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The Opposition in disarray

Print edition : Jun 09, 2001 T+T-

DESPITE the defeat of the Trinamul Congress-Congress(I) alliance, Trinamul Congress leader Mamata Banerjee remains the most significant figure of the Opposition in West Bengal. She has, of course, attributed her defeat to electoral "rigging" by the Left Front. Her detractors within the Opposition (and within her own party) have attributed it to her opportunism in shifting alliances. Among the miscalculations they mention are her decision to pull out of the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government and cobble together an alliance with the Congress(I) at the eleventh hour. Her refusal to allot to the Congress(I) some of the seats it had won in 1996, particularly in Malda and Murshidabad districts, led to a revolt within the Congress(I). A number of sitting MLAs filed their nominations as independents, dividing anti-Left Front votes. In Malda, the home district of veteran Congress(I) leader A.B.A. Ghani Khan Chowdhury, the party lost eight seats owing to the revolt. She gave tacit support to the Kamtapuri People's Party and lost all the seats in Koch Bihar; she gave indirect support to the Jharkhand Mukti Morcha and lost all but one of the 16 seats allotted to candidates belonging to the Scheduled Tribes.

Even her party colleagues appear to have no clue about what Mamata Banerjee's next move would be. Although she is annoyed with the Congress(I), she has not openly criticised the party so far. The Congress(I) has also not indicated any move to snap its ties with the Trinamul Congress. As a consequence, the NDA views her with suspicion. She believes that the eight Trinamul Congress MPs, barring Ajit Panja, are still on her side, although some of them have been hobnobbing with NDA leaders. Although she knows her party has developed cracks, she has not cared to set her house in order; instead she has been drumming up support for her charge of rigging against the Left Front.

Infighting has plagued the Congress(I) in West Bengal for many years now. The party witnessed endless squabbles between Pranab Mukherjee and Ghani Khan Chowdhury while Siddartha Sankar Ray applauded from the sidelines. It did, however, manage to retain a vote share of about 40 per cent, which rose to 48 per cent in the 1984 parliamentary elections, which were held in the aftermath of the assassination of Indira Gandhi. The party was weakened severely when Mamata Banerjee broke away from it in 1998 to form the Trinamul Congress. The central leadership was well aware of the state of affairs in the West Bengal unit, and that was why it entered into an alliance with the Trinamul Congress on Mamata Banerjee's terms. It readily accepted her offer of 59 seats. The Congress(I) appears not to be unhappy with the 26 seats it won in this round of elections. In 1996 the Congress alone won 82 seats, four less than the tally of the Trinamul Congress-Congress(I) combine this time.

The Bharatiya Janata Party, which has been trying to gain a foothold in West Bengal riding on the shoulders of the Trinamul Congress, lost the only seat it had in the State Assembly. Badal Bhattacharjee, who failed to retain his Ashoknagar seat, said: "My personal loss is of little concern. More important is that the BJP has lost its face and its standing as a prominent national party." The party contested 266 seats and most of its candidates lost their deposits.

However, its leaders seemed to derive satisfaction from the drubbing the Trinamul Congress-Congress(I) alliance received from the Left Front. "We are not leading anywhere. But Mamata and the Congress have come a poor second to the Front," a BJP leader said. Admitting that the results were a setback for the BJP, Tapan Sikdar, a BJP leader and Union Minister, blamed Mamata Banerjee's style of functioning for the Left Front's victory. "We all are paying for Mamata's huge blunder. She tried to project herself as the next Chief Minister of West Bengal, and now she is shedding tears of frustration. She and she alone handed the State to the CPI(M) on a platter," he said.

The Left Front remains the only force in the State on the Left with any serious electoral strength. The Party for Democratic Socialism (PDS), the group led by Saifuddin Chaudhuri, who was expelled from the CPI(M), found more space for itself in the columns of the press than in the polity: the party lost its deposit in every one of the 112 seats it contested. The Communist Party of India (Marxist-Leninist) also did not win any seats.