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View: Can Mamata Banerjee’s bold Bengal gambit restrict the BJP?

May 30, 2024 04:45 PM IST

Mamata Banerjee’s decision to snub the INDIA bloc and go it alone in all 42 seats in Bengal may be the factor that defines BJP’s and TMC’s fortunes in the state

Even when the idea of a joint opposition front, INDIA, was being laid out by the leaders of anti-BJP parties, Mamata Bannerjee had other ideas for Bengal.

Mamata Banerjee, Chief Minister of India's West Bengal state and Trinamool Congress (TMC) party leader addresses her supporters during an election campaign meeting.(AFP)
Mamata Banerjee, Chief Minister of India's West Bengal state and Trinamool Congress (TMC) party leader addresses her supporters during an election campaign meeting.(AFP)

Despite being a part of the 28-party opposition coalition, Mamata announced as early as January that her Trinamool Congress (TMC) was going to fight solo in Bengal, citing the failed seat-sharing talks with the Congress, a key member of the bloc, for her decision. "Whatever proposal I gave them, they have refused all," Banerjee said, adding, "Since then, we have decided to go it alone in Bengal."

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On the face of it, the decision appeared like a body blow to the then fledgling opposition alliance. But now, with the benefit of hindsight, it could well turn out to be a tactically shrewd decision.

Mamata’s first priority is to ensure that Trinamool fares better this time than it did in 2019. The Trinamool tally went down from 34 in 2014 to 22 in 2019, while the BJP increased its seat strength from two to 18. There are 42 Lok Sabha seats in West Bengal.

The anti-incumbency factor

That anti-incumbency cannot be overlooked by Mamata, a politician with an ear to the ground, is undeniable. Serving as chief minister of West Bengal since 20 May 2011, it’s been a long but bumpy ride. If the state government’s welfare schemes have been welcomed, corruption has cast a large shadow and lack of industry is a constant source of worry.

Such sentiment reflected itself most strongly in 2019 when the BJP, riding on this disquiet, made major inroads into Bengal. Mamata is loath to allow her principal rival to make similar gains this time. Analysts say the tacit understanding between TMC, the Congress and the Left is to restrict the BJP as much as possible.

Hence, instead of a formal three-way alliance – which would be opposed by the Left cadre – a loose arrangement with Mamata would be preferable. The Congress and Trinamool attack each other every now and then, with the unstated goal of shifting the anti-Trinamool votes to the Congress-Left alliance instead of where it went last time, the BJP.

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If the Congress-Left combine gains a couple of seats at the expense of the BJP, and Trinamool adds to its 22 Lok Sabha seats, it does increase Mamata’s clout within the INDIA grouping.

That such an arrangement would be workable only till the Bengal assembly election in 2026 is also a given, but that is still some time away.

Veteran journalist Sanjay Basak believes, however, that while the Congress-Left could gain marginally, there are some recent developments that may harm TMC.

The challenges before Mamata

The foremost is the Bengal Teachers Recruitment Scam which came to light after the CBI arrested former state education minister Partha Chatterjee and several officials from the West Bengal School Service Commission over suspicion of involvement in the illegal teacher recruitment in July 2022. The Supreme Court on May 7 gave relief to the state government by protecting nearly 24,000 teaching and non-teaching staff members from immediate termination. While Mamata hailed the apex court decision, the state government remains on the backfoot on the issue.

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In another setback, last month, Mamata accused some monks of two prominent monastic orders of working in favour of the BJP in the elections only to be rebuffed the next day by the religious bodies who said that they have always stayed clear from politics.

The outrage at Sandeshkhali, where forcible occupation of land and alleged sexual harassment by local TMC strongmen, has also added to the anti-TMC mood.

But women voters though remain Mamata’s main bulwark. They have benefitted from various welfare schemes launched by the TMC. Through the state government's Lakhir Bhandar scheme, women belonging to the SC or ST category receive 1,000 per month, and all other women receive 500 per month. With approximately 48% of the state's population being women, the scheme garnered enough support for Mamata in the previous elections. It could do the same now.

With the Modi government withholding funds for NREGS and PM Awas Yojana in Bengal on grounds of corruption and non-submission of accounts, TMC leaders have made “vindictive denial” of legitimate money to Bengal by the BJP-led central government an issue, which has resonated with many voters.

It is interesting to note that despite ruling in only one state, TMC managed to raise almost the same amount as the Congress through the now-defunct Electoral Bonds scheme.

Nonetheless, the tiff between old timers in the TMC and the younger brigade led by Abhishek Banerjee, the nephew and chosen successor-designate by the TMC supremo, is well known. Could the internal strain limit TMC’s chances?

Mamata – as has been her wont – keeps her cards close to her chest. She told a rally in Kolkata that she would not be able to attend the meeting of the INDIA alliance on June 1, as the last phase of voting in West Bengal will be held that day.

It remains to be seen if her tactics will pay dividends on June 4.

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