the ruling TMC. Actually, the TMC urged the Opposition for a single motion where they could jointly condemn the BJP’s communal agenda. But again, the Opposition rebuffed it. Both the Congress and the Left think that it was TMC that prepared the ground for the BJP’s rise in Bengal. So, it is not possible to bring a motion jointly with them on communalisation. To underscore the point, they submitted a fresh motion on the issue wherein they have criticised the TMC for its role in the rise of communal politics.
Recalling the event when Mamata engaged the Opposition on the floor of the assembly, CPI(M) leader Sujan Chakraborty says, “She was categorical in making that proposal. She addressed us by name, saying Sujan-da, Mannan-da (Abdul Mannan, Congress leader in the house), let us join hands and unitedly fight the BJP.” But, “we (Congress and Left) rejected her proposal.’’ Abdul Mannan echoes that unyielding spirit.
It seems that even after the serious inroad made by BJP in Bengal in the Lok Sabha polls and their implacable drive to occupy centrestage in Bengal’s politics, the Left and Congress are in a quandary: who is their main enemy in Bengal? Mannan emphatically says that the fight is against the TMC. Chakraborty, the CPI(M) leader in the house, is a bit circumspect. He thinks while the BJP is no doubt the main enemy at the all-India level, one cannot say that the Trinamool poses no danger to Bengal’s citizens.
With that duality in mind, ever since the utter disaster they suffered at the polls, the Left and the Congress have started coming closer. The post-poll violence in Bengal saw Congress and Left leaders taking to the streets in protest. CPI(M)’s Biman Bose and Suryakanta Mishra are visiting violence-torn Bhatpara with Congress’s Somen Mitra and Abdul Mannan. Sujan Chakraborty and Mannan are visiting Sandeshkhali, where three people from the BJP and the TMC were killed in post-poll violence. According to Chakraborty, they will visit Malda’s Baishnabnagar soon, where a Muslim boy recently fell victim to mob lynching.
To put their animus towards the Trinamool in perspective, one should recall how in the past eight years, the ruling party has systematically engineered defection of opposition MLAs and elected representatives of panchayat administration and municipalities. From 2011, the year they came to power riding a popular wave, TMC started capturing various municipal boards and panchayats where elected members would be bought over in exchange of ‘incentives’. When MLAs were also encouraged to defect, both Congress and the Left wrote to the assembly speaker to disenfranchise any such member. The speaker sat on those petitions inexplicably. Even after securing a resounding victory in the 2016 assembly polls, TMC went on poaching MLAs. According to Chakraborty, the Left had won 33 seats in 2016 and the Congress 44. Thereafter, Congress lost 17 MLAs to the TMC, and the Left seven.
Now that the tables have turned, the spectre of defection frightens the TMC itself, with a ruthless, emboldened BJP poaching elected representatives from the TMC. Using the same methods, it is capturing municipal boards and panchayat bodies, even as more TMC MLAs join it. Despite issuing dire threats of action, Mamata’s party can do nothing to the errant politicians, as they themselves then run the risk of dealing with long-pending petitions by the Opposition against some of their MLAs who work as de facto Trinamool members.
In 2020, around 80 municipalities, including the Calcutta Corporation, will go to the polls—a veritable dress rehearsal to the 2021 assembly elections. But, curiously, the chances of building a united front against a rampaging BJP is remote. True, the Congress and the Left have started to close ranks, but the mutual distrust even there is too great. Congress’s Mannan bemoans the fact that CPI(M) leaders in Delhi, especially Prakash Karat, has full control over the party. “The same lot of people did not allow Jyoti Basu to become prime minister, kept Somnath Chatterjee from becoming president of India, even Sitaram Yechury was not allowed to retain membership in Rajya Sabha,” he comments. On the other side, Sujan Chakraborty admits, “Not everybody is enthusiastic about an adjustment with the Congress. They feel Congress could not be trusted beyond a point.”
Such mutual suspicion helps the BJP. Poking fun at Mamata’s failed attempt to forge a united front, BJP state vice president Jayprakash Majumdar says Mamata’s political career was mostly built around her struggle to oust the CPI(M) and that her earnest appeal to the Left and Congress proves her vulnerability.
Bengal is turning a sharp political corner. As the rebuttal from the Left and Congress damages Mamata’s image, elating the BJP, the Trinamool has to gather the stumbling forces of secularism and set about building a dam to stop the deluge.
By Rajat Roy in Calcutta