Even as Sonia Gandhi, Rahul Gandhi, Mamata Banerjee, Sitaram Yechury and other leaders of anti-BJP parties were closeted at Mumbai’s Grand Hyatt Hotel on Friday (1 September) — Congress and CPI(M) leaders were lambasting the TMC and the BJP with equal vehemence — about 2,275 km away in Bengal’s Dhupguri.
Bengal Congress president Adhir Ranjan Chowdhury and Communist Party of India (Marxist) state secretary Mohammad Salim were at Dhupguri in North Bengal’s Jalpaiguri district to campaign for their joint candidate in the upcoming bypolls in the Assembly constituency.
Chowdhury, who is also the leader of the Congress in the Lok Sabha and is close to the Gandhis, attacked the Trinamool Congress (TMC) for rigging the last panchayat elections in Bengal and accused the ruling party of harbouring criminals.
Alluding to the meeting of the Indian National Developmental Inclusive Alliance (INDIA) in Mumbai, Chowdhury said: “There is no need to pay attention to what is happening outside the state. We want to uproot the Trinamool in Bengal. Bengal is ready for the revolution”.
He also accused the Trinamool of looting the state exchequer and referring to the mega scams involving top Trinamool leaders that have rocked the state.
Mohammad Salim, a two-time Lok Sabha MP and a member of the CPI(M)’s central committee, accused the Trinamool Congress of having an “understanding” with the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).
“They (BJP and Trinamool) have a very close understanding. Their MLAs and MPs switch sides frequently,” said Salim.
The veteran Marxist also said that the “probes by central agencies against corrupt Trinamool leaders” are “stage-managed”. “The agencies summon the accused Trinamool leaders and make a huge hue and cry about questioning them, but ultimately don’t act against them,” he contended.
Congress and CPI(M) leaders in the state told Swarajya that there is no question of an alliance with the Trinamool Congress in Bengal.
“Our fight in Bengal is against the Trinamool Congress. The BJP has lost a lot of ground over the past few years in Bengal and people have started reposing faith in us. So our primary rival in Bengal is the Trinamool,” said CPI(M) central committee member Rabin Deb.
Adhir Ranjan Chowdhury spoke in a similar vein. “Why should we join hands with the Trinamool when it has been targeting us ever since it came to power in the state 12 years ago? The Trinamool is as much our enemy as the BJP,” he said.
Chowdhury said that the only way that the INDI-Alliance can work in Bengal is if the Trinamool accords “proper respect to us (the Congress and Left”. By that he meant the Trinamool conceding at least 18 of the 42 Lok Sabha seats in Bengal to the Left-Congress alliance.
That, of course, is a demand that the Trinamool will never accept. The Trinamool wants to contest the maximum number, if not all, the seats from Bengal. “We can give, at best, five to six seats to the Congress and Left to contest,” said a senior Trinamool Congress leader who is close to Mamata Banerjee.
The Trinamool’s position is understandable. “We want to win at least 35 to 38 seats from Bengal and that will make us a powerful constituent of the (INDI) alliance. So our bargaining strength will also increase in a fluid post-poll scenario. We want to see our leader Mamata Banerjee as the Prime Minister,” said senior Trinamool leader and cabinet minister Firhad Hakim.
Asked if the Trinamool’s rigid stand on contesting a lion’s share of the 42 Lok Sabha seats from Bengal will not jeopardise the anti-BJP alliance, Hakim replied: “All parties have to take into consideration ground realities. The Trinamool is the strongest party in Bengal and the only one capable of defeating the BJP. The Left and Congress are trying to divide the anti-BJP votes to favour the BJP”.
Congress leader Adhir Chowdhury said that the Trinamool was “living in a fool’s paradise”.
“Anti-incumbency is rising in Bengal and people are fed up with the misgovernance of the Trinamool whose leaders and workers are corrupt and indulging in many scams. Unemployment is rife in Bengal, and Mamata Banerjee has been unable to stem inflation. People are angry and want an alternative. The Congress-Left alliance is the only alternative and we will trump both the Trinamool and BJP in Bengal,” said Chowdhury.
