A short walk down any road in Calcutta (Kolkata) this time will leave anyone confused as to who’s fighting whom in the municipal polls on May 30. In places, there is a couple of the CPI(M)’s red flags caught between long lines of the Congress’ hand symbols and the Trinamool’s two green flowers — all tied to a roadside railing and fluttering happily together in the gust of a chance thundershower. On the other hand, there are many places where one would find just too many twin-flowers. These are undoubtedly Didi’s patches, where others might as well mind their own business.
But the trouble is with those mohallas, where a wave of red competes with a an equally long wave of green, leaving just a little space for the Congress’ hand symbol in tri-colour to stick up. It is being seen by many — not all of whom are supporters of political parties — as an unmistakable token of betrayal by the Congress. It will, they think, split the anti-CPI(M) votes and thus, by decimating Trinamool’s likely tally, get some sort of a Schadenfreude. “The Congress is apprehensive of ending up as the No. 2 party behind Trinamool,” it is argued. Yet, the Congress fought the 2009 general election in alliance with the Trinamool of Mamata Banerjee and that enabled it to retain its share of Lok Sabha seats in the state. Both Mamata and Pranab Mukherjee, the Congress state unit president, have been publicly pronouncing that not all is lost between them and there can be post-poll adjustments, not to speak of a firm covenant of alliance before the assembly poll, due in 2011. But in Trinamool’s street corner rallies, the epithet generally used for the Congress is gaddar, or traitor.
In retrospect, it is evident that Mamata could avoid the split if only she was a little generous in Kolkata seat-sharing, because talks in the other 80 municipalities collapsed as soon as negotiations in Kolkata failed. In Kolkata, the Congress was ready to settle for 40 seats (out of 141) while Mamata refused to give it more than 25. But the Congress too must explain why it blew a fuse. What would it have lost if the Trinamool wins the council by its own strength?
Congress sources explain that if they’d surrendered now Mamata would offer them “peanuts” in the assembly elections, and if she still wins, “we’ll become a non-entity in West Bengal in the 2014 Lok Sabha polls”.
It is as honest as a confession can be. But it could be more accurate if only it hadn’t extended its gaze so long into the future. In fact the party is not much of an ‘entity’ now. The 125-year-old party hasn’t got much left in the state except a few men and women in their late-40s or early-50s. Most of them run NGOs that are supported by one arm or the other of the Left Front establishment, or are lawyers thriving on state government cases. If they are at all visible in the public arena, it is only in TV talk shows. Of the Congressmen of standing whom the late Indira Gandhi had handpicked, the last two in active political life, Subrata Mukherjee and Somen Mitra, have both recently deserted the Congress and joined the Trinamool. It tells why Mamata was so stingy with even municipal seats. Obviously, she doesn’t want more passengers.
But is the collapse of the Congress merely a Bengal phenomenon? Probably not. In Maharashtra, the general secretaries of the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP), which shares power with the Congress in the state, publicly allege that its alliance partner had ‘forced’ them to contest fewer state assembly seats in the 2009 assembly elections than in the past (113) of which it won 62 (57 per cent). The Congress won 82 (47 per cent) of the 174 seats it fought. The statement, reproduced in the party’s website, alleges betrayal even after unjust seat sharing as “it became evident that the defeat (of NCP candidates) was masterminded by some of the leaders of alliance partners encouraging our rebels as candidates.” It is possible that in Bengal, as in Maharashtra, the Congress is acting as an aggressive parasite because its supporters are dwindling.
A hint of just how much it has shrunk came in a recent exercise begun at Rahul Gandhi’s initiative to make organisational elections mandatory from the block Congress to the party’s working committee, and, to be eligible to cast the vote, to make photographic identification compulsory. According to a report, it has brought down the number of active party members in Mumbai from six lakh to two lakh. It gives credibility to tales often heard of senior Congressmen producing lists of fictitious names of their followers to claim party nominations for elections, while regularly paying the paltry annual subscription of such non-existent members from their own pockets.
In Kolkata in election mode, it seems the Congress’ party flags outnumber its committed supporters. But its worst humiliation will come if the Trinamool finds itself in a position to run most municipalities by itself; in the assembly elections, the Congress must then be happy with peanuts. And the same fate awaits it across the country if it can’t find enough supporters who can at least prove with a photo identity card that they exist.
Sumit Mitra is a Kolkata-based writer
The views expressed by the author are personal