A course correction that was due nearly two decades back is about to be embarked upon in West Bengal: an indirect acknowledgement by the Congress party high-command that Mamata Banerjee is the undisputed political supremo in the state.
In 1998, Mamata broke away from the Congress and floated her own outfit—the Trinamool Congress, turning it into the main source of resistance against the Left Front. Through the years of the TMC’s growth, the West Bengal unit of the Congress—once a mighty arm—was steadily marginalised. Since 2011, the TMC has been the ruling party in West Bengal; it managed to be re-elected with an even greater majority in the 2016 assembly polls, mauling the Left and totally sidelining the Congress, thus firmly entrenching Mamata’s control in the state.
Speculation is rife in Bengal political circles that the Congress is now trying to reach out to the Trinamool so that the two can come together in the 2019 parliamentary elections—amidst a wide-ranging alliance of the opposition—in an attempt to oust the BJP from power at the Centre.
The move, however, is still tentative, as there are many in the state Congress, who as in the past, are totally against Mamata and even under the changed circumstances are not prepared to rally behind the Trinamool for the much needed alliance. But there is no denying that attempts are on to bring the two together.
The first indicator of such a reunion was in August this year, when Trinamool chief and West Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee met Congress president Sonia Gandhi after months of cold vibes, following a Congress-Left tie-up in the state during the 2016 assembly elections. Subsequently, the two decided to jointly counter the BJP for the presidential and vice-presidential elections, with Mamata publicly declaring that she was not at all averse to any alliance with other political parties, including the Congress, with the ultimate objective of defeating the BJP. But it was Mamata’s move to support West Bengal Congress’s Pradip Bhattacharya, the party’s Rajya Sabha candidate from the state, that confirmed that the two parties were backing each other. As if to confirm that, recent reports suggested that the Congress central leadership had instructed the state unit to tone down its criticism of Mamata, and avoid targeting her personally. However, Bengal Congress was told to continue on its path of opposition at the level of governance.
Yet, other than Bhattacharya, who is considered to be close to Mamata, and given the West Bengal Congress’s unconcealed antipathy towards any alliance with Trinamool, is the possibility of such a tie-up really viable?
Bengal Congress chief Adhir Ranjan Chowdhury
Among those who openly oppose it is West Bengal Congress president and MP from Murshidabad constituency, Adhir Ranjan Chowdhury. Speaking to Outlook, he even admits that this is one subject in which there are strong differences of opinion between the Congress high-command and the West Bengal Congress. “We do not take any decision without consulting Delhi, of course,” he says in an interview. But he adds, “Other than perhaps a few malleable members of the Bengal Congress, we are completely against any alliance with Mamata Banerjee. Congress workers who have been at the receiving end of violence from Trinamool have been pleading with me to ensure that no such arrangement takes place ever again. We have suffered enough due to our earlier tie-up, when the Trinamool treated us very shoddily and reduced us to a party playing second fiddle to them.”
Interestingly, the Congress in West Bengal has long become exactly that. A party that is oscillating between the second and third positions, and seen doing little to try and regain lost glory. And the position of the high-command on West Bengal seems to be directly responsible for that. The one state which the central Congress has not shown any interest in, in terms of capturing power, is West Bengal—they are just content to remain in opposition. Congress leaders who spoke to Outlook virtually admitted that the idea of making any sort of a comeback as the leading party is difficult, if not downright impossible.
“Truth is that when Mamata Banerjee broke away from the Congress to cre-ate the Trinamool Congress in 1998, she moved lock, stock and barrel, severely depleting our ranks,” Adhir Ranjan Chowdhury tells Outlook.
The tale of the Bengal Congress is a tale of decay. The party which had ruled Bengal since Independence (except a brief interlude from 1967 to 1970) and thought invincible until the Communists took over in 1977 is today reduced to being only 44 in strength in the assembly (out of 294). Equally ignominiously, it has fought more elections in recent years in alliance with other parties than by itself. In the 2011 assembly polls, it tied up with the TMC, but broke away mid-term and joined forces with the Left for the 2016 polls.
While political analysts attribute the Congress’s decline primarily to the rise of first the Left and then the TMC, one of the main reasons for its moribund state is the differences between the Central and state Congresses. Can the twain meet now?
“The Congress party in Delhi needs Mamata Banerjee in Parliament to defeat the BJP, because Trinamool has the strength of MPs and a tie-up makes sense,” explains political scientist Biswanath Chakravorty from Rabindra Bharati University. “Mamata too is very keen to oust the BJP, which has been creating a great deal of disturbances for her, with the CBI probing several alleged scams, including the Saradha and Narada scams. She has been talking about an alternative front which has remained elusive. And she has never paid much heed to the state Congress as a force to reckon with anyway. So, with both set on the common goal to oust the BJP, the state Congress seems to have become irrelevant for both,” he adds.
Indeed, party insiders who spoke to Outlook revealed that there has been discussions within the Congress to place Pradip Bhattacharya at the helm of affairs in Bengal, “who would be expected to persuade party workers on the ground to not resist a tie-up”.
The Congress, says Chowdhury, is “the victim of secret attrition” by the TMC, which has been poaching its members ruthlessly.
Congress state chief Chowdhury tells Outlook that while he would resist the move to join hands with Trinamool, he would go along with the decision of the party high-command. But, says he, this is ultimately dangerous for the Congress. “The Congress in Bengal has been the victim of a secret game of attrition in which the Trinamool has been poaching Congressmen with a carrot-and-stick policy, now luring them with promises of power, now intimidating them with threats of slapping cases against them and putting them behind bars.” This is how, claims Chowdhury, that many Congress stalwarts have defected to the TMC.
TMC denies the charges. “Trinamool does not need the Congress in West Bengal,” a TMC MLA tells Outlook. “We have a strength of 211 in the assembly. If there is a tie-up it is only because of the central compulsions of ousting the BJP. The state Congress has become totally irrelevant,” he adds.
Trinamool MP Sougata Roy, speaking to Outlook, corroborates reports that there have been discussions on the possibility of a union between the Congress and Trinamool, but adds that “while the central Congress is interested, the state Congress is resisting the possibility”.
It is clear that the Congress needs Trinamool more than the other way round. But for any alliance to fructify, the innate dissonance between 10, Janpath and the Bengal Congress has to be resolved.
By Dola Mitra in Calcutta