The cold comforts of a spat

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What’s on offer? Mamata’s refusal to join the PM on his Dhaka trip was one of many high-profile spats
What’s on offer? Mamata’s refusal to join the PM on his Dhaka trip was one of many high-profile spats Photos: Pintu Pradhan

LAST MAY, it was the Mahajot (grand alliance) that uprooted the entrenched 34-year-old CPM regime. Seven months on, the Mahajot of the Trinamool Congress-Congress alliance seems to be unravelling rapidly. In the past few weeks, the rhetoric has become shriller, the flashpoints shallower and the participants more high profile. This week, after openly accusing her ally of siding with the CPM, Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee dared the Congress to walk out of the West Bengal government. Later, in its first public rally against the Congress, TMC leaders lined up on stage and declared: “Mamata will fight back. We will check the pulse of the Congress.”

Soon, the Congress fired back. “Nobody has donated us any berths in the government. We fought the polls jointly. We will not quit the government,” said Congress leader and Minister of State for Small- Scale Industries Manoj Chakraborty. “We are an all-India party and not a party of every Tom, Dick and Harry.”

In a sense, this spat marks a fresh TMC milestone. Far from being the patchwork party they once were, the TMC now has clear national ambitions. It’s begun to view itself as an emerging counter to the larger national parties, positioning itself as the new, clean pro-people party. This year, the TMC will contest the Assembly polls in Uttar Pradesh, Manipur and Goa. Outlining the party strategy, a senior TMC source told TEHELKA, “Our goal is to win 40 seats in the next Lok Sabha polls. If we have 40 MPs, we can dictate terms at the Centre.”

Verbal volleys Mamata has berated the Congress for abusing her in public
Verbal volleys Mamata has berated the Congress for abusing her in public

It is these national ambitions, Mamata’s fear that the Left Front may regain ground in Bengal, her need to be the only anti-CPM force in the state, and her discomfort with any other party denting TMC’s rural mass base that is now complicating her relationship with the Congress. At its core, the spat is a tussle over political space; it is also a comment on the nature of political alliances based purely on electoral arithmetic rather than a common policy vision.

“Why should we leave the government?” thundered a Bengal Congress leader. “Mamata is unhappy with our policies at the Centre. Why doesn’t she take her own advice and walk out of the Cabinet?” This mirroring rhetoric seems to be at the crux of what is playing out: whether by design or chance, it appears the Congress is doing to the government in West Bengal what the TMC is doing to the UPA at the Centre. While Mamata accuses the UPA of not consulting her on policy decisions, state Congress leaders accuse her of running the Bengal government without their inputs. Similarly, the TMC accuses the state Congress of siding with the CPM, and questions its need to rally on the streets against government policies whilst being part of it. Of course, the TMC is itself seen to be doing the same in Parliament, often on the same page as the BJP.

“The Congress is angry because Mamata has opposed Central government decisions. They have given the state Congress a green signal to go against us,” says a TMC leader. “We are fighting them on policy matters, but they are fighting us on petty infrastructure.”

With 19 MPs, the TMC is UPA’s second largest ally. In the past few months, however, that alliance has been growing rockier by the day. In September, Mamata refused to accompany the prime minister to Bangladesh to sign the crucial Teesta water- sharing agreement. Since then, she has voiced dissent on the petrol price hike, on UPA’s decision to allow FDI in retail, on the Pension Bill, on the Land Acquisition Bill and most recently on the Lokpal Bill. With no majority on its own in Parliament, the UPA has had little choice but to pacify its bristling ally.

Meanwhile, the recent spats in Bengal have been triggered by Congress agitations on rising paddy prices, its accusations that TMC is attacking Congress offices and workers, Mamata’s decision to rename a building called Indira Bhawan — where Indira Gandhi stayed for two days in 1972 — after the poet Nazarul Islam, and an attack on a college principal in north Bengal by alleged TMC cadres.

“In Bengal, the Congress and the CPM are working in cahoots to make life difficult for us,” alleges TMC MP Derek O’Brien. When asked for evidence, he says, “The Congress and CPM are protesting paddy prices. See the way it was done — within one hour of each other.”

These are merely symptoms of a deeper crisis. While this week may have been the first public showdown, the bitterness between the two allies is not new.

FROM THE start, this was a marriage of convenience. There was no logic to it,” says a state Congress source. “We have records of how TMC cadres captured Congress offices even before the elections. We kept quiet because we wanted to get rid of the CPM. Even when the PCC president wrote to Mamata about it, she did not care. We tolerated this because we are pro-people. Our interest was to crush the CPM and not allow the BJP to make a dent here. Both our purposes have been served. But for that we have had to make sacrifices. Mamata didn’t give us any of the good seats and now she isn’t talking to us to run the state government. We requested her to form a coordination committee but she ignored it. We are like oil and water in the same pot. Mamata wants to wipe out the Congress from West Bengal. See her advertisements as Railways minister, she never allowed the prime minister’s photo.”

