On April 18, a day after CBI filed an FIR in the Narada sting case, the CPI(M) and its Left Front partners hurriedly organised a rally in Kolkata. The result was unexpected.
“From where did they get so many people? Isn’t the Left a spent force? I am caught in traffic for two hours,” Indranil Banerjee, a private firm executive, wrote on Facebook as traffic came to a standstill in the heart of the city.
What office-goers like Banerjee didn’t know was that the huge turnout at such a short notice had caught even some of the Marxist apparatchiks by surprise.
In the next two days, thousands of Left supporters poured in to join the processions in Bengal’s districts — including in places where the front barely exists — demanding interrogation “in CBI custody” of the 12 Trinamool leaders named in the FIR for receiving cash in the sting.
In sharp contrast, fewer people came out when Trinamool leaders hit the Kolkata streets alleging the FIR is a “political conspiracy” against Mamata Banerjee, or when pro-BJP intellectuals convened a public meeting.
The Marxists are aware that ever since she painted Bengal green (Trinamool’s colours) in 2011, Mamata Banerjee is facing a challenge that cannot be countered solely with electoral strength.
In all the major polls, the CPI(M)’s performance was decimated and hit an all-time low and the party has been losing ground to the BJP, a phenomenon Bengal never witnessed before.
- Rajya Sabha MP Mukul Roy and Lok Sabha MPs Saugata Roy, Aparupa Poddar, Sultan Ahmed, Prasun Banerjee and Kakoli Ghosh Dastidar
- Bengal urban development minister Firhad Hakim, transport minister Suvendu Adhikari, environment minister and Kolkata mayor Sovan Chatterjee and panchayati raj and rural development minister Subrata Mukherjee
- Former minister Madan Mitra, MLA Iqbal Ahmed and IPS officer Saiyaad Mirza are accused in the case. Mirza, who was posted as SP, Burdwan in 2014, was seen accepting money on camera
■ LOK SABHA ■ ASSEMBLY FIGURES IN%
*IN COOCH BEHAR ASSEMBLY **KANTHI DAKSHIN (EAST MIDNAPORE DISTRICT)
Yet, wherever the Left parties are hitting the streets, demanding the arrest of the tainted TMC leaders, the streets are filling up.
The CBI probe ordered by the Calcutta High Court appears to have come as a boon for it. While attacking the Trinamool, the Marxists are also able to take on the saffron outfit as BJP, ruling at the Centre, holds the reins of the CBI.
The central investigation agency’s failure to establish corruption charges against Trinamool leaders seen in videos that have been certified as authentic by forensic experts, will be a double bonanza for the Left, at a time when they are struggling to hold on to their old forts in Bengal.
No wonder, they have upped the ante by focusing on “a secret understanding between Modi and Didi (as Mamata is referred to)”, and simultaneously demanded a meeting of the Parliament’s ethics committee to discuss the fate of tainted Trinamool MPs.
“The Trinamool and BJP play supplementary roles for each other. While the CBI probe into Saradha and Rose Valley chit fund scams move at snail’s pace, Trinamool leaders remain absent from Rajya Sabha when the BJP places anti-people bills. It is a convenient arrangement,” CPI(M) general secretary Sitaram Yechury told a rally in Cooch Behar town of north Bengal on April 22.
The huge crowd that had gathered at the Rashmela grounds there was standing in slush and muddy water, a day after the town received the season’s first thundershower. Clearly, there is a change in how the wind blows.
But can the Left use the Narada sting to its advantage in the crucial panchayat elections in 2018?
The CPI(M), in the last couple of months, has won some co-operative and trade union elections, and this has given some reason for strategists at Muzaffar Ahmed Bhawan, headquarters of the Bengal CPI(M), to chart new routes —to focus on the sting.
Whatever the outcome, the CBI may take months or even years to complete the investigation, feel the leaders, and the Left parties have to generate enough organisational strength to keep up the spirits of the rank and file.
But in Bengal’s long history, polls have been won are either won by force or, if held freely, villagers favour those who can deliver and serve their basic interests. An alleged corruption scam is unlikely to become a deciding factor at the panchayat level.
In 2016 too, the sting videos went public just before the assembly elections, and despite all the hype, Mamata Banerjee came out with flying colours. Even the Saradha and Rose Valley chit fund scams, which affected people in the districts, seemed to have had no effect on the electorate.
“But that was because the tapes became public too close to the polls and hype was mainly created by the media. We practically had no time to build up a fresh campaign right down to the village level,” argued CPI(M) Lok Sabha MP and Politburo member Md Salim.
“Moreover, the tapes were released by the BJP and the television channels categorically said their authenticity had not been verified. This created confusion and suspicion among millions of people who had voted for the Trinamool in 2011. Hence, they decided to put their trust in the Trinamool’s ‘conspiracy’ theory,” he said.
“Besides, Mamata Banerjee protected her scam-tainted leaders. She appealed to voters to have faith in her, instead of looking at the candidates. “The situation is quite different now. She is openly defending the FIR-named leaders.
“People of Bengal have always been rational. Now they know that the video footages are authentic and even the Supreme Court has upheld the high court order on CBI probe. That’s why they are joining our rallies in large numbers. Even the huge turnout at the BJP’s Ram Navami programme was an expression of discontent against Trinamool Congress,” Salim reasoned.
However, winning the votes will be much more of a task compared to winning hearts as many Left leaders, including Salim, fear that the panchayat polls will witness unprecedented violence.
“Going by what we have observed since 2011, the Trinamool will definitely use force to stop Left candidates from contesting. And, this void will be filled up by the BJP,” said Manoj Bhattacharya, national secretariat member of the Revolutionary Socialist Party, which is left with only three seats in the Assembly. Whether the Left can overcome the hurdles and make a comeback is left to be seen. For now, the route has been charted.
For BJP, the allegations of “a secret understanding” with Mamata are damaging, and so the Narada probe assumes significance. The CPI(M) realises this and it is raising uncomfortable questions on the absence of heavyweights such as Narendra Modi and Amit Shah and others during road shows — a political exercise that caught Bengal by surprise prior to the 2016 elections.
Whether walking in a Ram Navami procession with a sword or addressing the media, state BJP president Dilip Ghosh is leaving no stone unturned to keep up the tempo and counter criticisms.
Leader of state opposition and veteran Congress MLA, Abdul Mannan, who filed the first PIL in the Saradha chit fund case, is attacking the BJP on similar lines.
“People want an impartial investigation and don’t want to see it being influenced by the Trinamool-BJP partnership. Our party will hit the streets and raise this demand,” he said.