Jagdeep Dhankhar, West Bengal's new Governor. | Image Courtesy: The Hindu
Civic body polls in West Bengal are due next year and the Assembly elections in 2021. Against this backdrop, the political scenario in the state is finding a new equilibrium. The new factor will be the appointment of a new Governor, Jagdeep Dhankhar, who is set to be sworn in this afternoon.
West Bengal politics was on the boil for over six weeks after the Lok Sabha election results were announced on May 23. To all appearances, some sanity has returned. Incidents of violence involving Trinamool Congress (TMC) and Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) workers are still taking place, but the number of incidents is down. The battle of nerves between the leadership of the two parties, however, still rages on.
The general election results and the saffron surge jolted TMC supremo and Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee. Perhaps, this is what has made her more mellow. She is being more accommodating towards the non-BJP Opposition. She is also consciously trying to be more reasonable, and has even come down heavily on wrongdoers in her own party’s various wings. This was evident very recently when a professor in a college in the Hooghly district was pushed and punched in the face and head by members of the TMC’s student wing, Chhatra Parishad. The professor has been interceding on behalf of his students, who had been confined to the college premises. Less than 24 hours after the incident, the chief minister rang up the professor and assured him of action against the hoodlums. Simultaneously, she ensured that local TMC leaders including the Member if Legislative Assembly (MLA) of the area apologise to the professor. A few were also arrested.
It was clearly a damage-control exercise. Such a gesture would have been out of question a few weeks ago. On several occasions, teachers were insulted and beaten by students and the youth belonging to TMC-controlled outfits. Mamata would condone them by saying that they are “young” or “naughty boys” who had made a “mistake”.
Call it political compulsion but Mamata is now devoting more time to her party. She has been holding meetings with district leaders and counselling them on how they should check the growing influence of BJP. She has engaged election strategist Prashant Kishor, who has held several meetings with her and her nephew, Lok Sabha member Abhishek Banerjee. He has also attended party meetings as a backroom boy. Only Mamata Banerjee and Abhishek are privy to the advice being tendered by Kishor. Some political observers are inclined to believe that Mamata Banerjee is already acting on the strategist’s advice. Her latest step, a phone- and internet-based public outreach effort that she has christened 'Didi Ke Bolo' or ‘Tell Didi', is widely believed to have been devised by the political strategist.
The Communist Party of India (Marxist) or CPM and the Congress party tried to combine forces just before the 2019 Lok Sabha polls, but that effort failed. Now, even the CPM and the Congress appear to be getting closer. Recently, the two parties organised joint protests at the Bhatpara segment of the Barrackpore Parliamentary Constituency, whose MLA, TMC’s Arjun Singh, had defected to the BJP. He had fought the 2019 election against the sitting TMC MP Dinesh Trivedi, who was Railway Minister during the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance regime. Singh won the Barrackpore seat, much to Banerjee’s chagrin.
One of Banerjee’s major concerns stems from the proven ability of her erstwhile second-in-command and now bitter foe, Mukul Roy, who is also now in BJP, to organise defections. Roy had done the same thing for TMC; he had organised defections, mainly from the Congress. Now, Banerjee has asked TMC leaders to woo defectors back into the party, while Roy continues to try to wean more people away from her and into BJP.
The comforting factor for TMC is that BJP leaders have asked Mukul Roy to be picky in choosing potential defectors. The state BJP leadership still has reservations about Roy and his ways, while it has mounted, separately, a serious membership drive. A number of ‘vistaraks’ have fanned out to the districts to assist this drive. In addition, the party is soliciting the support of sportspersons and film actors. The latest target is Durga Puja organisers, particularly the less affluent ones, who are being won over by assurances of financial support to puja committees. This year’s puja is expected to show how much progress the BJP has made in this direction.
The CPM’s state leadership seems confident that its central leadership will allow coordinated agitations with the Congress on issues of public importance. Already, the CPM and the Congress are coordinating floor strategy in the Assembly. The Communist Party of India or CPI is expected to toe the same line. The All-India Forward Bloc is also inclined to give up its reservations about joint agitations with the Congress. Only the Revolutionary Socialist Party of India (RSP) is yet to make its position clear.
And in the Congress, a section is leaning on a tie-up with TMC but predominantly the party wants to cooperate with the Left, in addition to floating its own initiatives on raising bread-and-butter issues amongst people. The All-India Congress Committee has no objections to the state unit’s majority opinion on the issue. The West Bengal Pradesh Congress Committee hopes the importance that the central leadership has given to Adhir Ranjan Chowdhury, by making him the leader of the Congress Parliamentary Party, will stand them in good stead.
Will there be some sanity in the state’s political scene now? How every party views Mamata Banerjee’s softness towards the non-BJP Opposition, and her plea that the Left and Congress should support her fight against BJP, is important. Also, do the parties in the state see chances of a mid-term poll in West Bengal?
Sujan Chakraborty, the CPM’s legislature party leader, felt that Mamata Banerjee had facilitated the BJP’s toehold in the state and that has paved the way for it to try expanding. There was no question of supporting the TMC’s fight against BJP, he said. “We will fight both the BJP and TMC. On our own, we have been able to recover a good number of party offices that were forcibly occupied by TMC hooligans,” he added.
Swapan Banerjee, state secretary of CPI, observed that BJP was occupying the space of TMC and that lawlessness was spreading as a consequence. “The RSS is destroying the political culture of West Bengal,” he added.
Shubhankar Sarkar, convener of West Bengal Pradesh Congress Committee’s coordination committee, said all these years, political parties conducted their political activities from party offices. That culture is disappearing and now political activity is being conducted from religious places. That’s the most unfortunate part. Political violence in the state is nothing new; it has been there, it continues. Significantly, he observed that Mamata Banerjee is a street fighter, and would not retain her ‘soft stance’ for long.
Shamik Bhattacharjee, the state BJP’s core committee member, said his party was now preoccupied with its membership drive and after that, serious and intensive political activity would be resumed. In his assessment, large sections of the educated people in the state felt that political uncertainty and violence would end if a new government came to power through a fresh electoral exercise.
However, none of these leaders really see a mid-term poll on the horizon. Only, Bhattacharjee, the BJP leader, cryptically added, “If at all there is any chance (of mid-term polls), it will be because of his party.”
All of them also said they saw no sign of sanity having permanently arrived in the state’s political scene.
The writer is an independent journalist based in Kolkata.