Debating India

WEST BENGAL

Trinamul Congress: Victim of whims

Suhrid Sankar CHATTOPADHYAY

Friday 23 April 2004, by CHATTOPADHYAY*Suhrid Sankar

THE year 2000 was significant in West Bengal politics because for the first time in 20 years a non-Left board took charge of the Kolkata Municipal Corporation.

in Kolkata

It was the first major electoral success of the newly born Trinamul Congress. Within a year, when the State went to the polls, the Trinamul Congress, under Mamata Banerjee’s leadership, appeared to have attained the stature of a force threatening to unseat the Communist Party of India (Marxist)-led Left Front from power. But the results brought out the truth. Trinamul Congress finished a distant second and from that point onwards it started losing its significance.

With the Left Front in power since 1977, for a section of the people in West Bengal the Trinamul Congress was the only party that looked like being capable of bringing about a change in government. With her spartan lifestyle and her promise to eradicate unemployment and turn around the economy of the State, Mamata Banerjee achieved and became a source of concern for the Left Front.

In the 1998 Lok Sabha elections, even though the Left Front captured 33 of the 42 seats, Trinamul’s presence took a heavy toll on the Congress(I), which ended up winning just one seat and losing six to the Trinamul. The Trinamul-Bharatiya Janata Party combine won a total of eight seats, the Trinamul winning seven.

The following year, the alliance improved on its performance, winning 10 seats. The Trianmul maintained its tally of eight. When the Assembly elections came up in 2001, the party was riding high on the popularity of its leader and the anti-incumbency factor working against the government.

Mamata Banerjee’s politics is more often governed by the heart than by the head. Her impulsiveness, often bordering on petulance, has time and again cost the party dearly. Her resignation from the National Democratic Alliance government as Railway Minister, ostensibly owing to the Tehelka expose, backfired. With her popularity in West Bengal at its peak, her gamble of quitting the NDA and allying with the Congress(I) flopped. She lost her credibility, and the people who had supported her for long began to perceive her as inconstant and whimsical. In the 2001 Assembly elections, the Left Front retained power for a record sixth time in a row, winning 199 of the 294 seats. The Trinamul-Congress(I) combine won only 86 - the Trinamul 60 and the Congress(I) 26. Urban voters whom Mamata Banerjee was counting on, changed their mind at what they considered crass political opportunism.

Mamata Banerjee, having no other option, had to swallow her pride and return to the NDA fold. The Trinamul Congress, still remains a regional party having no ideology or programme other than the negative goal of unseating the Left Front government in the State. Most of her decisions have been political gambles, which have often worked against her, with her credibility being the casualty.

At the outset, Mamata Banerjee intended the Trinamul Congress to be a disciplined, cadre-based party, but that never materialised. The party has no organisation worth the name. Her charisma is its only asset, and it is diminishing fast. Further more, the party has no cohesion, as is evident from the continuous bickering within.

Her recent clash with Member of Parliament from Kolkata North-West and party heavyweight Sudip Bandopadhyay is likely to cost the Trinamul Congress dearly in the elections. Once a close aide of Mamata Banerjee, Sudip Bandopadhyay was denied the ticket as a punishment for rebelling against Mamata Banerjee’s `dictatorial’ attitude. Sudip Bandopadhyay is credited with taking care of his constituency and has over the years built quite a support base there. With him standing as an independent candidate with Congress(I) support, it will not be so easy for the Trinamul Congress to retain what was its stronghold for so long. "When people vote for the Trinamul, they vote for Mamata. Party candidates win because of Mamata’s popularity,’’ a senior Trinamul Congress member told Frontline. This statement reinforces the fact that the Trinamul essentially remains a party defined by a single individual - Mamata Banerjee.

IT is perhaps ironical that even though Dr. Shyama Prasad Mukherjee, the founder-president of the Jan Sangh, the predecessor of the BJP, was a leading politician from West Bengal, religious or cultural nationalism, which is the basis of the party, never became popular in the State, not even among the victims of Partition, the refugees from East Pakistan. BJP president M. Venkaiah Naidu himself admitted this recently. Political observers, therefore, feel that the Trinamul’s purpose in the NDA may be to serve as a Trojan horse to help the BJP’s entry into West Bengal. A beginning seems to have been made, when the BJP improved its tally from one to two seats between the last two general elections. But the problem is that Mamata Banerjee has a large Muslim following, which is not likely to be swayed by the tunes called by the BJP. It is therefore difficult for Mamata Banerjee to appear too close to the BJP.

Unless Mamata Banerjee can be of use to the BJP either by winning more seats for the combine or by improving her own tally, the exponents of realpolitik in the BJP may just get tired of her political prevarications. That the BJP still banks on her support to gain a secure foothold in West Bengal is evident from the recent statement of State BJP chief Tathagata Ray that Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS) volunteers are rendering all help to the Trinamul in the current elections. It is doubtful, given the socio-cultural milieu of the urban middle class in West Bengal, if this will be translated into a major electoral success.

At the same time Mamata Banerjee needs the BJP because in the absence of an effective party organisation or a middle-level leadership, her main weapon appears to be her ability to influence the Central government to get benefits for the State. It is perhaps for this reason that she was hell-bent on getting back the Railway portfolio. Her political campaign also refers to her as a go-getter from West Bengal. Yet again, the miscalculation of quitting the NDA has left a scar on her political reputation.

The P.A. Sangma faction of the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) merged with the Trinamul Congress in March to form the Nationalist Trinamul Congress. Although the new party is to be headed by Mamata Banerjee and has retained its symbol of flower with grass, the merger will bring no strategic or political gain for the party, at least as far as West Bengal is concerned. Although party leaders claim that the tie-up will have some impact in the northeastern States, where Sangma has some influence, it is hardly considered a significant political development in West Bengal. CPI(M) State secretary and Polit Bureau member Anil Biswas is reported to have dismissed the development saying, "Zero plus zero is zero".

See online : Frontline

P.S.

Pic1 : A cut-out of Trinamul Congress leader Mamata Banerjee in South Kolkata.

Pic 2: V. SUDERSHAN; Mamata Banerjee presents a memorandum on flood relief to Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee. A file picture.

in Frontline, volume 21 - Issue 08, April 10 - 23, 2004.

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