Elections in Bengal are all but bipolar contests - Hindustan Times
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Elections in Bengal are all but bipolar contests

May 29, 2024 10:07 PM IST

The BJP’s nomination process was slow. Its choice of candidates seems in some cases to be inexplicable, especially when winning candidates have been shuffled

On June 1, West Bengal will see its last round of electoral jousting, with the conclusion of the last phase of the Lok Sabha polls. Chief minister and Trinamool Congress (TMC) boss Mamata Banerjee set off febrile speculations on May 15 when she reportedly said that she would decisively help the Indian National Developmental Inclusive Alliance (INDIA) form a government, but from outside. She also said her assistance would not extend to the Congress and Communist Party of India (Marxist) in Bengal because they were aligned with the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).

Kolkata: Trinamool Congress (TMC) supporters during a public meeting addressed by West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee in favour of the party's National General Secretary and candidate from Diamond Harbour constituency Abhishekh Banerjee, ahead of the seventh phase of Lok Sabha elections, in Kolkata, Wednesday, May 28, 2024. (PTI Photo) (PTI05_29_2024_000246B)(PTI) PREMIUM
Kolkata: Trinamool Congress (TMC) supporters during a public meeting addressed by West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee in favour of the party's National General Secretary and candidate from Diamond Harbour constituency Abhishekh Banerjee, ahead of the seventh phase of Lok Sabha elections, in Kolkata, Wednesday, May 28, 2024. (PTI Photo) (PTI05_29_2024_000246B)(PTI)

This seemed to be a restatement of a much-iterated position, especially in the wake of her decision to fly solo in Bengal. Apportioning responsibility for the collapse of negotiations on seat-sharing between the TMC and Congress is futile. It should suffice to note that the corrosively inimical relationship between Banerjee and West Bengal Pradesh Congress Committee (WBPCC) president Adhir Ranjan Chowdhury left a meaningful deal dead in the water from the get-go.

Banerjee clarified the very next day that she hadn’t meant that she would not be part of INDIA, which, she said, had been created by her. INDIA would form the government after the election, she said, and the TMC would be a part of it. In fact, she said, in a highly polemical vein, the TMC was the INDIA bloc in Bengal, while the Congress and Left weren’t since they’d arrived at their own understanding on the sidelines, as it were. Banerjee had just been firing a fresh salvo at her bête noire.

Chowdhury returned fire, saying she could even tie up with the BJP after the elections. The fallout singed the Congress, however. And the blame lies squarely on the shoulders of the party’s high command. On May 18, Congress president Mallikarjun Kharge said Chowdhury would have to toe the party line on the INDIA bloc or leave the party. The TMC, he said, was a part of the INDIA coalition and it was not for Chowdhury to decide on who was part of the coalition of the willing; the high command would. Chowdhury hit back, saying he would not cosy up to anyone “decimating” the party in the state. He repeated his charge that the TMC and BJP were colluding to make the Bengal election bipolar. At the same time, he reminded Kharge that as a member of the All India Congress Committee and Working Committee, he was also a part of the high command. The intra-party spat escalated the next day. Though attempts were made to smoothen the wrinkles, Chowdhury remained unrepentant. Since then the party leadership has spoken in two voices. Kharge himself called Chowdhury a “combative soldier”, in a placatory gesture. But general secretary (organisation) KC Venugopal was not impressed, indirectly hinting at disciplinary measures.

The episode once again underlines the Congress high command’s vacillatory approach to conflict resolution, especially when it comes to dealing with regional party bosses, though Chowdhury does not exactly qualify as that. If the high command wanted to accommodate the TMC fully by concluding a seat deal in Bengal, clearly it had to remove Chowdhury from the position of WBPCC president. Someone like Pradip Bhattacharya, the congenial party candidate for the Kolkata Uttar constituency, who has a good equation with Banerjee, could have been tasked with the negotiations.

The failure to reach an agreement is likely to hurt both parties in the two seats in Malda district and the TMC in Raiganj (Uttar Dinajpur) and Balurghat (Dakshin Dinajpur). But, on the whole, it’s the TMC that has its nose ahead in Bengal. Obviously, Banerjee is more concerned with stopping the BJP in its tracks than devoting a lot of time to Chowdhury and Left leaders.

In the contest between the TMC and the BJP, some things look to be helping the TMC. The BJP seems to be over-reliant on star campaigners from out of state. Conspicuous by their absence outside their patches are leaders of the state BJP. Those who are contesting are tied to their constituencies. Only leader of the Opposition in the Assembly, Suvendu Adhikari, has been seen campaigning statewide.

This tactic came a cropper during the 2021 elections partly because central leaders found it hard to connect with the Bengal electorate, the language barrier being the most obvious point of disconnect. It also gave traction to the TMC charge that the BJP was a party of outsiders.

In a roadshow in Kolkata on May 28, Prime Minister Narendra Modi tried to address the problem of disconnection by making pit stops at three culturally salient destinations – the most important being Swami Vivekananda’s house. He targeted the TMC for its “attacks” on the Ramakrishna Mission, Bharat Sevashram Sangha and ISKCON.

But the BJP’s nomination process was slow. Additionally, its choice of candidates seems in some cases to be inexplicable, especially when winning candidates have been shuffled around. Moving Dilip Ghosh from Medinipur to Bardhaman-Durgapur and SS Ahluwalia from there to Asansol doesn’t exactly sound like a plan. Replacing Ghosh with Asansol South MLA Agnimitra Paul is even less comprehensible. Putting up weak candidates in Diamond Harbour (against de facto TMC number two Abhishek Banerjee) and Jadavpur, a TMC bastion, is not a good look.

Nevertheless, Kharge probably realises something Chowdhury won’t admit; the elections in Bengal are all but bipolar, with two relatively well-matched opponents coming toe to toe. The margins are thin in many constituencies and what may decide keen contests is how Sandeshkhali and the Citizenship (Amendment) Act, 2019, play out. The latter is most relevant in North Bengal, Nadia and North 24 Parganas.

In the current circumstances, both sides could settle for a situation as it exists now.

Suhit K Sen is an author and political commentator based in Kolkata. The views expressed are personal

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