Kolkata: A trailer of what role the All India Trinamool Congress (TMC) and its supremo Mamata Banerjee would play in the days ahead was seen during her campaign in the Bhowanipore Assembly constituency. The ‘unelected’ chief minister was contesting to become a legislator and secure her chair at Nabanna.
Banerjee’s emphatic win at her home turf, Bhowanipore, by a margin of 58,835 votes against Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) candidate Priyanka Tibrewal is not a surprise. It does not add to her clout in West Bengal, as she is already the most prominent politician here, and has been functioning like a dictator in running party affairs and her role chief minister. The pertinent question is whether this victory and that of TMC candidates in two other bypolls at Jangipur and Shasherganj in Murshidabad district will enhance her capability to manoeuvre in the non-BJP space countrywide.
The question that is being raised in certain quarters is: Did Banerjee try to ‘live down’ the meeting in New Delhi on July 28 with acting Congress president Sonia Gandhi and former Congress chief Rahul Gandhi? The meeting was read in political quarters and by the media as a sign of a thaw in the ties between the Congress and TMC, which had fought the March-April Assembly polls as bitter rivals. She confirmed to the media that along with contemporary issues that were being raised by the Opposition, the need for all anti-Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) forces to unite figured in the discussions. She said they also discussed that the 2024 Lok Sabha elections should be a fight between anti-BJP parties and Prime Minister Narendra Modi, adding that the meeting was "positive".
In reply to questions from the media on the role she would play if an anti-BJP block was to take shape, she said: “I will be happy to help in concretising the concept, I will be content remaining a worker”.
In just seven weeks after the New Delhi discussions, while the Congress decided not to field a candidate against Banerjeein Bhowanipore, the TMC has taken a U-turn. Coinciding with the campaign, the TMC mounted an offensive against Congress, helmed by Banerjee herself, her nephew Abhishek Banerjee and the party mouthpiece Jago Bangla. The party chief has entrusted the task of anti-BJP posturing to her ministers Firhad Hakim, Subrata Mukherjee and Partha Chatterjee.
The key points of TMC’s anti-Congress attack are: the TMC is hitting the streets against BJP while Congress is just using the social media to issue anti-BJP statements; Congress has reduced itself to a “pond full of filth”; Rahul Gandhi has not been able to prove his leadership qualities and, therefore, cannot be the face of a national-level anti-BJP formation; only Banerjee can, and, thus, she should lead the Opposition.
Banerjee also said: “How come, only our people are being targeted by the Enforcement Directorate (ED); there is no action against any Congress leader. Apparently, out of fear of victimisation by BJP, the Congress has opted to strike deals ......” As is known, the ED is these days vigorously pursuing allegations of smuggling against her nephew and his wife, Rujira.
Political quarters consider the timing of TMC’s virulent anti-Congress stance significant. Desertions, such as by Jyotiraditya Scindia and Jitin Prasada; the situation in Punjab following the forced resignation of chief minister Amarinder Singh, in-fighting in Kerala, Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh and letter missives by the Group of 23 (G-23) continue to show the Congress leadership in poor light. More so, when Congress is gearing up to face Assembly elections in Punjab, Uttar Pradesh and Uttarakhand are due in the coming months. Banerjee, therefore, seems to have made a calculated move to strike at Congress.
A considerably weak Congress also gives Banerjee an opportunity to expand TMC’s footprint. Despite the name -- All-India Trinamool Congress – the party has remained a West Bengal-based entity and its election-time bravado to field candidates in some North-Easernt states has not paid off so far.
So, for Banerjee to emerge as an acceptable national leader in the anti-BJP space, the TMC needs to expand its footprint. That explains its ‘Destination Goa’ drive. Some of its leaders are already suggesting that TMC should go at it alone in Goa under the leadership of former Congress chief minister Luizinho Faleiro and contest all the 40 Assembly seats. A TMC office is to be opened there soon. The TMC supremo recently also hinted that her party would field candidates in Uttar Pradesh, too.
While the Left Front has chosen, by and large, to ignore Banerjee’s volte-face after her meeting with Sonia Gandhi on July 28, the BJP’s reaction has been predictable. It proclaimed that first, Modi would dominate the political space even in 2024. Second, that while Banerjee is eyeing New Delhi, her nephew is seeing himself as the next chief minister.
Banerjee has drawn sharp criticism from Congress leader Adhir Ranjan Chowdhury, who represents the Berhampore constituency in Murshidabad district. His refrain is that her only objective is to harm Congress and, therefore, her actions and utterances will please Narendra Modi and Amit Shah.
Chowhdury also accused her of duplicity, saying that records show that she liberally praised Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) when TMC was part of the National Democratic Alliance (NDA). After quitting NDA, Banerjee has been targeting both RSS and BJP in a bid to secure Muslim votes, he alleged, accusing TMC of spending huge sums of money on chartered flights to get politicians to defect and destabilise ministries.
Is Banerjee under any compulsion to tone down her criticism of the Modi-Shah duo? Some in political circles here believe that she does have such a compulsion and that it is related to her nephew. The regularity with which the ED is following up the smuggling-related probe against Abhishek Banerjee and his wife and is seeking their presence for interrogation, have made her apprehensive about the possibility of the probe culminating in their arrest. If that happens, it would be a huge embarrassment for her. The question of their seeking legal relief will arise only later. Banerjee may have been advised to tone down her attack against the Modi-Shah duo, as she had done during the summer campaign,.
After all, the Election Commission did oblige Banerjee by agreeing to hold the Bhowanipore bye-election early, keeping other bye-elections in the state pending, to enable her to become a legislator by the constitutionally due date of November 5. It is another matter that the Calcutta High Court, in its order on September 28, came down heavily on the state chief secretary Hari Krishna Dwivedi for urging the Election Commission, apparently at the instance of the chief minister, to hold the bye-election early.
The High Court order stated: “Be that as it may, the most offensive part is the conduct of the Chief Secretary, who projected himself more as a servant of the political party in power than a public servant, whereby he stated that there would be a constitutional crisis in case election to Bhowanipore constituency is not held from where respondent No. 5 (Mamata Banerjee) wants to contest the election”.
Meanwhile, as of now, the possibilities seen in certain political quarters are: If Banerjee is able to establish TMC’s foothold in some other states and succeeds in enhancing her acceptance to a number of non-BJP parties and weakening the Congress further, the latter may once again turn to the Left for an alliance.
But, several political observers rule this out. For, establishing a worthwhile presence in several states is a very time-consuming exercise. Despite severe erosion in strength, Congress remains the only party with a pan-India presence. They cite the point made by youth leader Kanhaiya Kumar, while recently joining Congress. He said out of 545 Lok Sabha seats, there are 200 constituencies where only the Congress can put up candidates.
Therefore, circumstances will not allow Banerjee to dislodge Congress from the leadership role in the anti-BJP space in the country. She may tone down her staunch anti-Congressism, as seen in recent times, and bargain with Congress to leave some seats in poll-bound states, to start with, for her party candidates.
The writer is a Kolkata-based senior freelance journalist. The views are personal.