The dichotomy of the Congress high command supporting Mamata Banerjee and the state unit protesting against her shows the extent to which its strength has weakened before elections.
Kolkata: The West Bengal Congress has now joined the Left in alleging that Mamata Banerjee’s dharnawas part of a larger conspiracy between the Trinamool Congress and the BJP. This, sources in the party said, has underlined the impossible situation that the party’s state unit finds itself in.
It was a plea filed by senior Congress leader Abdul Mannan in 2013 that led to the Supreme Court ordering the CBI to investigate the chit fund scam. On the other hands, Congress president Rahul Gandhi called Mamata Banerjee on Sunday, within hours of her taking to the streets to protest against the CBI, and extended the party’s support. Ahmed Patel, sources added, had also called Banerjee on multiple occasions.
On Tuesday, reacting to the Supreme Court direction to Kolkata police commissioner Rajiv Kumar to appear before the CBI, Mannan, now the leader of opposition, posed a question. “Why is Narendra Modi suddenly active on this? The TMC and the BJP have got together for this drama,” he said.
Mannan argued that it was in the best interest of the BJP and the TMC for Mamata Banerjee to “appear as the most anti-BJP voice”.
“She wants to show that no one is more anti-BJP than her. That is a reflection of the significant number of anti-BJP voters in Bengal. But there is also a lot of anger against the TMC,” he said.
The TMC, he argued, hasn’t “actually been tested electorally” since “voters haven’t been able to vote freely in the state since 2014”. “Whenever there has been a fair election, TMC has lost,” he added.
He argued that the Congress’s victory in the recent cycle of Assembly elections was at the heart of this ‘conspiracy’. “After these (victories), no one can deny the Congress’s strength. Seeing this and the fact that Rahul Gandhi is the central point in an opposition alliance, the TMC and BJP are conspiring to shift the focus away.”
But this dichotomy, of the Congress’s central unit supporting Banerjee and the state unit protesting against her, reflects not just the impossible choice ahead of the Congress, but also the extent to which its strength has weakened as it prepares for 2019.
Congress’s problem in Bengal
Among the earliest to warn the public of possible Ponzi schemes in Bengal was Somendra Nath Mitra, a TMC MP at the time, who is now the state Congress chief. In a 2011 letter to former prime minister Manmohan Singh, he had warned of “parallel economy” being run through at least 130 such pyramid schemes.
The year was also the one in which the Congress-TMC alliance dethroned the Left. But that alliance wouldn’t last long and Mitra would re-join the Congress ahead of the 2014 elections. The chit fund scam was paramount to the party’s campaign against the TMC.
But a lot changed in the next five years. The grand old party’s share nationally fell from 206 to just 44. The Trinamool Congress with 34 Lok Sabha seats (an improvement of 15 seats) and the anti-BJP rhetoric of its chief, could no longer be taken lightly.
The Congress in Bengal, meanwhile, began crumbling. The TMC continued making advances in its bastions in north Bengal and the 2016 assembly election saw the Congress and the Left come together in an unlikely and ultimately ill-fated alliance to take on the might of the TMC. The Left’s vote share went down by 10%, while the Congress’s improved by 3%.
The Trinamool Congress still remained the party to beat in the state and the BJP’s steady rise has only made the Congress’s fight in the state more dire.
“There is an anti-TMC space in Bengal and that is clear from the polls. If you look at the last Assembly elections, more than half the votes polled are for parties against the TMC. And everyone is fighting for that,” said a Congress leader.
Mannan, one of the architects of the Left-Congress alliance, had met the party high command on more than one occasion to continue their campaign on chit funds.
But the Congress has remained wary of attacking Mamata and the TMC.
As early as July 2017, the state Congress had ruled out the possibility of an alliance with the party. But in response, the Congress high command gave the state a “convoluted message”: to go “easy on their criticism of Mamata Banerjee”, “avoiding personal attacks” and at the same time “continuing opposition politics at the level of governance”.
A state Congress leader said, “It was a bizarre situation. Adhir Ranjan Chowdhury, the state Congress president at the time, communicated his concerns over any alliance with Mamata to Rahul Gandhi. The state Congress’s argument was that in case there is to be such an alliance, the party must build a movement in the state to have more bargaining power.”
“It is a very unclear situation. If we don’t attack Mamata, what is the point of sitting in opposition?” asked the leader.
Mausam Noor, one of Congress’s three MPs who recently switched over to the TMC, said exactly this. An advocate of allying with the TMC to fight against the BJP, Noor attacked the Congress for “missing the big picture”.
As one AICC leader put it, “We need an alliance in the Centre to take on the BJP. But if we do that with Mamata in Bengal, then it effectively finishes the state unit.”