National leader from the East arrives

But to Trinamool Congress (TMC) leader Mamata Banerjee, these reactions are no more than the water sprinkling off a  duck’s back. Over the years, her political persona has hardened behind an armour-proof invincibility.

As she savours her finest hour now, the full magnitude of her achievements is yet to sink in. In 2011, she has  decimated the mighty Left in Bengal, ending its 34-year long political domination. She had already effectively sidelined the Congress(I), now a junior partner in its alliance with the TMC.

No other regional party in India has been able to take on two major national entities like the CPI(M) and the Cong(I) and defeat both as comprehensively as the (TMC). It also attests to her party’s clout that there is no whiff of corruption about it, unlike the BSP, the RJD or the two DMK groups.

Of late, Ms Banerjee, who rose from the grassroot level, has been well aware of her growing strength. Only days ago, a junior TMC leader described  her as “the future Chief Minister of Bengal” at a rally. It instantly drew a frown from her. Immediately, she stopped him from speaking. The next speaker got the message. He called her the “Supreme leader of the All India Trinamool Congress” and was allowed to complete his speech. Truly, Ms Banerjee had “arrived” as a national leader from the East. The TMC has now won seats in Assam, Arunachal Pradesh and has its units in Tripura and Jharkhand.

Witless leadership

Initial reports show that the TMC-Cong(I) alliance has won 47.1 percent of the aggregate votes polled in the Bengal  Assembly elections  2011, as against only 39.8 percent by the Left front. The TMC  won 184 seats in a house of 294 and its  ally Cong(I) won 42. The  LF won 62 seats, with the CPI(M) winning only 41, a sharp drop from the 176 it had in 2006.

Beginning with Chief Minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee, 26 ministers suffered defeat, including such stalwarts as Ashim Dasgupta and Nirupam Sen. Clearly such vote swings, trends and statistics indicate that it has been a positive victory for the TMC-Cong(I) alliance. ”In a joint statement, Bhattacharjee and LF chairman Biman Bose described the defeat as “unexpected” and adhered to their self-imposed Stalinist behavioural norms by thanking only those who had voted Left.

The only concession to the victors was the assurance that the Left would be a constructive opposition. Speaking briefly to newsmen, Bhattacharjee said the Front had expected to win even on May 12, his confidence based on reports he had received from party sources. Bose fended off media queries on the debacle, pleading that comprehensive discussions would follow soon. Only the day before, an agitated Bose had said he would not be surprised if the ruling Front won close to 200 seats, as in 2001!

This shocking inability at the CPI(M)’s highest levels to discern between the party’s in-bred perceptions and reality, has been an enduring feature of its functioning in recent years. It started in 2008, during the Panchayat polls. Reports sent in by different district units, predicting victory, revealed a disturbing disconnect with outcome of the polls. Assembly by-elections generally were not won by ruling parties, so a few losses did not matter.

However, the 2009 Lok Sabha poll results were a big let down. Winning only 15 out of 42 seats, the Left Front (LF)was comprehensively defeated by the TMC-Cong(I) alliance. The outcome served notice, after 34 years, that a united opposition can unseat the ruling Left Front! Left leaders, having no explanation, once more pulled up errant district units for not reporting on ground realities accurately. Clearly, the exercise is about to be repeated within a witless leadership.

Ms Banerjee’s ascent to national stature began in 1984 with her giant-killing victory over the veteran Somnath Chatterjee of the CPI(M) at Jadavpur LS seat. However, she could not continue her innings in the Cong(I), which she saw as a collaborator, not an opponent, of the CPI(M). In January 1998, she launched her breakaway TMC.

Beyond Bengal

Left front leaders welcomed the emergence of the TMC which could only further divide an already weak opposition. As even the astute Jyoti Basu once said, “If the votes polled by the TMC, the Cong(I) and the BJP were put in one basket, the Left would lose…but that is never going to happen!” He was right - for a time. He did not live to see 2011 and learn that even the combined TMC-Cong(I) vote was enough to unseat the Left, with or without BJP!

What Ms Banerjee has achieved will have its ripple effects beyond Bengal’s borders. The Left defeat in West Bengal, its last enduring base in India unlike Kerala and Tripura, will raise a question mark about its effectiveness in national politics. Currently Left forces rule only the minuscule state of Tripura. So long as their hold on Bengal was firm, their mass support base could help smaller units in Kerala and Tripura financially and otherwise, to keep them going even in times of defeat.

Now with this captive turf lost for five years at least, the Left vote bank steadily shrinking in the post-liberalisation era, its ideological appeal fading among the aspirant young, the future of Left parties is open to question. Never mind her ridiculous accent and earthy ways, it is the lady in her white sari and trademark cheap sandals who has forced the Left to face its most difficult challenge in pos-Independence India.

(The writer is an independent political analyst.)

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