After months of strategising, planning, and meetings of the Indian National Developmental Inclusive Alliance (INDIA), the inevitable happened in West Bengal—Trinamool supremo and Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee severed ties with the Congress and decided to go it alone in the State in the upcoming Lok Sabha election. With key alliance partner Nitish Kumar in Bihar returning to the NDA (National Democratic Alliance) fold, and the INDIA bloc heading for disintegration, Mamata’s decision was less a knee-jerk reaction to the failed seat-sharing agreement with the Congress and more about securing her party’s future in Bengal. Although she has turned a deaf ear to the Congress’ repeated overtures at reconciliation, Mamata has kept open the possibility of post-election alliances, maintaining that she would do “whatever is needed to defeat the BJP”.
On January 24, two days after the inauguration of the Ram temple in Ayodhya, Mamata said, “I have not had any talks with anybody. Right from the beginning, the Congress rejected our proposal, and we decided only then that we will go it alone.” While the Congress wanted an understanding with the Trinamool in six seats, Mamata was firm about not conceding more than two. In the 2019 election, the Congress had won two, Berhampore and Malda Dakshin, of the 42 Lok Sabha seats in the State.
Pointing out that the INDIA alliance did not belong to one particular party, Mamata warned the Congress not to “interfere” in the affairs of the regional parties. “Let the Congress fight in 300 seats alone; the regional parties will fight in the other seats, and the Congress should not interfere there,” she said. “But if the Congress interferes in the other seats, then we will take action.” Mamata also alleged that the Congress failed to show due “courtesy” to an INDIA alliance partner by not informing her of Rahul Gandhi’s upcoming Bharat Jodo Nyay Yatra. “Did they inform me that ‘Didi, we are coming to your State?’ No, they did not. So, I too don’t have any relation with them,” she said.
Mamata’s announcement came the day after Rahul Gandhi, during his nyay yatra in Assam, said that all was well between his party and the Trinamool, in spite of constant sniping by leaders of the two parties. “My personal relationship with Mamataji is very good,” he said. “Our party also has good relations with Mamataji. Sometimes, someone from both parties says something. These are natural and will not be disrupting anything.”
Even in the face of Mamata’s apparent animosity, the Congress high command clung to the hope that she might reconsider her decision. Congress president Mallikarjun Kharge called her and invited her to be a part of Rahul’s nyay yatra in Bengal. Senior Congress leader Jairam Ramesh, hailing the Trinamool as a “pillar” of the INDIA bloc, said, “One cannot imagine the INDIA alliance without Mamata Banerjee…. Keeping in mind Mamataji’s words that defeating the BJP is her primary objective, the Bharat Jodo Nyay Yatra will enter Cooch Behar in West Bengal.” The Congress also appealed to the State government to ensure that there were no encumbrances during Rahul’s yatra. Mamata was not swayed by the Congress’ overtures, and when the yatra began in Bengal on January 28, the Congress said that it received little cooperation from the government.
Mamata had been one of the most vocal advocates of seat sharing, and had even suggested that the Congress’ loss to the BJP in the recent Assembly election in Rajasthan, Chhattisgarh, and Madhya Pradesh was due to not having a seat-sharing strategy with the other anti-BJP regional parties. Her apparent intransigence now may suggest that the seat-sharing issue was a useful ploy to not get into a political understanding with the pradesh Congress, with an eye on keeping the political dynamics in the State working in her favour.
Political observers not surprised
Political observers are not surprised by Mamata’s decision. Psephologist Biswanath Chakraborty said that politically, the Congress and the Trinamool have been so poised in the State that one’s gain would mean the other’s loss; and Mamata’s decision was based on long-term calculations rather than a reaction to pradesh Congress leaders’ criticism of her party and government.
“A sizeable section of the population that is dissatisfied with the Trinamool government and are opposing it, are Muslim voters,” Chakraborty told Frontline. “For them, the BJP is not an alternative; and in the past they have also gone against the Left. For them, the alternative may well be the Congress-Left-Indian Secular Front (ISF) combine. Mamata Banerjee may fear that while the votes of those disenchanted with the Trinamool may go to the Congress, the reverse is not likely to happen in the case of any seat-sharing deal. This fear began after the Sagardighi byelection.” In that byelection in March 2023, the Congress, supported by the Left and the ISF, wrested the Muslim-majority constituency from the Trinamool by 22,986 votes.
For Mamata, it meant that she could no longer count on the unquestioning support of Muslim voters. Sagardighi, in Murshidabad, has a Muslim population of over 68 per cent, and had been convincingly won by the Trinamool in 2011, 2016 and 2021. In 2021, Subrata Saha, Trinamool’s two-time MLA from there, won with 50.95 per cent of the votes. The byelection was necessitated by Saha’s death.
Though Bayron Biswas, the winning Congress candidate, joined the Trinamool soon after his victory, the result was, nevertheless, a warning to the ruling party. The trend seemed to continue in the 2023 violence-ridden panchayat elections, in which there was a clear shifting of support away from the Trinamool by a sizeable section of the minority community in the Muslim-majority districts of Murshidabad, Malda, and parts of South 24 Parganas.
A section of political analysts also believes that for Mamata the BJP may be a more “convenient” main opposition than the Congress or the Left, as the polarisation of votes on religious lines may be to her advantage. “After Sagardighi, Mamata Banerjee realises that she cannot afford to give the Congress any space, as its gain would mean her loss,” Chakraborty said. “Allowing Congress to win six seats would mean allowing the party to get back on its feet. Very deliberately, she has scuttled all attempts at seat adjustment. Unlike the Left and the Congress, Mamata does not really have an ideological commitment in uprooting the BJP from the State. In fact, strategically, having a relatively weak BJP as her main opposition means she can continue to enjoy Muslim support by presenting before the electorate the threat of the saffron party.”
