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A Hobson’s choice

Mamata Banerjee can be a difficult coalition partner. Still, she, not the intransigent Left, is the Congress’s best bet, writes Sumit Mitra.

india Updated: Mar 14, 2010 23:04 IST

There is no denying the fact that Mamata Banerjee, founder leader of the Trinamool Congress, and the Congress under Sonia Gandhi, no longer make the happy family that they seemingly did during the Lok Sabha polls last year. Her party’s two members in the Rajya Sabha stayed away from the House when it voted in favour of the Women’s Reservation Bill. Earlier she had been cheerily supporting it but blew her top as she saw the CPI(M) supporting it too. After joining the UPA government last year, she has been moodily cross with the UPA for virtually every policy initiative of the government that either did not carry her hallmark or had no device specially made to put the CPI(M) through a wringer. It ranged from finding a way to weed out the Maoists, having a nuclear power plant in West Bengal, and the fuel price rise, to making the Railway Budget bristle with popular sops.

There is not much point in criticising Mamata’s tunnel vision — that of seeing nothing except the CPI(M) in West Bengal in her crosshairs — because that alone (not to speak of the CPI(M)’s abominable governance record) has made her party, with 19 Lok Sabha members, the largest ally of the Congress in the UPA-ll. Her views are undoubtedly shaped by her electorate in West Bengal, most of whom put the task of sweeping the CPI(M) out of power in the state’s 2011 election above anything else — be it empowering the disempowered, or the issues of national security. Nor can the CPI(M) be credited with taking a panoramic view of events. It is doubtful if the CPI(M)’s Brinda Karat would have hugged BJP’s Sushma Swaraj after the passage of the Bill if it hadn’t thrown up the alluring prospect of driving a wedge between Mamata and the Congress. The CPI(M) and Mamata may be sworn enemies but they share the same majoritarian view of democracy, which is exclusive, competitive and adversarial.

The present trouble with Mamata is in a way an offshoot of the problem of transition of the two major parties, the Congress and the BJP, from the old-fashioned majoritarianism that restricts the ruling party’s allegiance to the ‘majority,’ to the more enlightened consensus democracy, which extends its reach to ‘as many people as possible’. The Congress and BJP came close to it in 2008 during the voting on the India-US civil nuclear agreement as there was hardly any honest disagreement between them, but BJP missed the opportunity as it succumbed to the contrary pull of majoritarians in its ranks. This time around, responding to a law that promises momentous changes in the way the business of politics is conducted, the two parties have shown admirable courage in working out a consensus in the superior traditions of democracy now evolving in many countries of the West — through multi-party decisions, proportional representation, occasional judicial review of Constitution (as opposed to hiding behind its ‘basic structure’), etc. The CPI(M) stood on the winning side as a stratagem perhaps as it knew its enemy would doggedly refuse to share a platform with it.

It is arguably easier for the Congress and BJP to move gradually towards consensus democracy as it is quite some time now that the two have been bagging just about 60 per cent of the Lower House seats. Being caught in a multi-party situation, it was a foregone conclusion that they’d show bilateral flexibility at some stage. But the CPI(M) has been drunk so long on the ‘vodka of vote’ — there are huge stretches in West Bengal even today where nobody would dare put up a Trinamool poster on a tree — that it has made its rising adversary so blindly combative.

Mamata is usually not invited to state government functions. Nor do the Railways invite the CPI(M) leaders to its functions if it can be helped. The respective secretaries of Mamata and Chief minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee plan out their bosses’ movements in advance to avoid their meeting. If they still cross each other, they do not exchange even glances, not to speak of smiles. And now picket fences are drawn between CPI(M) and Trinamool supporters in every sphere, with the latter gathering strength by the day. In offices, courts and college unions, this exodus has been cryptically named ‘transformation’ — parivartan.

But, however edgy Mamata may be as a coalition partner, it will be wrong for the Congress to even weigh the possibility of dumping her and embracing the Left Front with its 24 MPs, for neither is the CPI(M), the core of the Front, less mulish in its actions, its intransigence on the nuclear deal issue being a recent example, nor, if one is looking for a pragmatic argument, has the Left Front got a slim chance of its eighth consecutive victory in West Bengal in 2011. Its party is over, literally. Besides, much of Mamata’s public actions are histrionics aimed at the state election, with little long-term repercussions. What indeed makes sense is to somehow advance the election and thus shorten the present government’s discomfiture. If she wins, she’ll surely buy a one-way Rajdhani Express ticket. If she loses, a possibility the odds don’t seem to favour, she’ll still travel to Bengal one way as the loser hasn’t much future after the no-holds-barred contest.

Sumit Mitra is a Kolkata-based writer. The views expressed by the author are personal.