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Mainstream, VOL 62 No 12, March 23, 2024

Banerjee Solo-Card in West Bengal: A Shrewd Move! | Nilofar Suhrawardy

Saturday 23 March 2024, by Nilofar Suhrawardy


Indisposed for a few days because of “head injury,” Mamata Banerjee, also known as a firebrand leader, is not likely to remain quiet for long particularly at this crucial time, ahead of parliamentary elections. At present, she is the only woman chief minister in India. She is the also the first woman to hold this office in West Bengal from 2011, to return back to power in 2016 and 2021 assembly elections. Given that she has been literally immersed in the political field for more than four decades at the national as well as regional level, her moves can certainly not be taken mildly from any angle. She also won elections to Lok Sabha in 1996, 1998, 1999, 2004 and 2009. Prior to having formed All India Trinamool Congress Party (TMC) she was an active member of Congress, serving as general secretary of Indian Youth Congress Party in 1984. Political differences led her to part ways in 1997. Besides, in 1999 she joined the BJP-led NDA and became a Railway Minister. In 2009, she aligned with Congress-led UPA ahead of parliamentary elections. UPA’s victory led her to return as Railway Minister for the second term. In 2011, in alliance with Congress, she tried her luck in West Bengal Assembly polls and succeeded in ousting Left Front which had led the state government for seven consecutive terms from 1977.

This Bengali lady can certainly not be viewed as politically naïve and/or as someone who decides her moves without deliberating on them seriously. Not surprisingly, her decision not to align with Congress in West Bengal for coming Lok Sabha polls has raised speculations from several quarters. Of these, the most dominant probably is that of this diminishing hopes of opposition parties’ INDIA bloc of giving BJP a good fight in coming polls. Should Banerjee’s decision of not aligning with Congress in West Bengal really be viewed only from this angle? Perhaps, it would be pertinent to deliberate on a few other points. The lady was not willing to concede a big share of seats, as demanded by Congress. She had earlier offered two to Congress. Given that Congress doesn’t have a strong base in West Bengal, Banerjee’s decision has credibility. It may be noted, in the preceding two elections (2019 and 2014), Congress won only two seats from here against the six it won in 2009. While BJP has registered a massive increase, from one in 2009 to 18 in 2014 and 17 in 2019. TMC won 23 in 2023 and 19 in 2009 as well as in 2014 elections. Clearly, Banerjee viewed option of conceding a bigger share of seats to Congress as equivalent to diminishing TMC’s prospects in Lok Sabha elections.

Undeniably, the electoral fight in the state, as probably Banerjee understands, is primarily between TMC and BJP. This certainly cannot be denied. Where BJP is concerned, the party would probably welcome seat-sharing arrangement between TMC and Congress as that may help it gain more seats. BJP leaders may be viewed as more confident and active about political appeal of their negative campaign against Congress than against TMC, that too in West Bengal. In addition, BJP is probably apprehensive of TMC being a strong rival in West Bengal without Congress as an ally. This limits possibility of division of votes in the state, the result of which may/may not favour BJP. TMC is also apprehensive of the same going against it, if it allies with Congress. In 2019 results, there was an increase of 22% votes favouring BJP against three percent more for TMC in comparison with 2014 results. Clearly, Banerjee is wary of any card which may turn against its own party. And she apparently fears that alliance with Congress may spell this.

Besides, the alliance, if it is reached, also spells yielding space to Congress leaders for their campaign. Banerjee cannot be expected to welcome any leader – Bengali or non-Bengali- to attract large crowds and substantial media coverage on her turf. Not surprisingly, Rahul Gandhi’s Bharat Jodo Nyay Yatra had to face several restrictions in West Bengal and compared to other states, was a rather subdued show. Just a day before yatra entered the state, Banerjee declared on January 24 that TMC would independently contest Lok Sabha polls in West Bengal.

Earlier this month (March 3), the names of TMC candidates to all 42 seats was announced. What can be inferred from this? As suggested earlier, Banerjee views these polls as a direct fight between TMC and BJP. Importance of West Bengal in Lok Sabha cannot be sidelined. State-wise, it has third largest number of seats with Uttar Pradesh at the top (80 seats) followed by Maharashtra with 48. Party-wise, in 2019 elections, with 23 seats, TMC ranked four. The BJP won 290, Congress- 46 and DMK- 24 seats. Banerjee doesn’t want to take any risk of TMC’s space in Lok Sabha decreasing, which she apparently fears that an alliance with Congress may lead to.

Failure of either Congress or the Left bloc to win a single seat in West Bengal 2021 assembly elections cannot also be dismissed. While TMC won 215 seats, BJP succeeded in 77, from a mere three in the preceding polls. Yes, there does loom the risk as projected probably by Modi supporters of vote-polarization along religious lines, spelling swing of Hindu votes in favour of BJP. It would be erroneous to assume that Banerjee is not conscious of this fact. There is also the risk of an alliance of Congress and Left bloc leading to a division in anti-BJP votes. Nevertheless, Banerjee’s primary motive at present is to go all out to ensure that TMC’s position in Lok Sabha doesn’t slide down. Perhaps, parties of INDIA bloc need to reconsider their political calculations as well as their priorities. What is their primary agenda- defeating BJP or ensuring increase in more of their candidates filing nominations, despite their being minimal chances of their winning? It needs to be accepted that just as TMC can give BJP a good fight in West Bengal, the same can be said about Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) in Bihar. Both parties have strong regional leaders. The question is not of a seat-sharing arrangement and yielding ground to BJP. But of limiting its chances. From this angle, Mamata is probably acting quite shrewdly and wisely in choosing to go solo in West Bengal than taking risk of weakening TMC’s position against BJP. Banerjee’s decision of going solo in West Bengal probably spells a greater political headache for BJP than it seems for INDIA bloc. It is possible, Congress has understood this message as is suggested from party leaders not having yet given up on “seat-sharing talks.” Clearly, Congress doesn’t want TMC to move out of INDIA bloc. It seems Banerjee’s differences with INDIA are primarily limited to those with Congress in West Bengal as TMC will be contesting from one seat in Uttar Pradesh (UP) following an agreement with Samajwadi Party (SP). It is as yet too early to jump to conclusions regarding electoral cards being played by TMC and BJP in West Bengal with Congress apparently having no option but to restrain itself in the background. At least, it would be wiser of Congress and others in INDIA bloc to understand the shrewd message of anti-BJP card being used by Banerjee in West Bengal!

(Author: Nilofar Suhrawardy is a senior journalist and writer with specialization in communication studies and nuclear diplomacy. She has come out with several books. These include:— Modi’s Victory, A Lesson for the Congress…? (2019); Arab Spring, Not Just a Mirage! (2019), Image and Substance, Modi’s First Year in Office (2015) and Ayodhya Without the Communal Stamp, In the Name of Indian Secularism (2006).

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