Why Trinamool’s Much-Hyped Foray Into Northeast India Is Coming A Cropper
That the Trinamool top leadership sees little prospects of their party making a mark in the Northeast is evident from the fact that they have stopped going to Tripura.
And the party leadership has barely laid claim to its unit in Meghalaya. It has given up in Manipur and stands little chance in the Barak Valley.
When two dissident BJP legislators from Tripura the Congress last week, it dealt another blow to the Trinamool’s vaunted ambitions of emerging as the principal opposition party in the northeastern state and eventually dislodging the saffron party from power.
The two--veteran politician Sudip Roy Barman and his close associate Asish Saha--were slated to join the Trinamool, which had forayed into the state last year. Tripura was the first state that the Trinamool, euphoric after its sweep of the Assembly polls in Bengal last year, had set its eyes on in a bid to become ‘national’.
But the duo’s decision to join the Congress instead of the Trinamool provides ample indication that Mamata Banerjee’s party is no longer looked upon as a viable option. In fact, Barman, son of a former chief minister, told the media that despite making loud noises, the Trinamool’s prospects in Tripura are dim.
The Trinamool’s simplistic calculation was that Tripura, like Bengal, had a majority Bengali-speaking population. But unlike Bengal, where Muslims form a significant 30 percent of the population, they form about 8.6 percent of Tripura’s population and cannot decide electoral outcomes in any of the 60 Assembly seats.
Thus, the Trinamool could not apply its time-tested winning formula of uniting the Muslims and dividing Hindus (‘majority of minority votes and minority of majority votes’) . That proved to be a major drawback for the Trinamool.
Mamata Banerjee’s blatant Muslim appeasement in Bengal also hampered the Trinamool’s efforts to cultivate that state’s Bengali Hindus, who form about 62 per cent of the state’s population. The other major ethnic group in the state--the tribal Tripuris--who form about 30 percent of the population have their own parties that they support.
The tribals have never voted for any non-tribal or ‘mainstream’ party, and so getting their support was never an option for the Trinamool.
Also, the Trinamool, despite its best efforts, could not get any politician of significance in Tripura to join the party. The Trinamool’s biggest catch was Subal Bhowmik, who won just one election (in 2008) and lost many. Bhowmik started his career in the Congress, then joined the Trinamool and left that party because Mamata Banerjee did not accord any importance to him. He then joined the BJP, but left politics after losing the last elections and became an ascetic. But he came out of hibernation and joined the Congress, and was then wooed by the Trinamool which he rejoined in July last year.
Bhowmik has no political base and is derided as a turncoat guided by his own selfish interests. The Trinamool harmed its prospects in Tripura by making him the head of its steering committee in the state in October last year.
Despite deploying its front-ranking leaders and even Mamata Banerjee’s nephew Abhishek and huge resources in Tripura, the Trinamool could only get second-ranked and out-of-work politicians.
That is why the Trinamool was looking forward to inducting Sudip Roy Barman and Asish Saha into the party. The Trinamool’s hired political strategist, Prashant Kishor, had been negotiating their defection from the BJP with the two, and talks had even reached an advanced stage at one point in time.
The induction of these two MLAs would have given the Trinamool considerable tailwind. The party would then have been able to overcome the perception that senior politicians of the state considered it an unviable alternative to the BJP.
Barman, being the son of former chief minister and Congress strongman Samir Ranjan Burman, could have given a lot of heft to the Trinamool and enabled the party to overcome popular perception that its ‘Tripura project’ has crashed.
But now that the two have preferred the Congress over the Trinamool, the latter will find it almost impossible to defeat this perception. No amount of ensuring sizable turnouts at rallies and processions--and anyway, most participants are unemployed youths available on hire by political parties--will help the Trinamool erase this perception that has only gotten stronger.
The party in Tripura is also being buffeted by strong rumours that Prashant Kishor’s break with the Trinamool will lead to its parent unit in Bengal losing interest in Tripura. After all, it was Prashant Kishor who had framed the strategy for Trinamool’s foray into Tripura and was a key person behind implementing that strategy on the ground.
Prashant Kishor has also been instrumental in reaching out to leaders and workers from other parties and bringing them over to the Trinamool. With the strategist reportedly removing himself from Trinamool’s political outreach beyond Bengal’s boundaries, the whole exercise is slated to flounder and even come to an inglorious end.
The same is most likely to be the fate of the Trinamool’s plans for Assam’s Barak Valley comprising the southern districts of Cachar, Karimganj and Hailakandi. This sub-region in Assam, dominated by Bengali-speaking Hindus and Muslims, had been a Congress stronghold till the early 1990s.
Hindus make up about 50 percent of Barak Valley’s population while Muslims constitute about 48 percent of the population. Religious polarisation, and the failure of successive Congress governments to develop the area and meet the aspirations of the people had led to the party’s marginalisation.
Over the past couple of decades, the BJP and the All India United Democratic Front (AIUDF) which is perceived to be a party that protects the interests of Bangladesh-origin Muslims in Assam, have emerged as the two primary political players in the Barak Valley.
