Suhrid Sankar Chattopadhyay in Kolkata
FRONTLINE, Volume 28 - Issue 01 :: Jan. 01-14, 2011
THE Congress is on the horns of a dilemma vis-a-vis its relationship with the Trinamool Congress as West Bengal readies for the Assembly elections, which are to be held in six months. The Pradesh Congress is torn between conflicting views of two influential sections of its leadership. While one believes it is vital to maintain the electoral alliance with Union Railway Minister Mamata Banerjee's Trinamool Congress, which is the main opposition to the Communist Party of India (Marxist)-led Left Front government, the other group feels the alliance should not be at the expense of the “dignity” of the party, as remarked by general secretary Rahul Gandhi.
There is no denying the fact that the party's position in the State is weak. It has 19 seats in the 294-member Assembly and six out of 42 Lok Sabha seats. Its presence is noticeable in only three districts – Malda, Murshidabad and Uttar Dinajpur. It has scattered strongholds such as Rampurhat in Birbhum district, Asansol and Katwa in Bardhaman district, Kharagpur in Pashchim Medinipur district, Basirhat in North 24 Paraganas district and Khidirpur in Kolkata. However, according to Congress sources, even in these regions the party has been witnessing a steady erosion of its support base with the resurgence of the Trinamool Congress.
“Our main problem began when we had a tie-up with the Left parties at the Centre. We needed Left support at that time. The people in the State felt our opposition to the CPI(M) was not genuine,” senior Congress leader and former Pradesh Congress working president Pradip Bhattacharya told Frontline. It was also in 2006 and 2007, when the Congress was in power at the Centre with support from the Left, that the Trinamool emerged out of political wilderness with its agitation programmes against land acquisition for industries. It became a strong challenge to the Left Front. “Even though we were there in this movement right from the start, our association with the Left prevented us from gaining any real political advantage from it,” a Congress source said.
Although the Congress-Trinamool alliance can be euphemistically termed an uncomfortable one, a section of the Congress feels that the party's showing in the coming elections will be miserable if the alliance falls through. Since the party has been consistently losing members and leaders to the Trinamool, it is feared that there will be more defections if the alliance breaks. “Moreover, if we go it alone and our results are unsatisfactory, it will do enormous damage to the morale of our workers. But if we go ahead with the alliance, then we will survive and still have some seats for ourselves, and we can flourish again later,” Bhattacharya said.
This attitude, however, does not find favour with another section of the Congress, which feels it is tantamount to a “complete surrender” to the Trinamool. “The alliance is a must, but the benefits [seats] must be proportionately distributed. In the parliamentary election of 2009, we accepted their terms and took 14 seats – six that belonged to us, and eight difficult seats, which we lost. But we took it for the sake of the alliance. We have declared Mamata Banerjee as the alliance leader, now the Trinamool should also reciprocate. In the Assembly elections, will it be unfair to seek one-third of the 294 seats?” Pradesh Congress working president Manas Bhuniya asked.
Mamata's constant jibes at the Congress, referring to the latter as the “B Team” of the CPI(M), accusing the State leadership of being agents of the ruling party, and her unbending, autocratic attitude towards her “junior” partner, has been a constant source of irritation to the local Congress leadership. After the huge success in the Lok Sabha election, relations between the two parties soured so much that in the 2010 municipal elections, they decided to contest separately. The Trinamool recorded a thumping victory, and the Congress' tally was reduced by half. It won 10 wards in the Kolkata Municipal Corporation as against 20 in 2005.
Senior Trinamool leader and Union Minister of State for Urban Development Saugata Roy stated categorically that the party wished to remain in the Congress-led UPA at the Centre and also have an electoral alliance with the State Congress. “But if they want to have an alliance, they too must make some concessions to us, particularly in places where they are strong,” he told Frontline. Roy is confident that even if there is no electoral alliance, the Trinamool will win a majority in the Assembly elections. “We want the alliance in the interest of defeating the CPI(M) roundly. But fences have not been mended since the civic elections, and the relations continue to be strained, Roy admits. The two partners “continue to talk to each other through statements made to the media”.
According to veteran Congress leader Subrata Mukherjee, who recently joined the Trinamool, the Congress stands to lose heavily if there is no alliance, as the dedicated anti-Left votes would then be diverted to the Trinamool. “The Congress at present is going through a leadership crisis. Most of its top leaders like Somen [Mitra], Saugata [Roy], myself have left it. The only one left is Priya [Priyaranjan Dasmunshi], who is non-functional because of ill-health. The majority of its dedicated workers have joined the Trinamool, and more will join if there is no alliance,” he told Frontline.
Senior CPI(M) leader Mohammad Salim, though in agreement with Mukherjee's views on the Congress' leadership crisis, feels that the party will be better off without an alliance with the Trinamool. “Essentially, Trinamool's gain is from the Congress, not from the Left. The more the Congress goes along with the Trinamool, the more it stands to lose. The Trinamool's strength lies in the disintegration of the Congress,” he said. However, there are those in the Left who feel that a Congress-Trinamool alliance will give the Left Front a tough fight.
The views about the shifting of votes from the Congress to the Trinamool is to be viewed in the light of an electoral assessment made by some senior Congress men, who told Frontline that in the absence of an alliance, the Congress may stand to lose at least 5-10 per cent of the anti-Left votes. How this percentage will be translated into the number of seats lost by the anti-Left forces taken together, especially in marginal constituencies, is anybody's guess.