Trinamool grapples with saffron surge in Bengal
The 2019 Lok Sabha election result in West Bengal is not the real problem for the Trinamool Congress. The bigger worry is that it is grappling to check the Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) rise in the eastern state.
That the BJP would bag 18 of the state’s 42 Lok Sabha seats, reducing the regional outfit to 22 from its 2014 showing of 34 was a jolt for many Trinamool leaders. Now the party stares at regular defections orchestrated by Mukul Roy, Trinamool’s former number two and now a key BJP strategist who knows the rival party inside out and its vulnerable points. Trinamool leaders are vocal about how infighting and sabotage crippled the party’s prospects. “I lost not because of the BJP, but because of my own people,” a former Trinamool MP told her colleagues last week at the party office in Parliament.
Another senior MP was candid that if he didn’t have his own base and popularity, the BJP would have swept his seat. Trinamool’s Lok Sabha leader Sudip Bandopadhyay dismissed such talk and pointed out, “Despite being in power, we increased our vote share by 4 percentage points. It’s no joke. Our tally of 22 MPs is not a lean figure for an opposition party.”
With the BJP occupying a large section of middle class minds, the assault on junior doctors at a premier Kolkata medical college earlier this month turned into another crisis for the Trinamool leadership. Protests against the violence quickly assumed national proportions with support from different corners of India and social media.
Assault on doctors is not new in Bengal but rarely has such an incident become a national issue. Trinamool’s Rajya Sabha MP Dola Sen, however, argued, “the media only highlighted the agitation of doctors but it ignored Mamata Banerjee’s deft handling of the problem. Unlike other states, Didi [as Banerjee is known] didn’t slap ESMA [Essential Services Maintenance Act] or cracked down on agitators.”
With assembly elections due in two years, Banerjee is determined to stop the culture of commission -- ordinary people having to pay money to local leaders to avail government benefits -- rampant in her organisation. In an unusual move, she even asked common people to catch hold of leaders and take back commissions. “Even if a person wants to build a sunshade in his or her residence, Trinamool goons demand commission,” admitted a party leader.
Bandopadhyay maintained it is a decisive step by the CM. “She has starred toll-free number for people to lodge complaints. Even MPs or MLAs won’t be spared.” BJP leaders accuse Banerjee’s party of being soft towards Muslims, a sensitive issue in a state that suffered during the Partition. Recently, eminent Muslims wrote to Banerjee urging her to come down hard on Muslims who break the law so that there is no wrong perception about the community, or talk that the administration is partial to the community.
Bandopadhyay refutes the allegations of appeasement and said, “Kolkata’s Red Road sees the largest congregation of Muslims on Eid. The same road also sports the biggest carnival of Durga idols.”
Experts belive otherwise. “There is a lumpen class in Bengal. They shifted from CPI(M) to Trinamool and now they are going to the BJP. This group forms the muscle power of the BJP to take on Trinamool,”says Achirangshu Acharya, an economist with Viswabharati University. The next two years will be a challenging time for Banerjee. Her party, however, is hopeful that Didi, Bengal’s most popular leader, will change course and emerge victorious.