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Print edition : Jun 29, 2012 T+T-
CPI(M) candidate Tamalika Panda Seth celebrates after winning the Haldia municipal seat in Purba Medinipur district.-PTI

CPI(M) candidate Tamalika Panda Seth celebrates after winning the Haldia municipal seat in Purba Medinipur district.-PTI

The Trinamool Congress' defeat in the Haldia municipality is a reminder to the party that it cannot take the electorate for granted.

The Trinamool Congress' defeat at the hands of the Communist Party of India (Marxist)-led Left Front in Haldia in West Bengal's Purba (East) Medinipur district in the recent civic elections will serve as a reminder to the ruling party that it cannot expect a cakewalk in every election. Although the party won in four out of the six municipal bodies that went to the polls on June 3 Panskura, Durgapur, Nalhati and Dhupguri the defeat in Haldia and Cooper's Camp in Nadia district is a pointer to the direction the ruling Trinamool-Congress alliance is taking.

The defeat in Haldia in particular has been a huge embarrassment for the Trinamool. The port town, which is just a stone's throw from Nandigram, is a symbol of the Trinamool Congress' rise to power. It was in Nandigram that the Trinamool and the Left Front were locked in a prolonged and bloody turf war over rumours of land acquisition in 2007. The battle had resulted in the CPI(M) losing political control of the Purba Medinipur district, which was considered one of its strongholds.

Since 2008, the Trinamool had not lost a single election in and around the Haldia region from the panchayat elections (in 2008) to the Lok Sabha elections (2009) and finally the Assembly elections (2011). The CPI(M)'s influence in the region was believed to have completely disappeared, particularly with the recent incarceration of Lakshman Seth, the party strongman in the district. However, a ward-based scrutiny of the results showed an exact reversal of the mandate of the 2011 Assembly elections. If the Trinamool had won 15 seats and the Left Front 11 in 2011, this time the Left won 15 and the Trinamool 11. The battle for the Haldia municipality was spearheaded by Seth's wife, Tamalika Panda Seth.

The electorate in Haldia has shown the Trinamool a yellow card. They must be alert, otherwise they will receive a red card in the future, Leader of the Opposition and CPI(M) Polit Bureau member Surya Kanta Mishra told Frontline. He felt the Trinamool's terror tactics had alienated the people from the party. There are many, including some within the Trinamool camp itself, who maintain that it is the arrogance and high-handedness of the Trinamool Member of Parliament from the region and party heavyweight, Subhendu Adhikari, that have been largely responsible for the defeat.

Just as the people had rejected Lakshman Seth, they have voiced their disapproval of Subhendu Adhikari in this election. This was a message sent to us, a Trinamool source told Frontline. He also felt that the Congress, with its strong Indian National Trade Union Congress (INTUC) support base in the region, may also have played a role in queering the pitch for the Trinamool, as this was the first time since assuming power in the State that the two warring allies the Congress and the Trinamool fought the elections separately.

The Congress feels the division of votes from the triangular contest resulted in the Left's victory. The difference between the Trinamool and Left votes was 1,500, while the Congress alone secured 2,200 votes. Though this is not much, it would have played a key role in the Trinamool's victory. If the Congress and the Trinamool had fought the elections together, the CPI(M) would never have been able to win in Haldia, Pradesh Congress Committee (PCC) general secretary Om Prakash Mishra told Frontline.

Cooper's camp defeat

The other loss for the Trinamool was in Cooper's Camp. Though the impact of this loss may not be as heavy as that in Haldia, it is nevertheless galling enough, as it came at the hands of the Congress. The victory was an emphatic one, with the Congress winning 11 of the 12 seats under the influential district leader Shankar Singh, and the Trinamool managing to secure only one seat. This was an extremely important win for the Congress as it was more a battle for self-respect than anything else. Cooper's Camp is the smallest of the municipalities, yet it saw the most high-profile campaign after Haldia. Eleven State Ministers had campaigned for the Trinamool in the region. Moreover, the Congress itself had been affected by large-scale defections of its workers to the Trinamool fold. There was the anti-incumbency factor, too, since the Congress has been in control of the board for the past 15 years.

Funds and grants to the board were deliberately not released by the State government, in order to project the Congress in a poor light. In spite of all odds, we won, said Om Prakash Mishra. Sources in the Trinamool also agreed that the victory in Cooper's Camp revealed that the Congress was still strong in some pockets.

Allies drifting apart

The six elections were also important in that it gave the Trinamool Congress and the Congress the opportunity to find out, since coming to power in the State, whether they could go it alone in electoral battles. On the surface, the results show that the Trinamool's strength has remained intact. Neither Haldia nor Cooper's Camp belonged to it to start with, and it not only retained its control of the Nalhati (Birbhum district) and Panskura (Purba Medinipur) municipal bodies, but also wrested Durgapur (Bardhaman district) and Dhupguri (Jalpaiguri) from the Left. It won 72 of the 129 wards in the six civic bodies.

This time the Trinamool Congress fought the elections alone not only against the CPI(M) but also against the Congress, the Bharatiya Janata Party and the Maoists. We have got enough strength to rule West Bengal and fight the next elections alone again, Trinamool leader and Railway Minister Mukul Roy said in a press conference after the results were declared.

The PCC leadership reacted defiantly; it stated that the Trinamool was free to sever ties with the Congress. But it was also all too aware of the fact that the Congress' political position in the State as the junior ally of the Trinamool remained unchanged. Though it has put on a brave face and celebrated its victory in Cooper's Camp and pointed to the result in Haldia to remind the Trinamool of its relevance in West Bengal politics, the fact remains that the Congress has gained no real ground outside its already existing strongholds in north Bengal, Murshidabad and Nadia, and that these are also under threat from the Trinamool, which seems determined to wipe the Congress out from West Bengal. The Congress is not making the right moves in West Bengal. We are failing to strengthen the party here mainly because of the attitude of the central leadership, a senior PCC source in told Frontline.

Though the Left Front retained the Haldia seat, it had little cause to rejoice. It lost the prestigious Durgapur Municipal Corporation, which it had controlled since 1996, and, more surprisingly, Dhupguri. The Left could win only 11 of the 43 seats in the Durgapur municipality, once considered a bastion of the CPI(M).

In the case of the Dhupguri municipality, it could win only four of the 16 seats, though in the 2011 Assembly elections it had won the Dhupguri Assembly constituency. We did not think we would lose Dhupguri. This has undoubtedly been a big setback for us, a CPI(M) source told Frontline.