To chart the souring of this alliance, one has to look back at the pre-poll days when Mamata declared her candidate list unilaterally, leaving only 64 boxes for the Congress to fill. The Congress had asked for 98 seats and finally settled for 65, with several disgruntled stalwarts displaced to make way for new TMC candidates.

Post-polls, the first signs of trouble came in July, when Union Finance Minister Pranab Mukherjee’s son Abhijit resigned from his position as chairman of the West Bengal Infrastructure Development and Finance Corporation. He had been appointed unilaterally by Mamata without consulting other Congress leaders. After sections within the Congress spoke out against it, Pranab advised Abhijit to resign. The high command then issued a notice that no Congress leader should be appointed to any government post without the party’s prior approval.

In November, hundreds of Congress supporters took to the streets, protesting alleged attacks on its party members by TMC workers. The Congress alleges more than 60 attacks. The controversial rally was spearheaded by Congress stalwart and Mamata’s bête noire Deepa Das Munshi. It was held in the South Kolkata Lok Sabha constituency, where Mamata has been undefeated for 20 years.

“Why shouldn’t we protest if our men are getting attacked?” asks state Congress chief Pradip Bhattacharya. “Yes, they are in majority but that doesn’t mean they can only look after themselves.”

This triggered an angry outburst from the CM: “At the Centre, they (Congress) have to depend on us. In the state, we can run the government on our own. They should decide whether they will remain with us.”

Soon after, as if on cue, Union Rural Development Minister Jairam Ramesh announced a visit to survey panchayat work in rural Bengal. Heading into a Congress meeting straight after his Junglemahal visit, he asserted that his party had not taken ‘voluntary retirement’ from the state. “We are a political party, not an NGO,” Ramesh said while defending the anti-TMC rally in Mamata’s constituency. “We are aware of our responsibilities. We have to run governments, both at the Centre and the states. So there is no need to advise us,” he said.

The latest provocation came when Mamata announced the establishment of a research academy in the memory of revolutionary poet Nazarul Islam in a building originally dedicated to the memory of Indira Gandhi. Former chief minister Jyoti Basu lived there until he died in 2010. “If the building is renamed, we will intensify our agitation,” says PCC chief Bhattacharya. Stoking the fire, the CPM added that the renaming would “dishonour both the late prime minister and the poet”.

“Every day, they get together and obstruct traffic on the roads,” Banerjee retorted. “For 35 years, when the building had become Jyoti Babu Bhavan, no objections were raised. Only when I want to initiate a foundation for Indo-Bangladesh relations, such protests are made. Till date, I have never spoken a word against Manmohan Singh or Sonia Gandhi, but they (Bengal Congress leaders) use abusive language against me every day.”

The question is, how much of this is just muscle-flexing? The TMC enjoys a comfortable majority in the state, having won 185 of the 252 seats it contested. At the Centre, the Congress is way below the halfway mark of 272. However, for the moment, the alliance is cemented on mutual benefits that go beyond the math. Mamata needs the Centre to fund the mammoth development packages she’s initiated, while the Centre needs TMC’s support in the Budget session.

ASIDE FROM this daily bickering, therefore, what will really determine the fate of the alliance are the upcoming West Bengal panchayat polls and the UP Assembly election. Banerjee is likely to announce a decision later this month that TMC will contest the panchayat polls alone. Congress strongman and Murshidabad MP Adhir Chowdhury has already announced that the Congress will contest alone in Murshidabad — a Congress stronghold and a district that was a great source of tension where Mamata insisted on fielding TMC candidates for the assembly polls.

Meanwhile, there is talk of a possible Congress-Samajwadi Party alliance in UP, which could translate into a relationship at the Centre as well. This could bring the UPA 22 MPs and render the TMC irrelevant.

“It is the outcome of the Uttar Pradesh Assembly elections that will decide this relationship,” says a TMC source. “If the Congress and SP get together, we can go fly a kite. We will make a mockery of ourselves by fighting the UP elections.”

While it is common knowledge that the TMC leadership in Bengal is primarily made up of Congress defectors, it seems the party is attempting a similar strategy in UP. In the event of a Congress-SP alliance, the TMC claims to have its cards ready.

In a significant admission, a TMC source revealed the party is already wooing Congress leaders in UP. “Nine district presidents of the Congress are willing to join us. It is not a small number,” a TMC leader said. “We haven’t given any undertaking that we will have an alliance with the Congress in every state. We want to build our party at the national level and we aren’t going to compromise with anyone.”

Tusha Mittal is a Principal Correspondent with Tehelka. 
tusha@tehelka.com

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