Significantly, Trinamool general secretary Abhishek Banerjee held a closed-door meeting with Rahul Gandhi at 10, Janpath (Sonia Gandhi’s residence where Rahul is also staying now) in New Delhi Wednesday (30 August) evening.
Top sources in both the parties said that Abhishek Banerjee’s primary purpose was to request Rahul Gandhi to ask the Congress leaders in Bengal from speaking against the Trinamool Congress.
Banerjee is learnt to have told Gandhi that the frequent statements made by senior Congress leaders in Bengal, especially Adhir Ranjan Chowdhury, against the Trinamool and Mamata Banerjee goes against the spirit of the newly-formed anti-BJP INDI-Alliance.
“Our leader Abhishek Banerjee told Rahul Gandhi that if the (INDI) alliance has to work, Congress leaders in Bengal have to be asked to stop speaking against the Trinamool,” said a senior Trinamool leader.
Rahul Gandhi is said to have given Banerjee a patient hearing, but remained non-committal. But Rahul Gandhi rejected Abhishek’s request to ask the state Congress unit to distance itself from the CPI(M) and not ask for more than three to four Lok Sabha seats to contest from.
Congress leaders told Swarajya that the latter firmly rejected this request from Abhishek Banerjee. The CPI(M), Gandhi reportedly told Abhishek, is an “important partner” in the alliance and the Congress-Left alliance in Bengal will continue.
Rahul Gandhi also told Abhishek that the Trinamool should be flexible and accommodating and has to “take a realistic view of ground realities”.
Asked if that meant the Congress would also be accommodative of any demand by the Trinamool to the Congress to concede seats in states like Karnataka, Rajasthan or Chhattisgarh where the Congress is strong, the senior Congress leader who is a member of the revamped CWC (Congress Working Committee) laughed: “Our leader Rahul Gandhi took care of that when he told Abhishek to keep in mind ground realities. What presence does the Trinamool have outside Bengal?”.
That Abhishek Banerjee’s meeting with Rahul Gandhi did not produce any result was evident at Dhupguri just two days later when Adhir Chowdhury went hammer and tongs against the Trinamool and shared the dais with CPI(M)’s Salim.
Also, the fact that Mamata Banerjee sent her nephew to meet Rahul Gandhi instead of speaking to the latter herself lays bare her poor ties with Rahul Gandhi. She had spoken disparagingly and quite indiscreetly of Rahul Gandhi earlier, and those statements made it to Gandhi’s ears.
Though Mamata Banerjee had a good rapport with Sonia Gandhi earlier, the latter is also unhappy with the Trinamool chief not giving due respect to her son who she is very protective about.
The Trinamool is keen on breaking the Congress-Left alliance in Bengal because the CPI(M) state unit has already declared its intention of contesting against the Trinamool in the parliamentary elections next year.
The CPI(M) central leadership has allowed the state unit of its party to chart its own path “keeping in mind the larger interests of the party”.
Given the statements being made by the state Congress leadership, and the declaration by the CPI(M) state unit, it appears that the INDI-Alliance will not work in Bengal.
This brings up the crucial question: why then is Mamata Banerjee in the INDI-Alliance at all? The Congress and other parties will dismiss Trinamool’s demand for Lok Sabha seats to contest from in other states, and there will be no alliance between the Trinamool and Congress-Left in Bengal.
So the INDI-Alliance makes little difference to Mamata Banerjee.
The answer to that lies in Banerjee’s hopes for a fluid political scene after the parliamentary elections. She is hoping that the NDA will fall short of a majority and in such a scenario, she will be able to bargain for an outsized role for herself at the national level.
Mamata Banerjee is, thus, in the INDI-Alliance not for the Alliance’s stated objective of putting up an united front against the BJP, but to extract a “good deal” from other parties — primarily the Congress — after the elections.
In the end, however, her calculations about the NDA not getting a majority may prove to be widely off the mark.
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