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HindustanTimes Wed,17 Sep 2014

Queen's gambit: What's at stake for Mamata in Lok Sabha polls

Avijit Ghosal, Hindustan Times  Kolkata, May 13, 2014
First Published: 23:16 IST(13/5/2014) | Last Updated: 19:27 IST(15/5/2014)

In her political life of more than three decades, the 2014 Lok Sabha polls are the first occasion where Mamata Banerjee has something to lose.

In all the polls that she contested earlier, both Lok Sabha and assembly, she had almost nothing at stake.

But these polls are an exception, and her plight has been evident in the desperation that her body language and tongue displayed during the tumultuous campaign.

"If the Trinamool Congress chief is appearing desperate today, she cannot be faulted. Her stakes are high both on the political as well as the administrative front," remarked a senior MNC executive, who was a bureaucrat with the state government.

It is difficult to be more accurate. At 59, Banerjee is fighting one of the toughest political battles of her life.

Capital stake

Her first challenge is to restore her relevance in the Capital. In UPA 2, the Trinamool Congress had a place of pride as it was the second largest constituent with 19 MPs before it walked out in September 2012.

The position gave her not only clout, but also close-to-centre stage position in the national discourse.

This is perhaps the biggest stake for Banerjee as she ardently hopes of emerging as a national player, leapfrogging from the platform in Bengal.

Security women protect West Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee during a protest by SFI activists on her arrival at Yojana Bhavan in New Delhi. (PTI photo)

During the campaign before the Saradha scam took away the spotlight, she consistently maintained that the Trinamool would emerge as the third largest party in the country (after the Congress and the Bharatiya Janata Party) and she would emerge as the kingmaker in the Capital.

"If she does not get back her position in Delhi, she remains politically stunted. She will pull out all stops to ensure that does not happen," remarked Amal Kumar Mukhopadhyay, former principal of Presidency College and a professor of political science.

With the dreams of taking her party beyond the borders of Bengal, Banerjee decided to field candidates in several states such as Jharkhand, Uttar Pradesh, Assam, Tripura and Mizoram.

Read: Mamata to focus on Bengal, northeast after plan flops

She even fielded former UP chief minister Kamalapati Tripathi's granddaughter from Varanasi against Narendra Modi.

In January, Trinamool leaders were so upbeat that they were heard saying in private they would demand the home ministry this time and not be satisfied with railways.

In January, some of the more adventurous supporters even started saying in public meetings that Banerjee is the fittest person to become the prime minister, which many read as an articulation of the ambitions of the leader herself.

But then, as the campaign progressed, these utterances ebbed, and after the Enforcement Directorate started the Saradha probe, the ruling party was forced to be on the defensive.

"The Anna Hazare experience demonstrated how inexperienced Mamata was… She has never tried to understand Indian politics, be it north India or south. She has tried to extrapolate her lessons in Bengal and draw inferences about Indian politics that proved disastrous," said Dipak Ghosh, 76, a former bureaucrat who headed eight departments of the Bengal government and was one of the close aides of Mamata since mid-1997 when she started conceiving her party.

Read: Anna calls in sick, Mamata’s Delhi debut a big flop

After she walked out of the UPA, Banerjee took two attempts at the national stage, only to meet with spectacular failures.

The first was in June 2012 when she went to tie up with Samajwadi Party's Mulayam Singh Yadav to put up a presidential candidate and the next time was in March 2014 when Anna Hazare did not turn up at Delhi's Ramlila Maidan, leaving a red faced Banerjee deliver an address before a sea of empty chairs.

A man holds up Mamata Banerjee's poster at her Ramlila Grounds rally in New Delhi (Vipin Kumar/HT photo)

Before the polls began, Banerjee gave her party leaders a target of minimum 30 seats out of the 42 in Bengal.

They now say anything below 28 will be regarded as a failure in their home turf. It is this home turf that Banerjee has to defend, somewhat ironically, within merely three years after the historic wiping out of the Left Front.

