On the decline

Published : Jul 04, 2003 00:00 IST

Chief Minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee speaks at a rally. - JAYANTA SHAW/REUTERS

Chief Minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee speaks at a rally. - JAYANTA SHAW/REUTERS

A string of electoral defeats later, Mamata Banerjee's Trinamul Congress is a deeply divided party that is hardly in a position to take on the Left Front in West Bengal.

WHEN Mamata Banerjee launched the Trinamul Congress, she had a dream that her fledgling party would eventually storm into Writers' Buildings, the seat of power in West Bengal, and humble Alimuddin Street, where the State committee of the Communist Party of India (Marxist) has its office. The massive crowds that she drew deluded her into believing that she would tear apart the Marxist fabric in West Bengal. That was in 1998. Five years later, there are sure signs of that dream having crashed.

With each passing day, her organisation, the Trinamul Congress, is dwindling in size; her partymen remain a thoroughly frustrated lot and her party's electoral prospects seem to be growing dimmer. A series of electoral setbacks, beginning with the 2001 Assembly election defeats to the recent victories of the CPI(M) in the Nabadwip Lok Sabha constituency and the Vidyasagar Asseembly segment, are pointers of the extent to which the Trinamul Congress has lost both appeal and credibility.

It is almost incomprehensible why the Trinamul Congress, which had forced the communists to put on their thinking caps, is gradually becoming a spent force. Mamata Banerjee's downfall, it appears, will be as meteoric as her rise.

It was in 1998 that Mamata split the Congress(I) and formed the Trinamul Congress with the stated intention of taking on the Marxists. Mamata did not break away from the Congress(I) for ideological reasons but because she believed that a Somen Mitra-led Congress(I) would never be able to unseat the Communists. The former, she believed, was a mere appendage of Alimuddin Street. The people of the State, who were then desirous of a change in West Bengal politics, found Mamata's logic appealing. Congress(I) workers, who were a frustrated lot because of Mitra's alleged proximity to the CPI(M) and his laid-back attitude towards strengthening the organisation, started crossing over to the Trinamul Congress. They seemed to sense the party's potential to unseat the Left Front government.

The 1998 Lok Sabha elections saw the Trinamul win seven seats. Although the number was not significant, given that West Bengal has 42 Lok Sabha seats, the elections marked the rise of the Trinamul Congress as the principal Opposition party in the State. The Trinamul Congress improved upon its performance in the 1999 Lok Sabha polls, when Mamata, along with Ajit Panja, became Union Ministers. In the intervening period, she had stolen a march over a decimated Congress(I) by bagging nearly 10,000 panchayat seats. The message was clear: it is either the CPI(M) or Mamata in West Bengal.

But, there lay the danger too. Mamata convinced herself that she could afford to act according to her whims and fancies and presumed that the people of West Bengal would continue to pamper her electorally. She trained her guns on the Centre, and ignored the CPI(M) because she thought that the people were aware of her anti-CPI(M) stance.

Whether it was a hike in petrol prices or the Tehelka expose, she made quitting the Ministry her first action of protest. So, in 2000, people began to be convinced that she had a penchant for drama. Not surprisingly, the results of the 2001 Assembly elections were disheartening for the Trinamul Congress. Mamata Banerjee termed her party's alliance with the Congress(I) a blunder and ensured for herself a place within the National Democratic Alliance (NDA).

The top brass of the Bharatiya Janata Party was extremely charitable to her. Despite the fact that she had backstabbed the NDA prior to the Assembly polls, she was offered a Cabinet berth. But she stayed away in order to protest against the bifurcation of the Eastern Railway, alleging that the Centre was trying to divide Bengal. Sources in the Trinamul Congress say that her decision to stay away from the Ministry was taken at the behest of Subrata Mukherjee, the mayor of Kolkata, whose relation with the State Congress(I) is no secret.

The Eastern Railway bifurcation issue led to serious differences of opinion between Mamata and her one-time mentor Sudip Bandopadhyay. At a party working committee meeting, Bandopadhyay argued against the severing of ties with the NDA, and the relationship between the two hit a low. Mamata had already lost Ajit Panja, who raised the banner of revolt and was suspended. However, unperturbed by analyses that her credibility could hit rock-bottom, she quit the NDA. She had to rejoin it later, silently. In public perception, Mamata became an unstable politician, more concerned about herself than her party.

Even as the Trinamul's organisational base started eroding, it contested the Tripura Assembly polls. In the event, all Trinamul Congress candidates forfeited their deposits. Mamata's calculation was that by contesting in some of the neighbouring States, and mobilising a certain percentage of the votes, the Trinamul would acquire the status of a national party.

Again, in the Howrah South and Onda Assembly byelections, Trinamul candidates lost their deposits. The municipal polls in West Bengal saw the Congress(I) regaining lost ground and the Left Front maintaining its firm grip on the semi-urban electorate.

And then came the panchayat elections. Mamata protested vehemently against the CPI(M)'s "terror tactics" and alleged that her party could not file nominations in as many as 20,000 seats because of "Marxist terror". She roped in the services of BJP president M. Venkaiah Naidu and Shatrughan Sinha in her effort to take the battle to Delhi. But apparently, Prime Minister A.B. Vajpayee and Deputy Prime Minister L.K. Advani remained unconvinced.

The panchayat poll results were an indication of Mamata's waning popularity and certainly a reflection of the fact that there is no substitute for a well-knit organisation. Also, the Congress(I) has catapulted itself to the second position in terms of zilla parishad and panchayat samiti seats won. Mamata could not retain her hold over south Bengal, her former stronghold. Her direction to party MLAs to boycott the budget session of the Assembly, which was scheduled to begin on June 26, to protest "CPI(M) terror" has not been well received.

The Prime Minister's move to make Sudip Bandopadhyay a Minister gave Mamata yet another opportunity to bargain. The Deputy Prime Minister too was in favour of giving Bandopadhyay a ministerial berth because he has been a strong NDA votary and had expressed solidarity with the top BJP leadership even when Mamata deserted the NDA. Mamata had forwarded Akbar Ali Khondakar's name for the second ministerial slot, knowing well that the BJP would reject it. Her calculation was that that would allow her to ask for just one ministerial berth. She failed in that attempt as the BJP leadership decided against inducting her in the Cabinet if Bandopadhyay was not made a Minister.

The Trinamul Congress Parliamentary Party may undergo a split if Mamata is offered a Cabinet berth once again and asked to name her choice for the second slot. According to sources in the party, Mamata has assured the second berth to practically every party MP, including the expelled CPI(M) MP from Sunderbans, Radhika Ranjan Pramanik.

Even on the boycott issue, the Trinamul Legislature Party is a divided house. Some legislators are planning to revolt against Mamata if the boycott is not lifted. Although Panja and Bandopadhyay have fallen out of favour with Mamata, expelling them could lead to a split in the parliamentary party. Panja is inclined to join the Congress(I), while Bandopadhyay has adopted a wait-and-watch policy.

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