In yet another political somersault, Mamata Banerjee joins hands with the Congress for the September byelections.
VOTERS of West Bengal are witness to yet another political somersault by Mamata Banerjee, the mercurial leader of the All India Trinamul Congress. After proclaiming time and again during the last election campaign that the Congress was nothing but a "B" team of the ruling Communist Party of India (Marxist), she has now made a volte-face. For the byelections to the Lok Sabha seats (of Malda, Purulia and Katwa) and the Bongaon Assembly seat on September 16, she has arrived at an understanding for seat adjustment with the Congress.
For Malda, which fell vacant on the death of veteran Congress leader A.B.A. Ghani Khan Chowdhury, the Congress has fielded A.H. Khan Chowdhury, the brother of Ghani Khan. Mamata Banerjee's reason for not fielding any Trinamul candidate for the seat was, according to her, her great respect for the departed secular Muslim leader. For the Purulia seat, she did not offer any such non-political explanation. In fact, the avowed objective of an understanding with the Congress is to avoid the division of non-Left votes. Thus, in Malda it will be a contest between the Congress, the CPI(M) and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP); in Purulia, between the CPI(M) and the Congress; and in Katwa, between the CPI(M) and the Trinamul. In the Bongaon assembly constituency, a curious situation has arisen since the son of a former Trinamul candidate, Gopal Seth, has refused to back out of the race and is contesting as an independent. The BJP, angry with Mamata's opportunism, has decided to support the rebel candidate, even though the Trinamul has fielded a well-known leader, Sougata Roy.
The electoral understanding with the Trinamul has been welcomed by the State Congress unit. Its working president Pradip Bhattacharya told Frontline: "Prior to this year's Assembly elections, there was an effort to unite against the Left Front, but it didn't materialise owing to Mamata Banerjee's reluctance to leave the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance. Though, she has not formally announced her departure from the NDA, the fact that she has entered into an understanding with us on the byelections is a clear indication of her distancing herself from the BJP."
The BJP, needless to say, was none too happy with the development. Its State president, Tathagata Roy, told Frontline: "She has once more switched sides for reasons best known to herself. Why did she not think of supporting Ghani Khan Chowdhury when he was alive, rather than give her support to him now? I personally see this as Mamata making a virtue out of a necessity, with a view to making immediate gains." The BJP leadership has no idea whether she plans to stay with the NDA or join forces with the Congress. "All that she is doing is at the cost of her own credibility. We have no idea what she is planning to do. We are absolutely flabbergasted," he said. Though Tathagata Roy has apprised the central leadership of the situation, he is yet to receive any response.
This is not the first time that the BJP feels short-changed by her but, given the fact that it has no footing in West Bengal, it has no alternative to riding piggy-back on the Trinamul.
The State Congress leadership, however, is optimistic that the situation as it stands would make it very difficult for Mamata Banerjee to remain in the NDA. It seems to be willing to forget all the slights and insults rained on it by the Trinamul supremo if the object of making a dent in the CPI(M) vote bank can be achieved. But according to Pradip Bhattacharya, there is no scope for a formal alliance as long as Mamata retains her formal ties with the BJP. In fact, it was Mamata Banerjee's partnership with the BJP that stood in the way of forming the `Mahajot' (grand alliance) proposed by the late Ghani Khan Chowdhury and ardently espoused by Mamata herself.
But the question is, should such an alliance indeed take shape formally, will the State Congress leadership, let alone the Congress high command, think of taking her back into the party fold? "We have never condemned her. Our political stand is very clear and straight - a viable secular anti-Left alternative is required and can only be provided by a unification of the Congress. Even for a good government, it is very important to have a good Opposition, which is sadly missing in West Bengal," said Bhattacharya.
Though the Congress is quick to claim that the present understanding will bring immediate electoral benefits, many of its leaders admit that the real gains are likely to come during the panchayat elections next year and the general elections the year after.
However, the Trinamul has not yet shown any indication of leaving the NDA. Partha Chatterjee, leader of the Trinamul Legislative Party, told Frontline categorically: "There are no plans to leave the NDA. It is unfortunate if the State BJP is under that impression." Nor is the Trinamul taking back its past criticisms of the Congress. "If the Congress says we have to quit the NDA for a formal alliance, then we can say that the Congress has to distance itself from the CPI(M) first," quipped Chatterjee. Trinamul leader Sougata Roy feels there is no duplicity in his party's decision: "Whatever the politics at the national level, the only way to beat the CPI(M) in West Bengal is for all other secular forces to join hands."
However, this is not the first time that Mamata Banerjee entered into an alliance with the Congress. In the 2001 Assembly elections, she came out of the NDA and joined hands with the State Congress - an act that was considered whimsical and opportunistic by the voters, which was evident from the party's rout in the elections. She promptly returned to the NDA fold.
Mamata Banerjee's bete noire, the CPI(M), seems unfazed by the coming together of its political adversaries. CPI(M) State secretary and Polit Bureau member Biman Bose denounced the Trinamul as a party without any principles and any ideology. "They state one thing in the morning, another in the afternoon and yet another at night," he said at a public meeting in Malda.
Mamata Banerjee, whose political career is at its nadir now, may also be taking a long-term view of the political situation. The BJP is in a bad shape at the national level and many political observers feel that her tie-up with the BJP has cost her the support of the minorities. She may be taking these four by-elections as a dress rehearsal for the panchayat polls and the general elections later. Moreover, the Bongaon result is of crucial importance to her because a victory would ensure that her party gets formal recognition as an Opposition party in the State legislature. The Trinamul has only 29 MLAs in the 294-member Assembly and needs one more for this recognition.
It is doubtful if this strategy will pay off. For one, the Congress high command may not take kindly to the State unit going all out against the CPI(M) while Mamata Banerjee maintains her alliance with the NDA.
Secondly, the local-level seat adjustments between the Congress and the Trinamul in some districts could not check the massive sweep of the Left Front in the last Assembly elections. Now, when there is no evidence of any anti-Left sentiment, there is no reason why such an understanding would yield a different result.