Mamata’s concern about the Congress, the Left, and the ISF has often come to the fore. On January 22, after organising a “Sanhati” (harmony) rally in Kolkata in response to the Ram Mandir inauguration, she took a swipe at the INDIA alliance, saying, “I gave the name INDIA; and now the CPI(M) is controlling the INDIA meetings. I will not listen to anything the CPI(M) says.” At the same time, addressing a largely Muslim gathering in Kolkata’s Park Circus area, she raised the alarm about the possibility of a division of anti-BJP votes: “The BJP should not be helped in any way,” she said. “Then, God will not forgive anyone. I will not allow the BJP to get a single seat without putting up a fight. I will give my blood, if necessary.”
And yet, sources in the Left and the Congress admitted that though a division of the anti-BJP votes may boost their performances in the election, it is the BJP that benefits the most from it. The saffron party, which has been steadily losing political ground since winning 18 of the 42 Lok Sabha seats in 2019, has not yet managed to strengthen its grassroots organisation, and appears to be relishing the way the situation is turning out.
Amit Malviya, the national convener of the BJP’s IT cell, posted on social media after pradesh Congress president Adhir Ranjan Chowdhury complained of lack of cooperation from the administration in facilitating Rahul’s nyay yatra. He said, “Mamata Banerjee’s decision to deny Rahul Gandhi’s Yatra permission is like the last nail in the coffin of INDI Alliance. The decision is intended to humiliate the Congress.... A nervous Mamata Banerjee is doing all this in the hope that she can contest all seats in West Bengal, to remain relevant after results. But it is interesting to see the Congress suffer from ‘stockholm syndrome’ and continue to plead Mamata Banerjee to join the Yatra for just 5 minutes.”(sic)
Scenario not unwelcome for Congress
Even if, theoretically, the BJP stands to gain from a division of votes, the present scenario is not unwelcome for the pradesh Congress either. It has been at the receiving end of the ruling party’s domination in the State, and has even been losing its political strongholds that had withstood 34 years of Left rule.
Senior pradesh Congress leader Amitabha Chakraborty told Frontline, “Essentially, what Mamata Banerjee is saying is that the entire anti-BJP votes should go to Trinamool, and the Congress should not get even a small portion of that. The Congress, as the party that forged this anti-BJP alliance, did not want to be the one to break the ties with the Trinamool. It has let Mamata do it. Let us be frank. Till recently, we were attacking Trinamool on the issue of corruption, and then, suddenly, we are entering into an alliance—will we be able to retain whatever little support and respect the people of the State still harbour for us? We may have lost a lot of political support in the State, but at least we have not lost our self-respect.”
A section of the pradesh Congress thinks that personal grievances have taken precedence over the larger political objective of defeating the BJP, and are doing serious harm to the perception of the INDIA alliance. “Whether we enter into an alliance with the Trinamool or not, our position will remain the same. But if we had reached an understanding, it would have sent out a positive message for the anti-BJP opposition alliance,” said a senior Congress leader.
- After extensive planning and INDIA Alliance meetings, Mamata Banerjee, Trinamool supremo and Chief Minister of West Bengal, opted to sever ties with the Congress, choosing to contest the upcoming Lok Sabha election independently in the State.
- Mamata’s current refusal to compromise suggests that the seat-sharing matter was a deliberate strategy to avoid a political alliance with the Pradesh Congress, aiming to maintain favorable political dynamics in the State.
- While a division of anti-BJP votes could enhance the Left and Congress’ electoral performance, sources acknowledge that the primary beneficiary is the BJP.
Given the acrimonious history between the Trinamool and the Congress, the prospect of any kind of political alliance ahead of the Lok Sabha election was doomed from the outset. The only time an alliance between the two parties achieved electoral success was when the Trinamool joined forces with the Congress to overthrow the CPI(M)-led Left Front in the 2011 Assembly election.
The sealing of the alliance, too, was fraught with tension as leaders of the two parties could not restrain themselves from attacking each other through the media. Though the pressing political need of the hour prompted the two parties to tide over their differences, Mamata severed the alliance within months of assuming power. From that point, the two parties have been at loggerheads.
Also Read | Mamata Banerjee: Can ‘Didi’ aim higher?
As the Trinamool’s dominance grew, whatever little political sway the Congress had began to fade quickly until it ceased to be of any political significance by itself in Bengal. As Mamata’s ambitions turned towards the Centre, her attacks were directed against the national leadership of the party, and her expansion plans in States like Goa and in the north-eastern region began to hamper the Congress’ prospects in those States.
After defeating the BJP in the 2021 Assembly election—which was perceived as a Modi versus Mamata battle for Bengal—Mamata began to project herself as one of Narendra Modi’s principal opponents, who could stop the BJP juggernaut. In doing so, the Trinamool found it necessary to undermine the Congress’ position as the main opposition to the BJP. “If the Congress cannot defeat the BJP, the Trinamool will do it,” Mamata’s nephew and Trinamool’s all-India general secretary, Abhishek Banerjee had said after the victory in 2021.
The message was loud and clear: The Trinamool had designs of evicting the Congress from its place at the national level. Even though the Congress’ national leadership appears to be willing to swallow its pride and try to appease the mercurial Mamata, the Trinamool may not want to play second fiddle to the Congress, even if it means that its actions will run counter to its professed political mission—to remove the BJP from the Centre.