Adhir Ranjan Chowdhury, the five-time Congress Member of Parliament from Baharampur Lok Sabha constituency, and Leader of the Congress in the Lok Sabha, is one of the tallest political figures in West Bengal. Known as much for his mass appeal as for his direct, no-nonsense approach to politics, Adhir Ranjan has been a relentless opponent of both the Trinamool Congress Party and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). In an exclusive interview to Frontline , he spoke about the battle ahead for the Left-Congress combine against the “two giants”. “Earlier the BJP was a genie in the bottle and now the genie is out of the bottle and refuses to go back into it,” he said, speaking of the saffron party’s rise in the State. Excerpts:
You have arrived at an electoral understanding with the Left. How do you see your chances in this election?
In the local media, even until a few months ago there was a perception that the Assembly election would be fought between the BJP and the Trinamool. But gradually opposition parties, led by the Congress and the Left, started gaining ground. Now the third force is gaining credence with people as they are feeling exhausted with the vitriolic battle between the two giants. If we are serious we will be able to extract a little pound of flesh from this unfavourable political milieu in West Bengal.
Earlier it looked like the contest would be bipolar, but it is gradually turning into a triangular fight. Our chances have become stronger now than before.
Do you think the BJP’s rise in West Bengal is a real one or merely a perception as claimed by the Trinamool?
There is no denying that the BJP has reared its head in West Bengal. It was Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee who had brought the BJP into West Bengal. She had said then that the BJP should not be treated as an untouchable and that the BJP and the RSS [Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh] were patriotic organisations. That was the first time that the BJP got political recognition from a mainstream party in the State. The BJP was alien to the people of West Bengal in spite of the fact that Syama Prasad Mukherjee [who founded the Bharatiya Jana Sangh, the predecessor of the BJP] was born in Bengal.
Mamata Banerjee came to power with the cordial cooperation extended by the Congress in 2011. There is no denying that although she was an extremely popular figure, without the support of the Congress she would not have been able to defeat the Left Front, which had been in power for 34 years. But immediately after assuming power, she started decimating all the opposition parties, including the Congress and the CPI(M). Between 2011 and 2016, the Congress and the Left tried hard to resist the onslaught of the Trinamool.
Mamata Banerjee wanted to attain absolute power in Bengal, and we were getting decimated and struggled for our existence. It was a combined onslaught of the ruling party’s hooligans and administrative heads and the police. She established a reign of terror in which democracy was trampled upon with impunity. The BJP began to fill the vacuum that was thus created. Mamata Banerjee never tried to stop it. The BJP, with its regimented organisational structure, began to grow. A section of Left and Congress workers thought it prudent to join the BJP in the hope that it would save them from the Trinamool.
Earlier the BJP was a genie in the bottle; now the genie is out of the bottle and refuses to go back into it.
The Congress’ alliance with the Left has never been smooth or particularly successful. Why do you think the alliance will work this time?
You are absolutely correct. In 2016, we had forged an alliance with the Left, but at that time many in the Left Front, including a section of the CPI(M), had expressed ideological inhibitions over the tie-up. Although the alliance came into existence against all odds, it failed to live up to the expectations of the people. It was, in fact, a half-baked alliance.
Immediately after the election, the CPI(M) came to the conclusion that the Left’s failure was because of entering into an alliance with the Congress. It claimed that the Congress votes did not fall into the CPI(M)’s kitty, but the Left parties’ votes went to the Congress. I must admit that at some level it was true. For three and half decades the main political rivalry in West Bengal was between the Left and the Congress. The Left was ruling, and Congress workers felt victimised. As a result, Congress supporters faced a psychological barrier that prevented a section of them from casting their votes in favour of the Left.
But the situation has changed drastically. The Left and the Congress have been subjugated and persecuted by the Trinamool [ever since it came to power]. We are now sailing in the same boat. At the same time, the Left’s vote share has reduced to 7 per cent. There is a huge exodus from the Left to the BJP. There has been an exodus from the Congress too, but comparatively less. This is now a struggle for existence for both the Left and the Congress, and we have to give a fitting reply to both the Trinamool and the BJP, who I think are the twin devils. In fact, the Congress and the Left are now standing between the devil and the deep sea. This is a singular phenomenon that has never been witnessed in West Bengal before.
The BJP has been dividing society on communal lines, which is also a new phenomenon in West Bengal. For centuries we have boasted about our culture, and that very culture is now under threat. West Bengal is in a precarious situation. I am personally perturbed over it. We are witnessing competitive communalism between the two giants. But communalism will have to be fought by secular credentials and ideology. Communalism cannot be fought by communalism.
If a situation for a post-election alliance comes up, how prepared are you to keep the BJP out?
Right now, our priority is to struggle for existence, assert ourselves and restore lost ground. That is what we are concentrating on. First, we must survive, and for that we must gain strength; the more we gain strength, the more visible we will become. The Congress will certainly be able to carve out its own fortune in West Bengal. Regarding the post-election situation, I feel it is a hypothetical question that cannot be answered at this juncture. I will give an answer after the electoral battle is over.