Kolkata: Senior Congress leader Adhir Ranjan Chowdhury feels Trinamool Congress (TMC) supremo Mamata Banerjee is an "incidental beneficiary" of the highly polarised West Bengal Assembly elections and not the "only anti-Modi face" capable of taking on the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in the next Lok Sabha polls.
Chowdhury also defends his frequent criticism of the TMC supremo, calling it the right decision for the benefit of his party.
Talking about the prospects of a broader anti-BJP coalition ahead of the Lok Sabha polls in 2024, the leader of the Congress party in the House, insists no opposition front can succeed without Congress' participation.
"The elections in West Bengal this time were highly polarised on communal and regional identity. The people of the state who did not want BJP, en masse voted in favour of TMC. The communal rhetoric and the threat and intimidation politics of the BJP leadership only helped Mamata Banerjee.
"Without taking away the credit for the fight she put up, I would say she is an incidental beneficiary in these elections," Chowdhury told PTI in an interview.
Acknowledging that TMC's victory was "magnificent", the Congress veteran, however, said many regional opposition leaders had helmed their parties to triumph over BJP.
"It's true that she has put up a fight against the BJP and its election machinery. It's a magnificent victory, no doubt about it. But at the same time, she is not the only regional leader who has defeated the BJP.
"Arvind Kejriwal, Lalu Prasad Yadav, M K Stalin, Pinarayi Vijayan, too, have done the same. So, saying that she is the only (credible opposition) face (who could take on the BJP's might) would be an injustice to others," he said.
The West Bengal Congress chief rejected suggestions by a section of his partymen that he was more vocal against Banerjee than BJP.
"I have been vocal against both TMC and BJP. Yes, I had to attack the TMC when I saw they were destroying my Bengal unit by poaching our representatives. Whatever I have done, I have done for my party. I don't have any personal animosity with Mamata Banerjee," he said.
He chose not to respond to a question as to why the top Congress leadership desisted from attacking Banerjee and largely stayed away from the election campaign.
Chowdhury, However, said if the Congress party forges an alliance with TMC in future, the state unit will "lower its tempo" against Banerjee.
Responding to a query about some opposition parties intending to ally against BJP, the Congress Working Committee (CWC) member asserted, "No opposition alliance will succeed without the presence of Congress in it."
"The political landscape of our country is such that no opposition alliance against BJP can succeed without Congress. The Congress is still the biggest opposition party in the country with a pan-India presence," he said.
On his party's rout in the Assembly polls in West Bengal, where it drew a blank, Chowdhury said the elections were completely polarised along communal and regional lines but hoped that the Congress, which ruled the state for more than two decades since Independence, will revive soon.
Chowdhury noted that the Sitalkuchi incident in Coochbehar, where firing by central forces led to the killing of four Muslims during the polling, polarised minority voters.
"The Sitalkuchi incident led to further polarisation as voters in Malda, Murshidabad (considered Congress strongholds) also voted for TMC," he said.
The Congress had fought the Assembly polls in alliance
with CPI(M) and Muslim cleric Abbas Siddiqui's Indian Secular Front or ISF.
Except for ISF, which bagged one seat, the CPI(M)-led Left Front and the Congress failed to open their account for the for the first time in the Assembly polls.
When asked whether Congress will form alliance with CPI(M) and ISF in future, too, Chowdhury categorically said, "No relations with ISF".
"We never had any relations with the ISF. It was CPI (M) which shared their seats with them. The ISF had pitched candidates against us in many seats. We will have no relation with the ISF in the future, too," he said.
Replying to a question about the recent media reports that former Congress president Rahul Gandhi will likely replace him as the leader of the Congress party in Lok Sabha, Chowdhury said he is not aware of any such move.
"I am not aware of any such development. I am a loyal soldier of the party. Whatever duty it assigns me, I would do my best. If Rahul Gandhi replaces me as the leader of our party in Lok Sabha, I would be the happiest person," he said.
Lauding Rahul Gandhi's leadership qualities, Chowdhury said the BJP deliberately tries to discredit him as it is "afraid of him".
"Every time there is a failure, everybody starts questioning Rahul Gandhi. The fact is that these failures are a collective responsibility. The Congress party has been on the decline since the 1989 Lok Sabha polls. So why single out Rahulji?" he said.
Speaking about Congress leaders leaving the party, with former President Pranab Mukherjee's son Abhijit being the latest addition, Chowdhury wondered whether their deserting or joining a party would make any difference.
"Everybody is free to make their own decisions. But Abhijit Mukherjee leaving the party won't have any impact. He was chief of the state's campaign committee during the polls. You can't show me a single statement from him criticising BJP or TMC during the elections," he said.