In the last Assembly elections in 2021, the BJP bagged six of the 15 seats in Barak Valley, the AIUDF won 5 and the Congress won four seats. But the Congress victory in the four seats was because of division of votes, and not because of the popularity of the party.
The two Lok Sabha seats in Barak Valley--Silchar and Karimganj--were bagged by the BJP in 2019.
The Trinamool chose Barak Valley for the very reasons it had chosen Tripura: because of its Bengali-speaking population. The assumption, quite naive, is that Bengalis across the country are enamoured of Mamata Banerjee and will vote for the Trinamool.
The Trinamool chose Sushmita Dev, daughter of another Congress strongman (from Barak Valley) Santosh Mohan Dev who had been a Union minister. Sushmita Dev won the Silchar Lok Sabha seat in 2014, but was defeated by the BJP’s Rajdeep Roy by a huge margin of over 81,000 votes in 2019.
The Trinamool miscalculated its prospects in the Barak Valley because the chosen party for the Muslims there is the AIUDF, and the Bengali Hindus of Barak Valley know about Mamata Banerjee’s Muslim appeasement only too well and do not trust her.
The Trinamool roped in Sushmita Dev, who once headed the All India Mahila Congress and was once part of Rahul Gandhi’s inner circle, to be its face in the Barak Valley. But, again, despite its best efforts and expending considerable resources, it could not create any significant impact there.
The Trinamool has, for all practical purposes, abandoned its plans for Barak Valley. But since it had, riding high on its fantastical ambitions, already made Sushmita Dev a Rajya Sabha member from Bengal, the party has since decided to deploy Sushmita Dev in Goa. It’s another matter that the Trinamool’s ‘Goa project’ may turn out to be a non-starter.
Another state that the Trinamool has been eyeing in the Northeast is Meghalaya. Prashant Kishor, on behalf of the Trinamool, had reached out to disgruntled Congress MLAs in the hill state. The appointment of Lok Sabha MP Vincent Pala as the president of the state Congress unit by the party ‘high command’ and the subsequent sidelining of former chief minister Mukul Sangma had triggered dissidence in the Congress in that state.
Kishor fished in those troubled waters and started holding talks with Mukul Sangma and other MLAs. Ultimately, in late November, Sangma and eleven other MLAs joined the Trinamool. The Congress’ strength in the state Assembly was reduced to five and the Trinamool emerged as the principal opposition party there.
But the Trinamool has little to cheer about in Meghalaya. It is perceived in the tribal state as a Bengal-based party, and Meghalaya’s tribals have had a complicated relationship with the Bengalis of that state.
Also, Mamata Banerjee with her rustic image and coarse mannerisms and speeches holds no appeal in the largely westernised state. The defections engineered by the Trinamool from the Congress has had the effect of all parties, even the regional ones, ganging up against the Trinamool.
Recently, the five Congress MLAs extended support to the Conrad Sangma government which has the BJP as a minor constituent. The ruling coalition comprises all the other tribal regional parties and all of them have joined forces to oppose the ‘outsider’ Trinamool party in the state.
Politics in Meghalaya is personality-driven and ideology plays no part in it. Mukul Sangma is a leader from the Garo Hills and there has, in recent years, been a divide between the Garo and Khasi & Jaintia Hills. MLAs from Khasi & Jaintia Hills outnumber those from the Garo Hills in the state Assembly.
Of the 12 Congress MLAs who joined the Trinamool in late November last year, eight are from the Garo Hills and the Trinamool thus runs the grave risk of being perceived as a party of the Garo Hills. That will work against the Bengal-based party in the Khasi & Jaintia Hills.
Even in the Garo Hills, the Congress retains its areas of influence while the National People’s Party (NPP), founded by former Union Minister and Lok Sabha Speaker Purno Agitok Sangma, is the principal political entity. Purno Sangma is widely respected in the Garo Hills and the NPP, which is now led by his son Conrad (the present chief minister) is expected to do very well in the Assembly elections slated for early next year.
Also, there is no guarantee that the MLAs who win on Trinamool tickets next year will remain with the Trinamool. In fact, chances of them defecting to other parties is very high, and Meghalaya is known for frequent defections of MLAs from one party to another.
The only other state in the Northeast where the Trinamool could gain a foothold was Manipur. The party surprised political analysts by winning eight Assembly seats in the 2012 Assembly elections. But, as is quite common in that state as well, most of its MLAs joined other parties, especially the Congress after the elections.
The Trinamool won just one seat in the 2017 Assembly elections. But it suffered a huge blow when its lone MLA, Tongram Robindro Singh, joined the BJP late last month. The MLA was, anyway, in close touch with the BJP for the last couple of years and his joining the saffron party was widely expected.
A dejected Trinamool is not even fighting the Manipur elections (polling is scheduled for February 28 and March 5) with any enthusiasm and seems to have given up the electoral battle.
That the Trinamool top leadership sees little prospects of their party making a mark in the Northeast is evident from the fact that they have stopped going to Tripura. And the party leadership has barely laid claim to its unit in Meghalaya. It has given up in Manipur and stands little chance in the Barak Valley.
The Trinamool’s ‘Act East’ project is, thus, coming unstuck and is set to severely jeopardise the party’s blusterous ambitions of expanding beyond Bengal’s borders.
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