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Mainstream, VOL LI, No 31, July 20, 2013

A Third Front minus Mamata and CPI-M?

Sunday 21 July 2013

by Arko Dasgupta

With the Indian voter eagerly anticipating next year’s general elections for the 16th Lok Sabha, the talk of the town seems to be the viability of a Third Front—a coalition of non-Indian National Congress and non-Bharatiya Janata Party led-parties—to challenge the electoral dominance of the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance and the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance, to set up shop in Parliament. Details are sketchy but as of this moment the composition of this so-called Third Front includes, among others, the Communists, two major political parties from the South, and some other regional outfits with stated secular credentials. If recent history is anything to go by, this front will lack the necessary collective leadership (individually they may have some of the finest leaders of the post-Nehruvian era in their ranks) and level-headedness duly required to dislodge the UPA and prevent the NDA from coming to power.

A “maverick” (as she was once described on a television news programme) regional leader who is neither part of the UPA nor the NDA, and has kept away (understandably so) from Third Front politics is West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee. Her party, the All India Trinamul Congress (it is yet to conquer India although its name might suggest otherwise), was voted into power with an overwhelming majority two years ago in the West Bengal Legislative Assembly elections. The Trinamul Congress alone controls over 60 per cent of the seats in the Assembly. Miss Banerjee, propelled to power after decades of political activism (one still hears about her days as the sprightly Youth Congress leader in the 1970s and the young parliamentarian in the Rajiv Gandhi-led government in the 1980s) and the clumsy handling of dissent by the CPI-M towards the middle of the last decade, was also aided by a sea of support from sections of the Bengali intelli-gentsia—many of whom were avowed Leftists including the venerable writer and grassroots activist, Mahasweta Devi, and popular singer Kabir Suman (who is one among the 19 Members of Parliament from the Trinamul in Delhi). Given all that, it would seem “Didi” had truly arrived.

No sooner had Mamata Banerjee come to power as the chief executive of West Bengal than it dawned on the people of the State that their newly-elected leader showed scant resemblance to the untiring, dauntless figure who used to stand up to the domineering Communists and had once even borne the brunt of a baton-wielding policeman during a public march. Her quick fall from grace has been written about in these pages and beyond and it is now accepted that her gaucheries and tactless public remarks betray a leader who is not only insecure but also deeply cynical. Rudrangshu Mukherjee of The Telegraph, Kolkata, in a piece titled ‘The Wasteland’ published in Seminar (May, 2013), writes: “When she [Mamata Banerjee] won the elections in May 2011, a veteran and committed supporter of the CPI-M told me, ‘The greatest achievement of the Left Front in West Bengal is the making of Mamata Banerjee.’” The Left Front, which governed West Bengal for 34 successive years before the 2011 Assembly elections, had all along ruled the State without a care for the likes of Mamata Banerjee as it was returned to power term after term under the redoubtable Jyoti Basu and much later, Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee. Mamata Banerjee, it seemed, existed only because of the Communists and not despite them. With the Communists out of power, what then? One need only ask Mahasweta Devi who in 2011 itself had decided that the only epithet that applied to the Trinamul Government was (that perennial term of abuse) “fascist” (of late however the writer seems to have tempered her disapproval of the dispensation in her home State).

Gone are the days when West Bengal had leaders of the stature of Bidhan Chandra Roy and Jyoti Basu who, although far from perfect, commanded respect from New Delhi and were immensely popular at home. While the former remained Chief Minister until his death, the latter voluntarily resigned from the position after having been in office for a record 23 years. Today, the disenchantment with both the Left Front and the Trinamul is such that no one leader can hope to replicate the kind of confidence—both inside and outside the State Assembly—that used to be enjoyed by the two aforementioned former Chief Ministers.

Now is the time for a third alternative to take root in West Bengal politics. The principal party that may emerge in a Third Front could well be (for the better or for worse) the Indian National Congress—the party that Miss Banerjee started her career with and which was, until some time ago, her ally both in the State as well as at the Centre. At present, the Congress has a little over 40 seats in the 295-member Assembly. The BJP, on the other hand, is a non-entity. A Third Front in the State (much like at the Centre) looks unlikely to shake off the influence girded over many years by the current government and current Opposition. Nevertheless, that is no reason for an eventual Third Front (presuming they are now in the making at least—industrious men and women huddling together over tea both in the countryside and in the grand old city) to jazz around and wait for destiny to hand them power on a platter. There simply has been too much time and effort invested in the State by people like Mamata Banerjee and those in the Left for that to happen. This should not be taken to mean that the people of the State have to forever choose only between the Trinamul and the Left. They cannot be asked to resign themselves to such a fate.

“If you can look into the seeds of time, And say which grain will grow and which will not”—surely enough, these words of Banquo are being echoed by Mamata Banerjee and the Communists. There may be, however, no sorceress to indulge their fancy. Come 2014 and 2016, their only hope shall be the worthy people of West Bengal.

Arko Dasgupta is a New Delhi-based researcher.

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