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Uneasy allies

Published : Apr 22, 2011 00:00 IST

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Trinamool Congress leader Mamata Banerjee releasing the list of candidatates at her office at Kalighat in Kolkata on March 16.-ARUNANGSU ROY CHOWDHURY

Trinamool Congress leader Mamata Banerjee releasing the list of candidatates at her office at Kalighat in Kolkata on March 16.-ARUNANGSU ROY CHOWDHURY

The soured relations between the Trinamool Congress and the Congress may prove beneficial to the Left Front in West Bengal.

THE final sealing of the Trinamool Congress-Congress alliance should have made the Left Front's fight to retain power in West Bengal tougher. It is, however, an alliance over which hang suspicion and resentment, which may ultimately prove to be counterproductive to the opposition's grand scheme of preventing the Communist Party of India (Marxist)-led Left Front's return to power for an eighth consecutive term.

After weeks of wrangling, it was decided that the Trinamool Congress would contest 227 seats, the Congress 65, and the Socialist Unity Centre of India (SUCI) two in the Assembly elections scheduled to begin on April 18. The Congress had initially sought to contest in one-third of the State's 294 seats. To a large section of the party's State unit leadership, the arrangement that was finally worked out was unpalatable. But the Trinamool managed to arm-twist the Congress high command into agreeing to the deal.

The Congress, which leads the United Progressive Alliance (UPA), already in an uncomfortable position with scams breaking out one after another, was, perhaps, unable to reject Trinamool supremo and Railway Minister Mamata Banerjee's take-it-or-leave-it offer. The Trinamool, with its 19 Members of Parliament in the Lok Sabha, is the second-largest constituent of the UPA.

Besides, the failure to notch up an alliance might have meant temporary extinction for the Congress in West Bengal's politics. But whatever the compulsions, powerful sections in the State Congress leadership are finding it difficult to swallow the indignity.

Pradesh Congress general secretary and spokesperson Om Prakash Mishra said the seat adjustment was one-sided and dictated by the TMC. He told Frontline that discontent among Congress leaders and workers was high and would have an impact on the electoral outcome.

A prominent section in the State unit feels that the central leadership was misled into accepting Mamata's ultimatum. A senior Congress source told Frontline: Mamata knew the importance of a tie-up with the Congress. If we stood firm, it is she who would have had to blink. Had the TMC given us more seats and quality seats, it would have truly benefited from the alliance. Now there is discontent everywhere.

After the impressive performance of the Trinamool-Congress alliance in the Lok Sabha elections of 2009, the relationship between the partners deteriorated to the point that they contested the civic elections of 2010 separately. Though a post-election understanding was reached to keep the Left out of some municipal bodies, relations between the two did not improve. Barbs and insults flowed freely, and the two partners seemed to talk to each other only through the media. The seat-adjustment has done little to improve matters, and a new fear has crept up within the rank and file of the opposition the fear that the advantage it earlier had over the Left may now be reducing.

A senior Congress leader told Frontline: An opposition victory and the defeat of the Left Front, which was earlier a certainty, has now been reduced to just a possibility, only because of the TMC's attitude.

In the whole of southern Bengal, out of a total of 218 seats, the Congress has been offered only 20. Of its eight MLAs, Ram Piyare Ram, six-time winner from the erstwhile Kabitirtha seat, and Khalek Mollah of Garden Reach, have not been accommodated. Both have decided to contest as independent candidates. Of the [remaining] six MLAs, only three will be able to successfully defend their seats. As for the other constituencies we have been given, it is doubtful we will achieve positive results in any one of them, a senior Congress source told Frontline. Besides, the Trinamool has not allotted the Congress a single seat in Kolkata.The Trinamool has played the big brother also in northern Bengal, where the Congress has a relatively strong base. The Trinamool has staked its claim to three Congress strongholds in Malda, four in North Dinajpur, and four in Murshidabad district. The Congress has also been saddled with five unwinnable Darjeeling constituencies, which will most likely go to the Gorkha Janamukti Morcha (GJM).

The GJM, meanwhile, decided to contest the elections in the three hill constituencies of Darjeeling, Kurseong and Kalimpong, though it is admittedly a compromise in its movement for a separate State of Gorkhaland. It has set up independent candidates in two other constituencies and has unilaterally declared its support for Trinamool candidates in several seats in the Terai and Dooars and a Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) candidate in one. Mamata Banerjee, however, has rejected the GJM's offer of support, saying her party would have no truck with an organisation that also supported the BJP. Political observers say her move is calculated to distance herself from the separate Gorkhaland movement.

