Weakened and bruised by the migration of its leaders and workers to Mamata Banerjee’s TMC, the Congress is fighting a battle for its political existence in West Bengal.
None other than Pradip Bhattacharya, who was very recently replaced as the Bengal Congress chief, said, “It is a fight to prove our political existence in Bengal and to prove that the 129-year-old party will not turn into a ‘signboard’ as is being claimed by the TMC.”
This election will also prove a litmus test for the Congress whether its ability to bite into the anti-Left vote pie still holds true, Bhattacharya thinks.
“This Lok Sabha election will prove that without the Congress, the Trinamool Congress too won’t be able to make any mark against the Left as it is the combined vote share of the two parties that catapulted Mamata Banerjee to power,” Bhattacharya, MP, pointed out.
The Congress lost its pre-eminent position on the Bengal stage after it was humbled in the 1977 Assembly poll by the Left Front. People became disenchanted with the party which was riven by dissension and squabbling.
It reached a climax when Youth Congress chief Mamata Banerjee broke away to form her own party Trinamool Congress in 1998, dealing a body blow to the organisation.
A major chunk of the anti-Left votes was garnered by the TMC which became the principal opposition party. It ultimately ousted the Left Front from power in 2011 riding on the deftly-organised anti-land acquisition movement.
Ironically, the state Congress suffered further erosion in its credibility when the Left supported the Congress-led UPA government.
Its strength was reduced to such an extent that it ceased to exist politically in south Bengal and managed to retain its position in the north Bengal districts of Malda, Murshidabad and some pockets in the region.
However, according to state Congress leaders, the party high command’s decision to forge alliance with the TMC on the latter’s terms to oust the Left Front in the 2009 Lok Sabha and 2011 Assembly polls that dealt a massive blow to the party.
“We sacrificed much of our interest by giving the TMC our best during the alliance,” state Congress leader Nirbed Roy said.
Since October, 2012, the Congress lost six of its MLAs to the TMC, excluding two independent MLAs who had won with Congress support, engineered mainly by strategist Mukul Roy.
Roy has gone on record saying,”The Congress party will soon turn into a signboard and visiting cards in Bengal”.
The Congress’s inability to cut into TMC’s vote share in triangular fights became clear during the 2013 Panchayat poll and by-elections when the Trinamool Congress received more than 41 per cent votes compared to 43 per cent the combine of the two parties had received in the 2011 Assembly election.
The organisational erosion reached such a level that several senior Congress refused to fight the coming Lok Sabha election and it was left to party vice-president Rahul Gandhi to make them see reason.
To stem the rot, the high command replaced Pradip Bhattacharya with Murshidabad strongman and junior railway minister Adhir Chowdhury.
Chowdhury, known as a Mamata baiter, too conceded after taking over the charge that he did not have a magic wand to change the party’s fortunes in Bengal overnight.
However, to his credit he was able to contain the exodus in the last one month. “We will come out with good results in the Lok Sabha poll in West Bengal. We will prove our strength,” said Chowdhury.
Although, various opinion polls predicted a sharp decline in the vote share of the Congress from 14 per cent in 2009 to six per cent in 2014, Congress leaders have rubbished the results.
“This is a Lok Sabha poll and it is either the BJP or the Congress which will make the kill. The BJP doesn’t have an existence in Bengal. So it is the Congress which will gain the most,” former state Congress president Manas Bhuniya said.
He also noted that the alternative front of the Left had fallen apart and Mamata Banerjee’s Federal Front had no takers.
However, political analyst Udayan Bandopadhyay feels that the so-called Modi wave in Bengal will help the Congress consolidate Muslim votes at least in north Bengal.