The balancing act

Print edition : July 18, 1998

The attempt to achieve a "balance of power" in the West Bengal unit of the Congress(I) may fail, given the mutual distrust among leaders of the various factions.

CONGRESS(I) leaders in West Bengal are increasingly losing faith in party president Sonia Gandhi's efforts aimed at revitalising the party in the State where the Communist Party of India (Marxist)-led Left Front has been in power for 21 years.

Sonia Gandhi's decision to create two power centres in the State unit of the party - a Pradesh Congress(I) Committee president and a working president - appears to have been motivated by a desire to keep all the factions happy. But since the working president's role and authority have not been clearly defined, party workers fear that the arrangement may lead to fresh wranglings.

Tensions have already come to the fore. Supporters of former Union Minister Priya RanjanDas Munshi, who was appointed working president, boycotted a function held at Congress Bhavan in Calcutta to felicitate the octogenarian leader A.B.A. Ghani Khan Chowdhury on his appointment as the State party president. The function was organised by Somen Mitra, a confidant of Ghani Khan Chowdhury.

PCC(I) president A.B.A. Ghani Khan Chowdhury.-SUSHANTA PATRONOBISH

Congress(I) workers believe that Somen Mitra, who resigned as PCC(I) president owning responsibility for the party's debacle in the Lok Sabha elections in February, and Das Munshi, one of the candidates who lost the elections, are poised for a confrontation. With Ghani Khan Chowdhury at the helm, Mitra will continue to influence party affairs and may induct his associates into the executive committee and the secretariat, which will be reconstituted soon. That should lead to tussles.

It took Sonia Gandhi three months to appoint a successor to Mitra: the State Congress(I) was without a president when the crucial three-tier elections to local bodies in the State were held in May. With no one to oversee election arrangements, from the selection of candidates to the deployment of agents in booths, the Congress(I) was poorly placed: it did not field its nominees for more than 30 per cent of the 49,225 gram panchayat seats.

The rivalry between Das Munshi and Somen Mitra goes back to the days of Siddhartha Shankar Ray's chief ministership, when both of them were youth-wing leaders.

The decision to appoint a working president - the first time this is being done at the State level - may be related to Ghani Khan Chowdhury's failing health. Strains are bound to surface also over the various factions' approach towards the Trinamul Congress headed by Mamata Banerjee. Sonia Gandhi herself has been silent on the issue, but there are deep-seated differences in the party over whether Mamata Banerjee, who broke away from the Congress(I) just before the February elections, should be won back. Immediately after Ghani Khan Chowdhury assumed office, he declared that Mamata Banerjee would not find an easy entry into the Congress(I).

On the other hand, Das Munshi, who was considered close to Mamata Banerjee when she was in the Congress(I), said that he would work to bring her and other Trinamul Congress leaders back to the party.

Consequent on the new appointments, PCC(I) vice-president Subrata Mukherjee has demanded the dissolution of the elected committee of the State unit. "It is not an elected body but a selected one. Somen Mitra appointed his hand-picked men to seize control of the organisation," he said.

IN addition to these problems, there are sharp differences between the PCC(I) and the high command over whether the Congress(I) should accept support from the Left parties to form a government at the Centre if the BJP-led coalition Government collapses. Ghani Khan Chowdhury and Somen Mitra issued identical statements saying that the Congress(I) should not form a government with CPI(M) support. State Congress(I) leaders are reported to have contacted their counterparts in Kerala and Tripura, two other States where CPI(M)-led formations are in power, in an attempt to pressure the high command.

Working president Priya Ranjan Das Munshi.-SUSHANTA PATRONOBISH

Mitra said that for the Congress(I) to accept the CPI(M)'s support would cause "serious damage to 22 years of resistance being put up by millions of the State Congress(I) workers." He further said that Congress(I) workers from West Bengal would not accept support from the CPI(M) in any form. Mitra's stand has the support of a host of State Congress(I) leaders who feel aggrieved by Das Munshi's appointment as working president.

Both Ghani Khan Chow-dhury and Mitra apprehend that if the high command decides to accept CPI(M) support at the Centre, it will lead to a fresh exodus from the State unit of the party to the Trinamul Congress. They therefore took exception to Sonia Gandhi's emissary P.A. Sangma's recent meeting with Chief Minister Jyoti Basu in Calcutta apparently as part of efforts to enlist the support of the Left parties for a Congress(I)-led government.

A key functionary of the State unit of the party said that Congress(I) workers were apprehensive about Sonia Gandhi's efforts ostensibly aimed at revitalising the party. "The revitalising process cannot be conducted from 10 Janpath," the leader said.

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