It’s muddy enough for the next assembly elections in West Bengal. Because the sceptre of Mamata Banerjee’s TMC looks slightly worn out? The CPI(M) is making huge efforts to re-enter Bengal’s political discourse? The Congress is trying its best to ride piggyback on the Left? The BJP is desperate to regain the vote-share it had won during the Modi wave?
Clear dividing lines are getting blurred. Old enmities are resurfacing. New friendships are slowly forming. And the old power centre, the CPI(M) headquarters in central Kolkata’s Alimuddin Street, looks busy again with all the lights on — leaders are looking hopeful, holding press conferences and instructing workers from districts. Even the side rooms are full — one-on-ones are going on.
This time it’s not change (paribartan) and development (unnayan) on the agenda as much as long-lost friends – the CPI(M) and the Congress — and old foes – the CPI(M) and the Trinamool Congress – the ‘Hindu divided’ family of Subhash Chandra Bose, the rebellious Gorkha Janmukti Morcha and the disillusioned tribal parties on the Bengal-Jharkhand border.
And, of course, the rioting at Kaliachak. It represents — at least in public perception — the growing clout of the Muslim voter, with a 30% vote-share that can influence 125 of the 249 assembly seats in Bengal.
The Muslim voter in Bengal followed the Congress once and then the CPI(M) till Banerjee — during her anti-Left movement in Muslim-dominated Nandigram — discovered how an undivided Muslim vote-bank could get her to power and keep her there, safe and warm.
She is confident of a comfortable return to power for the second term. In fact, her party organ has predicted a haul of 224 seats this time.
Poise and doubts
It’s this confidence that should serve as the TMC’s main election plank. “There couldn’t be any doubts over the outcome of the elections. The CPI(M) is a spent force. It will never be in the race again,” said Partha Chattopadhyay, TMC secretary general and education minister. “The lights at Alimuddin Street and the proposed CPI(M)-Congress tie-up won’t make any difference at the end. It’ll be the TMC all the way.”
But the realisation that the old adversary is up and walking — if not running — is prompting the TMC’s attempt to project the BJP as the first challenger. And the CPI(M) is trying to project the alleged communal politics of the TMC and the BJP as the main danger.
Idris Ali, MP and a major TMC leader, claimed his party would get two-thirds majority. And he followed it up with the assertion that the BJP candidates would lose their deposits. He didn’t mention the CPI(M), however.
How is the pre-poll weather affecting parties other than the CPI(M)? The scene in the Trinamool Congress office and chief minister Banerjee’s residence is slightly different from the trademark Left discipline. Briskly, but in its usual chaotic way, the ruling party is getting ready for another round of bloody fighting —probably, mostly against itself given the intense faction fights in the ruling party, although the most prominent TMC rebel, former general secretary Mukul Roy, has returned to the party as vice-president.
In comparison, the BJP office in central Kolkata looks a little out of breath. One has to cross an empty reception hall to reach a middle-aged ‘bhadralok’ worker sitting at a small cubicle in one corner.
So is the state of affairs with the Congress. The leaders prefer to meet outside the office. One never knows when rival factions will interrupt a cosy chat. The leaders’ offices in the assembly house are considered safer. The issue, in fact, is what the central leadership decides on the CPI(M)’s call for a tie-up.
Odd and even
The state Congress heavyweights — chief Adhir Chaudhury, Abdul Mannan and Abu Hasem Khan Chaudhury — are all for the tie-up, but long-time legislator and former state chief Manas Bhuniya and his circle of friends are against it. And they have already made their positions clear to party vice-president Rahul Gandhi.
In the CPI(M) camp, Bengal leaders, including former chief minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharya, want to go with the Congress. The reason: Even during the peak of Banerjee’s popularity in 2011, the CPI(M)-Congress combined vote-share was 49.96% against the TMC’s 39.08%. In the 2014 Lok Sabha elections, the combined vote-share was 32.3% against the TMC’s 39%. Clearly, the BJP made a dent into the non-TMC vote-bank.
For now, it seems that it’s only the TMC which can expect smooth sailing. But why, then, is the TMC still belligerent? Why do all the recent bomb blasts inevitably point towards local TMC leaders? Why is Banerjee so keen on allegedly playing the Muslim card?
CPI(M) politburo member Mohammed Salim thinks it’s not only the next elections that Banerjee is looking at. “She wants a longer shelf-life in power.” So do the CPI(M) and the BJP. It seems the Bengal elections are going to turn out to be a battle for the future.