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Warring allies

Published : May 18, 2012 00:00 IST

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PRADIP BHATTACHARYA, WEST Bengal Pradesh Congress President, and Deepa Dasmunsi, Member of Parliament, at the party's day-long dharna against the State government in Kolkata on January 4.-SUSHANTA PATRONOBISH

PRADIP BHATTACHARYA, WEST Bengal Pradesh Congress President, and Deepa Dasmunsi, Member of Parliament, at the party's day-long dharna against the State government in Kolkata on January 4.-SUSHANTA PATRONOBISH

The Congress in West Bengal is now a vocal critic of the government as its ties with the Trinamool Congress hit a new low.

RIGHT from the start, it looked like an alliance that came with an expiry date. If political necessity forced the Trinamool Congress and the West Bengal Pradesh Congress to come together in a seat-sharing arrangement to defeat the 34-year-old Communist Party of India (Marxist)-led Left Front government, a year after coming to power, irreconcilable political differences and historical enmity between the two have brought the alliance to the brink of a break-up.

State Congress working president Pradip Bhattacharya put it bluntly: We have had a rocky relationship right from the start, and I do not know when things will start improving between us. It depends on when [Chief Minister and Trinamool supremo] Mamata Banerjee changes her attitude. But it seems her ambition is to crush the Congress and not the CPI(M).

He likened the Trinamool's attitude towards the Congress to that of the CPI(M) vis-a-vis the other Left Front constituents. The only difference is that the CPI(M) never took it to a point where the alliance would break. However, he made it clear that the Congress did not want to break the alliance. We have compromised for so long, and we may do so again for the sake of the people, who want this alliance to work. But there is a limit to how much we can take.

Congress strategy

The Pradesh Congress, by words and deeds, has made it clear that it will not toe the Trinamool's line on all issues. In fact, in the past one year, it has emerged as the latter's most vocal critic on practically all issues where the State government found itself in an embarrassing situation. On issues such as crib deaths, farmer suicides, bias against large sections of the media, and impingement on civil liberties, the Pradesh Congress registered its protest against its ally with as much intensity as the opposition.

According to some political observers, this may be a strategy of the Congress to regroup and strengthen itself at a time when the Trinamool, due to its own blunders, is alienating a sizeable section of its urban middle-class support base. The manner in which the Congress is distancing itself from the Trinamool by way of protest on every issue that is eliciting public outcry is, perhaps, to get on its side the disenchanted Trinamool support base, said an observer.

Neither has the State Congress shown much enthusiasm over Mamata Banerjee's claims of achievement. First, we believe it is too early to make such claims, and secondly, it is not possible to have accomplished as much as she claims to have done. Apart from the government's handling of the Maoist problem and, to some extent, the Gorkhaland issue, it has unfortunately not accomplished anything that it claims to have done, said Bhattacharya.

A section of the State Congress leadership has made it clear that it would rather be out of power than continue to work under the humiliating conditions forced upon the party by the Trinamool. Most of our workers want to sever our ties with the Trinamool, whatever be the political outcome, a Congress leader told Frontline.

A section of the leadership is also not against going it alone in the upcoming panchayat elections in the State. One of the main grievances of the Congress is the autocratic manner in which Mamata deals with it. In fact, within eight months of being a Minister, Manoj Chakraborty of the Congress quit the post, alleging that the Trinamool was acting in a dictatorial manner. We have certain compulsions due to our alliance at the national level and so often have to exercise restraint, said Bhattacharya. The Trinamool, on the other hand, has remained as dismissive as ever of the Pradesh Congress' protests and grievances. The Congress has long lost its credibility among anti-Left voters. And now it is practically singing in tune with the CPI(M). Do you think people are not seeing that? If they decide to go out of the alliance, there will be no trace of them in Bengal, a Trinamool leader told Frontline.

Fight for Identity

Mamata Banerjee has always maintained a dual relationship with the Congress. At the Centre, where she is the junior partner in the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance government, the relationship has been formal, even civil, though not without occasional hints of menace. At the State-level, where she is the senior partner in the alliance with the Congress, her ties with the Pradesh Congress have been as hostile as her relationship with her arch-enemy, the CPI(M).

The Congress and the Trinamool have had a most bitter relationship right from the time of Mamata Banerjee's acrimonious departure from the Congress in 1998, following which she quickly wrested from her parent party the position of the main opposition in the State. Having broken away from the Congress, she essentially took with her the support base and the political space that once belonged to her old party. Since then, the two have been in a perpetual struggle for not just political space, but also political identity.

The Pradesh Congress feels that the Trinamool has been trying to take over completely the identity of the Congress at the State level by adding Trinamool to traditional Congress organisational names such as the Indian National Trade Union Congress (INTUC), the Chhatra Parishad and the Yuva Congress. She has always been using the Congress identity. She blatantly copies us. Even her flag is the tricolour, like ours, said Bhattacharya.

Dual bind

Confirming the dual nature of the association between the two parties, the Congress Member of Parliament and party heavyweight from Murshidabad district, Adhir Ranjan Chowdhury, said that even if there was competition at the local level, larger issues would prevail upon the parties to keep the alliance at the Centre afloat. At the State and local levels, we will be trying to hold on to our own ground; that is only natural, he told Frontline. Not denying that a triangular contest might benefit the common enemy, the Left Front, Chowdhury said, But we [Congress] have to also ensure our own existence. It is not just our responsibility to defeat the CPI(M).

As for Mamata Banerjee's constant tug-of-war with the Centre for funds combined with veiled threats of things turning into a big issue if her demands are not met, Chowdhury called it arm-twisting done out of desperation. The Trinamool's idea of being in a coalition is to be in a position to extract its pound of flesh. It is politics of deprivation and of trying to make a scapegoat of the Congress by using sentimental phrases. He pointed out that the Centre had acknowledged that the State had a debt of over Rs.2 lakh crore, But we can't make it disappear by sleight of hand, can we?

Injured' parties

Mamata Banerjee, on the other hand, had on an earlier occasion dared the Congress to quit the alliance. Accusing the Congress of being in collusion with the CPI(M), she said in January: If the Congress decides to work with the CPI(M), the door is open. While in the opposition, she had dubbed the Congress a B' team of the CPI(M), an insult she often rakes up even while in alliance with the party.

Pointing out that it is not the Congress alone that is the aggrieved party in the coalition, senior Trinamool leader Sukhendu Sekhar Ray told Frontline: We are the second largest party in UPA-II. Still the Congress never consulted us before it took important decisions. We could have taken to the streets on various issues, but we did not. However, we did expect them to show [us] some respect. But, he said, the Trinamool would like to continue in the UPA.

If Mamata Banerjee believes that her party is indispensable to the Congress at the Central level, many Congress leaders feel that her party would never be able to make it at the State level without the Congress's help. Statistics may bear out the Congress's claim. In the 2011 Assembly elections, the Trinamool-Congress combine secured 48 per cent of the votes, of which the Trinamool accounted for 37 per cent and the Congress around 11 per cent. The Left Front's share was 41 per cent.

If the Trinamool feels that once outside the alliance the Congress will face not just a further decline in its vote share but also an exodus of workers and leaders into the Trinamool, the Congress, in its turn, believes its position will be stronger as the alienated section of the urban middle class, which had rejected the Left and voted for Mamata Banerjee, may place its faith in the Congress.

(This story was published in the print edition of Frontline magazine dated May 18, 2012.)

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