Perhaps none imagined that after decimating the Left, and reducing the Congress' significance, in assembly, civic and panchayat polls, Banerjee would have to suddenly contest with the BJP, which has always been a marginal force in Bengal.

The BJP's best show in the state was a mere 6% of the votes in 2009. But, over the past one month, the Trinamool chief was forced to devote most of her speeches to this party.

If the BJP manages to secure 15-20% votes that it is targeting, Banerjee will have to deal with a significant rising force that can even become a tide if the NDA manages to wrest power in Delhi.

In that case, the BJP will pose a serious challenge to the Trinamool in the Kolkata civic elections of 2015 and even pose a danger in the 2016 assembly polls.

The Saradha menace

On May 9, an order by a division bench of the Supreme Court made the situation more desperate for the Trinamool supremo.

With the CBI investigation into a scam that engulfs a few of the party leaders and Rajya Sabha members, Banerjee knows that she has now become amenable to strings being pulled by the Centre to control her.

She took a lot of pride in her clean image and used to frequently say in public that she cannot be compared with Hindi heartland leaders who could be tamed by the centre through the CBI.

The only way she can wriggle out of this mess is through a double whammy - by winning quite a few seats, and hoping that the ruling party/coalition has less-than-majority numbers so that they have to depend on her to keep the government floating.

"I think Mamata's options are open right now and she will not hesitate to plead with Narendra Modi to get a berth in the government. She has many fronts to protect after Friday's Saradha verdict," said Ghosh.

"Have you heard her mention the Federal Front over the past one month?" asks Mukhopadhyay.

But beyond all these statistics and scenario building, Banerjee is perhaps most uncomfortable with the thought that she has to face all these uncertainties so soon after her 2011 exploits.

"She has a Himalayan ego and it is simply not possible for Mamata Banerjee to digest the thought that she is again being put to test within three years of becoming the arbiter for Bengal," said Ghosh.

Read: Bengal govt welcomes CBI probe in Saradha scam

Governance blues

On an administrative level as well, Banerjee has a lot to lose. If the new government at the Centre does not need Trinamool's support, it may spell gloom in her 14th floor office of the new state secretariat.

After she walked out of the UPA, Banerjee stepped up her demands for a fiscal bailout package for her debt stressed state, where the debt obligation itself wipes out almost 70% of her own revenue, leaving little for development work.

Banerjee needs a sympathetic Centre that will keep promptly disbursing funds to Bengal. Any delays in this crucial function can paralyse her government that is groaning under a loan of Rs. 2.5 lakh crore (projected for 2014-15).

West Bengal chief minister and TMC president Mamata Banerjee at a election rally for TMC candidate Indranil Sen at Berhampore in Murshidabad. (PTI photo)

From one perspective, Banerjee's career appears a bit strange. She always had an exceptional beginner's luck, but somewhere down the way, it always seemed to run out.

Banerjee went into an alliance with the BJP in 1998 and 1999 and managed to secure 35% and 38% votes in the two Lok Sabha polls - a very high share considering the age of her party that was founded on the first day of 1998.

But then the dream start quickly faded. In the 2001 assembly polls, the party managed to secure just 60 seats in the 294-seat house where the Left won a thumping 204. She was also routed in the panchayat and civic polls.

Senior party leader Subrata Mukherjee left to join the Congress. In the 2004 Lok Sabha polls, Banerjee could only win from the South Kolkata constituency.

The eight seats Trinamool won in 1999 were reduced to just one. Her misfortune continued till Buddhadeb Bhattacharya committed the political blunder of acquiring extensive stretches of fertile farmland for industrial projects in Singur and Nandigram.

These appear all the more awkward when compared to her record of a string of personal Lok Sabha poll victories starting from the 1984 rout of CPI(M) veteran Somnath Chatterjee till 2009 in South Kolkata - with the lone exception of 1989 when Chatterjee had turned the tables on her in the same constituency.


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