Trinamool Congress

Changing dynamics

Print edition : May 02, 2014

Trinamool Congress leader Mamata Banerjee campaigning in Bardhaman district in on April 7. Photo: PTI

At a BJP election rally that Narendra Modi addressed on the outskirts of Siliguri, West Bengal, on April 10. Photo: S. Maitra/AP

THE electoral scene in West Bengal is poised at an interesting juncture. For the first time in many years, a four-cornered contest (between the All India Trinamool Congress, the Left Front led by the Communist Party of India (Marxist), the Congress and the Bharatiya Janata Party) seems to be on the cards in many of the 42 constituencies that will be going to the polls from April 17. The elections, to be held in five phases in West Bengal, will be a trial by fire for Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee and her Trinamool Congress. Not only is this the first time that the Trinamool is contesting a general election without any alliance, but the ruling party will be up against an upbeat BJP, which is projected to increase its vote share substantially, riding on a perceived “Narendra Modi wave”.

Although the advantage lies with the ruling party, the present electoral scenario has introduced new political equations that have baffled political pundits. The Trinamool, too, seems a little rattled by the element of uncertainty that it faces for the first time since assuming power in West Bengal in 2011.

In the 2009 elections, Mamata Banerjee’s tie-up with the Congress saw her winning 19 seats (her allies, the Congress and the Socialist Unity Centre of India, won six and one respectively), paving the way for a massive victory in the Assembly elections in 2011, where the alliance won 226 out of the 294 Assembly seats (the Trinamool got 184).

But the political dynamics of West Bengal have changed since the 2009 elections, which was the harbinger for a change of power in the State. The rocky alliance with the Congress collapsed in 2012, leaving Mamata Banerjee alone in the battlefield. “Our position was strong enough for us to shed the dead weight of the Congress that we had been carrying,” said a Trinamool source. The Trinamool’s electoral successes following the break-up seemed to justify this optimism. In the 2013 panchayat elections, it won 13 of the 17 zilla parishads, 214 out of the 329 panchayat samities, and 1,783 of the 3,215 gram panchayats. The same year, it captured eight of the 12 municipal bodies that had gone to the polls across the State. Even its vote percentage increased to around 42 per cent in the panchayat elections.

These results may have led Mamata Banerjee to initially assume that the Lok Sabha elections would be a cakewalk. However, as the elections approached, it became clear that the Trinamool supremo was worried about the rise of the BJP coupled with the division of anti-Left votes. The predicted increase in the BJP’s vote share will affect the vote shares of all parties, but it is the Trinamool which is expected to bear the brunt of it. “The Trinamool’s shameless and no-holds-barred policy of minority appeasement has alienated large numbers of Hindu as well as Muslim voters. We shall see a reflection of that in the elections,” senior State BJP leader Tathagata Roy told Frontline. He said that the pro-BJP wave was unprecedented in West Bengal. Veterans in the BJP’s State unit believe that the party is likely to exceed its performance in 1991, when it secured more than 11 per cent of the votes, its highest showing so far.

This new phenomenon has been preying on Mamata Banerjee’s mind, and in her election speeches her primary target of attack shifted for the first time from the CPI(M) to the BJP, Modi in particular. She even accused the opposition in the State of teaming up for a conspiracy against her. “I have always maintained that the CPI(M), the Congress and the BJP are working together here,” she said. According to political observers, even if the BJP’s rise does not translate into seats, it will be a determining factor in many constituencies. “In the present situation, the Left is still our main opponent, but the BJP has come up to the second position. The Congress is at the bottom of the list,” a senior Trinamool leader told Frontline.

The Trinamool believes that if it can manage to capture around 30 seats in the State, it may emerge as the third or the fourth largest party at the Centre. With this hope, and an eye to a position of power and leverage at the national level, Mamata Banerjee has called for a “non-BJP, non-Congress federal front” at the Centre. Post-election, it is unlikely that she will overtly join hands with the National Democratic Alliance (NDA), risking the loss of Muslim votes, which account for around 26 per cent of the votes in the State.

Moreover, her mercurial temperament makes her a difficult ally to handle. She left the Congress in 1997 and formed the Trinamool Congress on January 1, 1998. In 1999, she joined the BJP-led NDA; in 2001, she split with the NDA and allied with the Congress. In 2004, she returned to the NDA, only to leave it again in 2006. She once again allied with the Congress and, in 2012 left the United Progressive Alliance. It is hard for her to shrug off her own past history of being allied to both the BJP and the Congress—a fact that makes her vulnerable to attacks from her political opponents.

It may be recalled that it was during her alliance with the NDA that her political career reached its nadir. She was the sole representative of her party in the Lok Sabha (in 2004) and could win only 30 seats in the 2006 Assembly elections. It was only after launching her violent movement against land acquisition in reaction to the Left Front government’s industrial drive in Singur (2006) and in Nandigram (2007) that she re-emerged from political obscurity.

Fortunately for her, her minority vote bank, which has been a crucial factor in her electoral successes, still appears intact. “For the minorities, the Trinamool means security and welfare. They feel that Mamata Banerjee is by their side,” Sultan Ahmed, Trinamool leader and the minority face of the party, told Frontline. In this uncertain political situation, the Trinamool’s problems are compounded by vicious and often violent fights within the party. Time and again, this has hampered its prospects in various regions in the State. “The problem is that there are too many people who want a slice of the political pie,” admitted a Trinamool source.

Two other serious issues have severely damaged the party’s image. The first is the alarming rise in crimes against women in the State since the party assumed power in 2011. In fact, the National Crimes Record Bureau reported that West Bengal recorded the highest number of atrocities against women in 2012. The second is the alleged closeness of some of the party’s top leaders to Sudipta Sen, the chairman of the Saradha group, who is at present in prison for a multi-crore deposit-scheme scam that hit the State last year. One of the biggest financial scandals in the State’s recent history, it has ruined lakhs of investors, mostly belonging to the rural poor—the core of the Trinamool’s base. The Trinamool leader and Rajya Sabha member Kunal Ghosh is still in prison for his alleged involvement in the scam.

However, the Trinamool may draw some comfort from the fact that these issues had no impact on the results of the recent panchayat and civic elections. The ruling party is optimistic that two of its government’s biggest achievements—putting an end to the Maoist menace in the State and bringing peace to the strife-torn Darjeeling hills—will fetch rich electoral dividends. Apart from the obvious advantages that the Trinamool has as the ruling party, its biggest edge over its opponents is its connect with the people. Mamata Banerjee herself has led from the front, travelling indefatigably across the length and breadth of the State, keeping both her party workers and party leaders on their toes. “Whereas people do not see other party leaders throughout the year, we are always accessible to them. Our main message to the people is our close ties with them and our programme of development,” said Sultan Ahmed.

Suhrid Sankar Chattopadhyay

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