Smaller allies sacrificed

The Congress' acceptance of the TMC's arrangement forced its smaller allies such as the Jamait-i-Ulema-e-Hind, the Party for Democratic Socialism, the Janata Dal (Secular), and other constituents of the proposed United Secular Democratic Front to go their separate ways, as there was nothing they could hope to gain from it anymore.

However, it was the decision of the Akhil Bharatiya Adivashi Vikash Parishad (ABAVP), which is said to control a sizable chunk of the tribal votes in the Dooars, to sever its ties with the Congress and field independent candidates in five tribal constituencies in northern Bengal, that has queered the pitch for the Congress. The Congress said we could have our own candidates in the constituencies, but it would have to be under the Congress banner, which was not acceptable to the local leadership of our organisation, ABAVP State president Birsa Tirkey told Frontline. The ABAVP's decision may benefit the Left.

Ashok Bhattacharya, Municipal Affairs and Urban Development Minister and the CPI(M)'s MLA from Siliguri constituency, said: In the whole of northern Bengal, the advantage is now with the Left. The opposition is disunited. The various opposition parties are facing severe internal crises, while the Left Front is putting up a strong united stand, riding on the issue of development and its achievements.

Moreover, northern Bengal, being more of a Congress stronghold as far as the opposition is concerned, may not be swayed as much by the Mamata factor as the rest of the State. Notwithstanding the strong anti-incumbency factor working against us, we hope to win the bulk of the seats in northern Bengal, though I fear the margins will be greatly reduced, a CPI(M) source in Siliguri told Frontline.

The Trinamool's plans to make forays into Congress territory, riding on the alliance, may well be foiled in certain areas where the latter has not been able to swallow the humiliation meted out to it. Adhir Ranjan Chowdhury, Congress heavyweight in Murshidabad, decided to field four Congress-backed independent candidates against TMC contestants. TMC leader Firhad Hakim, while acknowledging the superior organisational strength of the Congress in Murshidabad district, pointed out that a Mamata Banerjee wave was sweeping the rest of the State. We are committed to the UPA at the Centre, and nowhere have we placed candidates in the seats reserved for the Congress. Now it is up to the Congress high command to control its partymen, he told Frontline.

Congress infighting

Having been limited to just 65 seats, the Congress leadership was forced to make major compromises in the selection of candidates, and this led to further bad blood within the party. Sections of the party rebelled amid allegations of nepotism in the selection of candidates and openly defied the party leadership by setting up independent candidates in some seats against party candidates.

In the Domkal Assembly seat in Murshidabad district, a rebel group of the district Congress decided to put up an independent candidate against the party candidate, making it perhaps a little easier for CPI(M) heavyweight Anisur Rahaman. In many cases deserving candidates were sacrificed for those whose only claim to candidacy is being close to certain top leaders, said a senior Congress leader.

As soon as the list was announced, Congress workers began to demonstrate their discontent in various parts of the State Howrah, Nadia, West Medinipur, Uttar Dinajpur, Murshidabad and Malda. On the one hand, there was resentment against the Trinamool for thrusting upon it the humiliating conditions of the alliance, on the other there was anger against the leadership for having accepted them. In some seats, candidates not acceptable at the local party unit had been selected.

I was not against the alliance, but I saw that my party was being wiped out of existence by this alliance. The local people have all along supported me, and even now, when I stand as an independent candidate, the local Congress workers will support me, Ram Piyare Ram told Frontline. His popularity may pose a a serious problem for TMC leader Firhad Hakim.

But however much the various factions within the party may bicker with each other, the overwhelming majority of them are united in their grievance against the Trinamool. None of this would have happened if we were allowed to contest in more seats. This alliance has tied up the hands of our party and so many of the aspirations of our workers remain unfulfilled, a Congress worker from Malda told Frontline.

To add to the woes of the alliance, the SUCI, which remained steadfast in its support for the Trinamool since the days they fought side by side at Nandigram (West Medinipur), decided to field 17 candidates against the Congress, including one against Pradesh Congress chief Manas Bhuniya in Sabang in West Medinipur.

The party is unhappy with the two seats allotted to it, though it has scrupulously avoided any confrontation with the Trinamool.

(This story was published in the print edition of Frontline magazine dated Apr 22, 2011.)

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