Congress Faces ‘Gathbandhan’ Woes In Bengal With Didi Refusing Political Space In Her Turf

by Jaideep Mazumdar - Feb 18, 2019 10:45 AM +05:30 IST
Congress Faces ‘Gathbandhan’ Woes In Bengal With Didi Refusing Political Space In Her TurfCongress president Rahul Gandhi and Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee at a joint press conference in New Delhi.  (Sanjeev Verma/Hindustan Times via GettyImages) 
Snapshot
  • For the Congress, the Trinamool poses a grave existential threat in Bengal. And now with Banerjee making it clear that the grand old party will not get any space in the state, hope for a meaningful alliance is fading.

Running with the hares and hunting with the hounds is a tough proposition, as the Congress has been discovering to its acute discomfiture in Bengal. This acute uneasiness, coupled with the national party’s existential dilemma in the state, came to the fore once again on Wednesday (13 February) when Trinamool Congress supremo Mamata Banerjee made it clear that the Congress will not get any space in Bengal.

You can also read this article in Hindi- पश्चिम बंगाल- ममता के मैदान में कांग्रेस के लिए राजनीतिक जगह नहीं

The immediate provocation for Banerjee was a vitriolic attack by Congress Member of Parliament (MP) Adhir Ranjan Chowdhury on the Trinamool Congress, which he accused of having benefited from the chit fund scam that originated in Bengal. Soon after Finance Minister Piyush Goyal introduced the Banning of Unregulated Deposit Schemes Bill, 2018 that seeks to preclude such scams, Chowdhury launched a diatribe against the Trinamool Congress.

The Trinamool MPs were, at that time, in the well of House shouting slogans against the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). With Chowdhury accusing them of being involved in the scam, the Trinamool MPs got more agitated. What got their goat was the ‘chor machaye shor’ (thieves shout the most) barb by Chowdhury. And the fact that as the Congress MP, who is a trenchant critic of Banerjee, continued his attack on the Trinamool, Sonia Gandhi and some other Congress MPs thumped their desks.

Banerjee was livid and when Sonia Gandhi reached out to her in a Parliament lobby later on in the day, the Bengal Chief Minister made no bones about her displeasure with the attack on her party. A visibly upset Banerjee told Sonia Gandhi that she would “remember” the Congress attack on her party. Later in the evening, Banerjee made it clear to the Congress that though they would fight together against the BJP at the national level, the two parties would continue to be rivals in Bengal.

It is Banerjee’s advice to the Congress — that it should field candidates only in states where it is strong and desist from cutting into Trinamool votes in Bengal — that has miffed the Congress. What Banerjee wants is for the Congress to either desist from fielding candidates from a majority of the seats in Bengal or field very weak candidates who will not divide the anti-BJP votes in the state. The Bengal unit of the Congress finds this unacceptable.

Ever since Banerjee swept to power in Bengal in 2011, she has been poaching on the Congress and her cadres have been attacking the Congress even in its strongholds in the state. The attacks have often been vicious and thousands of Congress activists have allegedly been forced to join the Trinamool. In the 2016 Assembly polls in the state, the Congress won 44 seats. But most of the Congress MLAs have since joined the Trinamool, reducing the national party to a pale shadow of its former self in Bengal.

For the Congress state unit in Bengal, the Trinamool poses a grave existential threat. “The Trinamool is a totally undemocratic party presided over by an authoritarian person. Over the past eight years, our workers and supporters have been attacked, maimed and killed, driven out of their homes, our party offices have been ransacked and many of our MLAs have been lured away or threatened and blackmailed into joining the Trinamool. Howsoever much the Trinamool may shout against the BJP, the fact remains that there is no democracy in Bengal under Mamata Banerjee,” said Chowdhury, who used to head the state unit of the party until recently.

Banerjee had wanted the Congress ‘high command’ (read: Sonia Gandhi) to order the state unit of the national party to desist from attacking the Trinamool. But the Bengal unit of the Congress is in no mood to do so. “We will fight against the Trinamool in Bengal with as much vigour as we fight the BJP. The Trinamool is a fascist and corrupt party and Bengal has to be liberated from its misgovernance. The Communist Party of India (Marxist) had ruined Bengal for 34 years and over the past eight years the Trinamool has run it to the ground. People of Bengal are fed up with the Trinamool,” said state Congress chief Soumen Mitra.

The Trinamool is especially sensitive to any attack on it over the chit fund scam. Naturally so, since many of its leaders (including MPs) have been jailed and are facing probes for their alleged involvement in the scam. Apart from the BJP, the Congress also finds the scam a handy weapon to attack the Trinamool with. Chowdhury and many in the Congress have been the fiercest critics of the Trinamool on this count with Chowdhury even demanding President's Rule in Bengal. But the Congress’ central leadership has been preferring to look away from such criticism of the Trinamool by its state unit.

The recent showdown between the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) and the Kolkata Police which led to Banerjee staging a dharna also exposed the deep dilemma of the Congress. While Rahul Gandhi offered support to Banerjee in what she proclaimed was her fight against “misuse of CBI by the NDA government” and “trampling of democracy by Prime Minister Modi”, state Congress leaders have been unrelenting in their attacks on the Trinamool. Even as Banerjee was staging her dharna, Chowdhury went on record to say that there is no democracy in Bengal.

The fact that the Congress central leadership is unwilling to put a leash on its state leaders has angered Banerjee. “She is very upset with the failure of the top Congress leadership, including Sonia Gandhi, to heed her repeated requests to get the Congress in Bengal to fall in line and stop criticising the Trinamool. She (Mamata) feels Bengal is her turf and for the ‘mahagathbandhan’ (opposition alliance) against the BJP to succeed at the national level, the alliance partners should refrain from fighting against each other and limit themselves to their respective strongholds. The Congress is a spent force in Bengal and, thus, should refrain from pitting itself against the Trinamool in this state. She feels that just as the Trinamool is not fighting against the Congress in any other state, the Congress should also not fight against our party in Bengal,” said a Trinamool Rajya Sabha MP, who is a close aide of Banerjee.

But this is not acceptable at all to the Congress in Bengal. In the high stakes Lok Sabha polls this year where every seat counts, the Congress is not willing to forego its chances in the 42 Lok Sabha seats in Bengal. “We have a fair chance of winning in many seats. So why should we surrender these seats to the Trinamool? The ‘spirit’ of ‘mahagathbandhan’ does not mean we surrender politically to the Trinamool,” said Chowdhury.

He has been a strong and vocal advocate of adopting a hard line against the Trinamool and carrying on a no-holds-barred campaign against that party. But keeping the post-poll scenario and possibilities in mind, his party’s central leadership doesn’t want to anger Banerjee too much. Neither does it want to forego its chances in Bengal. And it is this fine balancing act that the Congress is finding very hard to achieve.

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