Congress In A Quandary Over Bengal, Can’t Decide If It Should Get Aggressive Against Mamata Banerjee

Jaideep Mazumdar

Dec 26, 2018, 12:02 PM | Updated 12:01 PM IST

Congress president Rahul Gandhi and West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee. (Sanjeev Verma/Hindustan Times via GettyImages)
Congress president Rahul Gandhi and West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee. (Sanjeev Verma/Hindustan Times via GettyImages)
  • The Congress central leadership is weighing the pros and cons of an aggressive stance in Bengal.
  • But for now, the state party leadership has been asked to hold their horses and refrain from criticising the Trinamool too harshly.
  • An old dilemma is revisiting the Congress in Bengal. The party’s leadership, both at the Centre and at the state level, is in two minds on whether to go aggressive in Bengal and rile Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee or to go soft keeping in mind the post-Lok Sabha electoral possibilities where her support could be essential if no party wins a majority. The central leadership of the Congress has asked the state party leaders to refrain from criticising Banerjee too aggressively, but many in the party feel that going soft on the Trinamool would serve no purpose.

    Immediately after the Congress wins in the three states earlier this month, the party’s Bengal minder Gaurav Gogoi launched a scathing attack on Mamata Banerjee and her party while addressing a rally of party workers in Kolkata. “On the one hand TMC speaks of democratic values when it goes to opposition meets in Delhi and when it comes back to Bengal it tries to throttle the voice of opposition parties in the most undemocratic ways. The Congress high-command is very well aware of the double standards of TMC. This political duplicity will not work,” said Gogoi, who is the son of former Assam chief minister Tarun Gogoi.

    Gaurav Gogoi’s aggression went down very well with the rank and file in the state unit of the Congress, who were already upbeat over the electoral victories in Rajasthan, Chhattisgarh and Madhya Pradesh. Former state unit chief Adhir Chowdhury, who has always been a trenchant critic of Mamata Banerjee, took it as a signal to go hammer and tongs against the Trinamool. Chowdhury has been a strong advocate of political aggressiveness against the Trinamool. But some other party leaders are advocates of scaling down the aggression lest it angers Mamata Banerjee.

    The Congress had, in the past when the Left was in power in the state, preferred to play second fiddle to the Left. “That was because of some political compulsions of the Congress’ central leadership which ensured that the state party unit never played the role of an effective opposition in return for the CPI(M)’s support at the Centre. But this strategy paid little dividend since the Congress was reduced to a pathetic state in Bengal,” said a former Congress leader who is now a minister in Bengal.

    This strategy of playing second fiddle to the CPI(M) resulted in Mamata Banerjee, who had advocated aggression against the Marxists, breaking away from the Congress and launching her own party in 1998. Mamata Banerjee’s famously witty quip likening the Congress to a watermelon--a red interior with a green exterior - became quite a hit and effectively described the Congress in Bengal. The Congress became virtually irrelevant in Bengal while the Trinamool occupied the opposition space and went on to rout the Left eventually in 2011. After coming to power, Mamata Banerjee unleashed the same oppressive tactics against the communists that they had used on her and her party. CPI(M) activists and workers were attacked, killed or driven out of their houses, and many were bought over or silenced into submission.

    But after having totally decimated the CPI(M), Mamata Banerjee turned her attention to the Congress. “Tens of thousands of our party workers and supporters were attacked and threatened with annihilation if they continued to work for the Congress and didn’t join the Trinamool. Trinamool goons, with help from the state machinery, launched attacks on even our party leaders and legislators. Many were bought over with threats and inducements.

    Many Congress MLAs have been forced to join the Trinamool and the image of one of our MLAs being chased by murderous Trinamool goons through a paddy field with his dhoti trailing behind him (he was referring to Sabang MLA Manas Bhuiyan who later joined the Trinamool) pretty well summed up the politics of intolerance and violence practised by Mamata Banerjee,” said Adhir Chowdhury. Few of the 44 who won the 2016 assembly polls on Congress tickets remain with the party, most have joined the Trinamool.

    Adhir Chowdhury and others like him argue that nothing can be gained from going soft on Mamata Banerjee. “She harbours national ambitions and wants to become the prime minister. Her electoral calculation is to win most of the 42 Lok Sabha seats from Bengal and, thus, emerge as the single largest party among the regional parties. In case neither the BJP nor the Congress get a majority on their own, the prospect of a coalition of regional parties forming the government with possible Congress support becomes bright and Mamata could then emerge as the most likely prime ministerial candidate. This is her calculation, and so she will not concede an inch to other parties, including the Congress, in Bengal. Thus, there is no point in going soft on Mamata. We should also be aggressive to get as many seats as possible in Bengal,” said Adhir Chowdhury.

    Chowdhury also points out that Banerjee is opposed to a joint opposition projecting Rahul Gandhi as the prime ministerial candidate before the elections. “If she is not supporting our leader (Rahul Gandhi) as PM, why should we oblige her? We should be aggressive and even if it angers her, that should not be an issue,” he added. Gaurav Gogoi had, at the rally in Kolkata, asked why Banerjee had held herself back from congratulating Rahul Gandhi for the victories in the three states. Adhir Chowdhury had said that the Congress victories in the three states had dashed Mamata Banerjee’s dreams of becoming the PM.

    But some party leaders in Bengal and at the Centre feel that Banerjee should be humoured and not angered. “In case we fail to get the number (of seats) to form a government on our own, we will need the help of regional leaders like Mamata Banerjee to form a government. She also enjoys a very good rapport with our top leadership, including Sonia Gandhi. So it is not politically prudent to antagonise her now,” argued a Congress leader who has been advocating an electoral tie-up with the Trinamool. However, a similar tie-up in the past resulted in the Trinamool gaining at the expense of the Congress.

    The lobby advocating a tough stance against Mamata Banerjee argue that the prospects of the Congress in Bengal are good and an aggressive campaign against the Trinamool will yield a good harvest of seats. “There is a pretty big constituency that is opposed to the BJP and is angry and unhappy with the Trinamool Congress which has failed to deliver. This constituency is waiting to be tapped by the Congress and we can gain from this. But this constituency needs to be convinced that the Congress is a viable option and not a ‘B’ team of the Trinamool, as many feel now,” said a Congress leader who is a permanent invitee to the Congress Working Committee.

    The Congress central leadership is weighing the pros and cons of an aggressive stance in Bengal. But for now, the state party leadership has been asked to hold their horses and refrain from criticising the Trinamool too harshly. If this ‘going soft on Mamata’ stance continues, not only will it dampen the mood of the party cadres, but also lead to a further erosion of support for the Congress. And ultimately, the loser will be the Congress, both at the Centre and in the state.

    Jaideep Mazumdar is an associate editor at Swarajya.

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