Uneasy alliance

Print edition : May 09, 1998

In West Bengal, the Trinamul Congress and the BJP have papered over their differences - for now.

THERE is bonhomie between the Trinamul Congress of Mamata Banerjee and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) now, but beneath that, all is not well. The events before the two parties came round to an understanding for the May 28 panchayat elections in West Ben-gal (report on Page 39) signified a rapid deterioration of relations between them.

Mamata Banerjee, Trinamul Congress founder, and Tapan Sikdar, State BJP president and the party's lone member of Parliament from West Bengal, were taking pot shots at each other, much to the chagrin of the BJP's central leaders who were trying for a truce before the local elections. The bickering became so intense that Sikdar made a formal complaint against Banerjee to the outgoing party president and Union Home Minister L.K. Advani. He told Frontline that he had sent a copy of his complaint to the new BJP president Kushabhau Thakre. Sikdar said that he submitted the complaint to Advani, as Advani had been closely involved in working out an alliance with the Trinamul Congress. Besides, Advani is believed to enjoy Banerjee's confidence. In fact, Banerjee had sought Advani's intervention to check Sikdar's diatribes against the Trinamul Congress.

Sikdar was particularly peeved at the way Banerjee had, in a recent interview to a regional language magazine, dubbed him a "stooge of the CPI(M)". She had claimed that she could dislodge him from the post of the State BJP president whenever she wanted. Sikdar said that relations between the two parties became strained following repeated threats from the Trinamul Congress that it would go it alone in the panchayat elections if the offers of seat adjustments were not to its satisfaction. "This attitude is deplorable. I cannot compromise on the dignity of my party," Sikdar said.

The West Bengal unit of the BJP also feels slighted by the way Banerjee formed the "Save Bengal Front". The BJP was not consulted on the formation of the Front; it was merely asked to be one of its constituents. Several small parties that are opposed to the Left Front, such as the Muslim League, the Awami Muslim League, the Indian Union Muslim League and the All India Christian Democratic Party, have joined the Front.

Trinamul Congress leader Mamata Banerjee.-SHANKER CHAKRAVARTY

Mamata Banerjee had invited the State BJP to join the Front soon after the Lok Sabha elections, with the aim of uniting all anti-Left forces. Instead of accepting the invitation, the State BJP proposed that the two parties make it a joint political venture. The Trinamul Congress found this unacceptable.

According to the State BJP leadership, the BJP did not respond to the offer positively because it was not sure of the structure of the Save Bengal Front. What West Bengal required, it said, was a "regimented" front, on the lines of the Shiv Sena-BJP combine in Maharashtra. State BJP leaders said that the two parties had to sit together and work out the modalities of the Front, and that a unilateral approach by the Trinamul Congress would only spoil the relations between Trinamul Congress and BJP workers. "Parties responding to the Front must subscribe to its basic philosophy," Sikdar said.

The BJP believes that the Front's success would depend on a common minimum programme, modelled on the National Agenda adopted by the BJP-led coalition at the Centre and spelling out its stand on the emotive issue of infiltration from Bangladesh. Sikdar seeks to put the infiltration issue on the priority list and press for the deportation of Bangladeshis, while the Trinamul Congress regards "infiltrators" as "refugees".

That is not all. Sikdar is confident that the BJP can give the Trinamul Congress a run for its money. He cites the result of the election to the Midnapore Lok Sabha seat: the BJP candidate came second behind the winner, former Union Minister Indrajit Gupta of the Communist Party of India. The Trinamul Congress candidate lost his deposit.

Sources said that Sikdar, who was elected from Dum Dum, is in an unforgiving mood because Banerjee had reportedly asked the BJP leadership not to include him in the Union Ministry.

The BJP also objected to the Trinamul Congress' condition that in the event of the two parties undertaking a joint campaign for the panchayat poll, the BJP should not adopt a hard line on the Nehru-Gandhi family. Sikdar said: "The Trinamul Congress should not take the BJP in West Bengal for granted. The BJP has its own policies and principles and no one can dictate terms to it. The BJP today is a force to reckon with in West Bengal. We are quite capable of contesting the panchayat polls on our own strength."

This is reminiscent of the situation before the Lok Sabha elections when seat-sharing talks between the two parties had all but broken down. Sikdar had then alleged that Banerjee and her party had adopted a 'big brother' attitude that was not conducive to the working of an electoral alliance. Banerjee had, at that time, kept her distance from BJP leaders, particularly Sikdar; only her representatives met them. The BJP's central leadership, however, advised Sikdar and his colleagues not to adopt a negative approach towards the Trinamul Congress, and that worked to the mutual advantage of both the parties during and after the elections.

Mamata Banerjee and her party MPs have since been dealing directly with the BJP leadership in New Delhi. Obviously feeling snubbed, Sikdar appears ready to bring the differences to the fore.

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