West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee’s trip to Delhi last week, particularly her visit to 10 Janpath where she greeted Congress president Sonia Gandhi on her birthday, has set off speculation whether the so-called “birthday diplomacy” could signal the coming together of their parties for next summer’s assembly elections. They had been together in 2011, when they dislodged the CPM-led Left Front after 34 years, but then split in September 2012 after Mamata’s Trinamool Congress walked out of the UPA-2 government at the Centre. It was after three years that Mamata had set foot in 10 Janpath.
Top Trinamool leaders, however, say reviving the alliance is the last thing on her mind, given that for the past three-and-a-half years she has cultivated a policy of going it alone in state politics. She has, in fact, been bringing more and more opposition leaders under the Trinamool umbrella.
From the Congress alone, the Trinamool has engineered the crossing of 11 MLAs, reducing the former’s strength from 42 to 31. These include two important leaders, Krishnendu Chowdhury from Malda and Ajoy De from Nadia, who were fielded in bypolls and won, with Chowdhury going on to earn a ministerial berth. “The other Congress MLAs who have switched over sit as if as an extension of the treasury benches,” grumbled Congress leader Manas Bhuniya. Congress Legislature Party chief Mohd Sohrab has written to the Speaker seeking the disqualification of these MLAs.
The switchover of so many MLAs, and those who the Trinamool claims are on the way, could reduce the Congress vote share drastically from the 6 to 7% it managed in 2011. A tie-up with the Left Front can, however, lift the Congress, and it was with this in mind that Mamata went about her “birthday diplomacy”, Trinamool leaders say.
There was at least one other objective behind the trip to Delhi. With her vociferous support to the Congress on the National Herald issue in Parliament, Mamata wanted to highlight the NDA government’s alleged “political vendetta” because it has a resonance back home. The CBI’s Saradha scam investigation, expected to wind up before the polls, is a major worry for the Trinamool with many of its leaders under the scanner.
The main objective behind warming up to the Congress leadership was, however, to prevent, if she could, any electoral adjustment between the Congress and the CPM-led Left Front. There has been a pitch for this of late. Veteran Congress leader Somen Mitra has urged the national leadership for a coalition of anti-Trinamool, anti-BJP forces. “We have told Sonia that the Left, at the most, can ditch the Congress in future but the Trinamool is out to wipe us out from Bengal,” Mitra said. If the CPM could be accused of “party bureaucracy” during its regime, he added, the Trinamool is run by an “autocrat”. “No one had wanted this change in Bengal.”
Even West Bengal Congress president Adhir Chowdhury argued strongly in favour of a seat adjustment with the Left Front when central leader C P Joshi visited Kolkata on December 5. Joshi is understood to have been sent by Congress vice-president Rahul Gandhi to get a sense of the mood on the ground even as Mamata called on Sonia.
In a memorandum to Joshi, a number of state leaders complained how the party has suffered by aligning with the Trinamool in several polls. They argued that the long-term effect of the alliances had been the Trinamool weakening the Congress with a view to destroying it. Joshi, for his part, reportedly conveyed to the state leaders that unlike in previous polls, the high command would this time refrain from imposing any decision on the state leadership.
State leaders are, however, sceptical about such promises. “We have seen how Mamata has cultivated the Congress high command and how easily she can bypass the state leadership,” said a former state Congress president. “Besides, the state leadership is so sharply divided that it would be difficult to take any unanimous decision, which would make Mamata’s task (of preempting a tie-up with the Left) easier.”
For example, Bhuniya, himself a former president, feels the open advocacy for a Congress-Left is uncalled for. “The Congress and the Trinamool have fought together to oust the Left; how can we now tie up with the CPM? What will happen in Kerala? What will happen in Tripura?” Bhuniya said. “When I point out such things, I am wrongly being seen as a pro-Trinamool voice within the Congress.”
The day before state leaders discussed with Joshi a possible adjustment with the Left, CPM general secretary Sitaram Yechury was noncommittal about the possibility. He was in Kolkata for an extended Bengal CPM state committee meeting. Amid talk that recent successes of the Left — it has won back the Siliguri municipal board and the Siliguri Mahakuma Parishad — were due to a “loose understanding with anti-Trinamool forces”, Yechury was asked about a possible tie-up. He replied, “Right now the party is busy with its plenum, a Brigade rally and organisational matters. We will start discussing our assembly poll strategy from January.”
CPM sources said their last party congress had approved a party line in which any electoral alliance with the Congress was ruled out. But its political-organisational document provided something of an escape route. It mentioned “strategy shifts” in state-specific situations.