At the pinnacle of her political career, Bengal chief minister and Trinamool Congress boss Mamata Banerjee is a worried person after the election results in the five states.
The comfort with which she can rule her state in the near and medium term future is indeed related to how the states -- more specifically the political bellwether state of Uttar Pradesh -- voted.
Over the past few weeks, especially after she picked up popular issues such as overcharging and shoddy treatment in private hospitals, Mamata Banerjee’s popularity has reached an all-time high in Bengal. But her dream run may be abruptly interrupted by the saffron storm unleashed almost 1000 km away in Lucknow.
The Die Is Cast
Throughout her four decades of political life, the feisty 62-year old leader is known for taking risks and not playing her cards close to her chest. The past few months she hasn’t conducted herself differently and she tweeted her whole-hearted support to the SP-Congress alliance within a few minutes of Akhilesh Yadav and Rahul Gandhi announcing their alliance.
On Saturday as the results poured in, Mamata tweeted, “Congratulations to winners in different States. Congratulations to the voters for making their choice. To the losers, don’t lose heart. In a democracy, we must respect each other because some will win, some will lose. Trust the people.”
Political analysts stated that it is a much sober and mature response from the pugnacious chief minister who had been targeting Prime Minister Narendra Modi so far.
“The tweet is very interesting and politically significant. It is a courteous, mature and mellowed down statement indicating a softening stand on Bengal chief minister’s side. One may see a speeding up of CBI cases, but all depends on Narendra Modi who would like Mamata Banerjee on his side in different issues like Teesta Water Treaty,” said Sibaji Pratim Basu, political analyst.
Since the PM announced demonetization on November 8, she did not pull punches and emerged as Modi’s most bitter critic. She did everything possible from attacking him personally to touring the Hindi heartland to rally other political parties against him to even suggesting a national government under the leadership of Arun Jaitley. In short, she did not leave any escape route for herself.
BJP leaders have maintained that her opposition to the demonetisation had more to do with the cash her party leaders held rather than for any genuine concern for the people. With the resounding victory under its belt, it is unlikely that the ruling party at the Centre will forget all that in a hurry.
“The results, I think, are dangerous for Mamata Banerjee. Encouraged by the unprecedented success in UP, BJP will now try to be aggressive in Bengal. Had Congress-SP alliance won in UP, it would have given Mamata Banerjee a chance to increase her attacks against BJP and foray into the national scene. But now it seems difficult,” said Amal Kumar Mukhopadhyay, political science expert and former principal of Presidency College.
Trinamool Congress leaders had waited for the election results with bated breath. The apprehension was that if the BJP fared well, it may speed up CBI/ED investigation of the chit fund scams.
“It is a fact that now BJP will try hard to conspire against our party leaders. They will use agencies to target our senior leaders. But we are ready to fight it out democratically,” said a senior Lok Sabha MP of Trinamool Congress.
But there may be more ominous dark clouds waiting for Bengal’s ruling party. The Calcutta high court is hearing the Narada sting operation, and if the court orders a CBI probe, it may land a dozen Trinamool leaders in big trouble.
The sting operation conducted by the portal Naradanews.com was put out on public domain just about a fortnight ahead of the last assembly elections in Bengal and the video showed a dozen TMC leaders – ministers, MPs, MLAs and even an IPS officer who was purportedly working on behalf of a Rajya Sabha MP – accepting cash from the representative of a fictitious company.
The faces who were seen in the video telecast nationwide were those of the prominent and the powerful in the party – Saugata Roy, Suvendu Adhikari, Sultan Ahmed, Aparupa Poddar, Kakoli Ghosh Dastidar, Prasun Banerjee (Lok Sabha MP), Subrata Mukherjee, Firhad (Bobby) Hakim, Madan Mitra (ministers), Iqbal Ahmed (MLA), Sovan Chatterjee (MLA and Kolkata mayor) S M H Mirza (IPS officer who claimed to be taking the money on behalf of party MP Mukul Roy).
The timing triggered a torrent of allegations from Mamata Banerjee who labeled it as a conspiracy. But following a Calcutta high court order, Central Forensic Science Laboratory certified that the video clips were not doctored. This has triggered speculation in legal and political circles that the division bench can hand over the investigation to a central agency such as the CBI.
In that eventuality, Narada will turn into a major embarrassment for Mamata.
The damage that Narada investigation can do to the TMC is evident from what is happening with the Rose Valley chit fund probe. Two TMC Lok Sabha MPs, Sudip Bandyopadhyay and Tapas Paul are behind bars after the CBI arrested them in connection with the Rose Valley scam that involves about Rs 15,000 crore which is about six times larger than the Saradha scam of 2013.
Senior BJP leaders such as Kailash Vijayvargiya and Bengal party president Dilip Ghosh have said publicly that the pace of investigation in the Rose Valley scam will pick up once the elections are over in the five states.
On March 1, BJP leaders met CBI joint director A K Singh with the demand that the pace of investigation be increased. Eight days later Left leaders, too, piled on the pressure on CBI and ED officials with the same plea.
“Obviously the effects of UP polls will fall on Bengal. The Bengal chief minister and her friends hit the streets against demonetisation. They should now apologise. We had met with CBI officers demanding a speedy probe. This will happen now because people want it,” said Dilip Ghosh, state BJP president.
Mamata Banerjee is known for her fighting spirit. It is unlikely that the political ground below her feet will turn slippery in the near future in Bengal. But then she will certainly be uncomfortable facing the panchayat polls in the summer of 2018.
With the saffron camp steadily expanding its influence in the districts, a re-energised investigation into the chit fund scam, not to speak of a possible probe into the Narada videos, will only help BJP highlight charges of a corrupt political culture against its main rival.
Federal Dreams Shattered
Mamata Banerjee’s aspirations of spreading her influence beyond Bengal will also suffer a rude jolt as some of the players in that nebulous front have been humbled, and humiliated. It is of little relevance that she and Nitish Kumar are the faces left in what she liked to call the federal front.
“Mamata Banerjee will enjoy a national importance. But her dream of a federal front has suffered. Modi now has the upper hand and will try and keep the Bengal chief minister under pressure. Till 2019 BJP will try and keep up this pressure while simultaneously trying to spread in the state,” added Basu.
The UP verdict will enable BJP to increase its strength in the Rajya Sabha. The state sends 31 MPs to the Rajya Sabha and the BJP is poised to emerge as the largest party in the Upper House soon.
This will mean that the party will be able to pass bills, which had been a major headache for the Modi government after it came to power. Trinamool Congress on the other hand will lose its importance, as so far it played a key role in the Lok Sabha where it has 34 MPs. It has 11 MPs in the Rajya Sabha.
However, with regional parties like Aam Admi Party, Samajwadi Party, Bahujan Samaj Party facing jolts in the assembly polls, Mamata Banerjee is expected to enhance her importance in the opposition camp. She had not only thwarted BJP so far in Bengal but remains a strong opposition.
At the ground level in Bengal BJP will try to spread furiously, which may result in tension and violence on the streets. But the BJP’s likely expansion in Bengal may be less of an immediate threat compared to the investigation blues that Trinamool leaders could face.