Making sense of Trinamool's attack on Congress

Making sense of Trinamool's attack on Congress

TMC is on a mission to corner Congress, reduce it to irrelevance wherever possible, and some G23 leaders are on its list, too

West Bengal CM and TMC chief Mamata Banerjee and Congress chief Sonia Gandhi. Credit: PTI Photos

The Trinamool Congress (TMC)'s salvos targeting the Congress are coming thick and fast now. After Lok Sabha MP Abhishek Banerjee's repeated attacks on the Congress in the run-up to the October 30 bypolls in which the Congress is hardly relevant, his aunt, TMC chairperson, Mamata Banerjee has also taken to target her one-time political launchpad.

"Congress bhi jhootha hai," the West Bengal chief minister said on Monday, addressing the media in north Bengal. She also accused the state governments in the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-ruled Tripura and Goa of not allowing TMC's political programmes. "I would like to tell the Congress that you have had enough time …10, 15, 20 years… What did you do? It is because you people did nothing that we had to step out of Bengal," she said. 

Abhishek Banerjee, who is considered her political heir, and the party in charge of its expansion plan beyond Bengal – particularly in Tripura, Assam, Goa and Meghalaya – stood next to Mamata Banerjee. Uttar Pradesh Congress leaders Rajesh Pati Tripathi and his son, Lalitesh Tripathi, were inducted into the TMC at the event and flanked the two leaders. 

Mamata Banerjee targeting the Congress is not new. After all, it is by enfeebling the Congress that she made her political mark. Beginning her political career as a Congress student wing member in 1975 and gaining prominence after getting elected to the Lok Sabha in 1984, her political career took a new turn when Mamata Banerjee broke away from her parent party in December 1997. She accused the Congress of being incapable of taking on the state's Left Front government ruling since 1977 and launched her party, which immediately emerged stronger than the Congress. Since then, the TMC has reduced the Congress to near insignificance in the state, especially with systematic poaching of its MLAs and other senior leaders, even though the two parties were briefly in alliance from 2009 to 2012.  

But the recent full-blooded attack on the Congress beyond Bengal has given the TMC's politics a new turn. After the TMC's poaching drive on the Congress prompted Chhattisgarh chief minister Bhupesh Baghel to tweet on October 8 that "people looking for a 'national' alternative based on poaching Congress functionaries who can't win even their seats are in for a big disappointment." The reaction the tweet drew from the TMC can be called harsh, at the least. Baghel had not named any party, but the TMC's official handle quoted his tweet with the comment, "Rich words coming from a first-time CM. Punching above your weight doesn't bring honour to you, Bupesh Baghel. What a shoddy attempt to please the high command. By the way, is the Congress going to try to erase the historical defeat at Amethi through yet another Twitter trend?"

Take this for another example. After the Congress announced it would reserve 40 per cent of the party's tickets for women in the Uttar Pradesh Assembly elections, the TMC jumped into action to take credit. "We are the first party to give 40 per cent seats to women in LS elections," the TMC tweeted. It further said, "Amid such dire times, the Congress is understandably trying to emulate, and one can only hope that this is genuine and not tokenism. If they are to be taken seriously, they must give 40 per cent seats to women in states other than UP as well."

On October 23, while campaigning in the Gosaba Assembly constituency in the Sundarbans region, Abhishek Banerjee targeted the Congress out of the blue, as the party hardly has relevance in that seat. "Over the past seven years, the Congress had only conceded defeat to the BJP all over the country, while Mamata Banerjee thwarted all challenges posed by communal and undemocratic BJP," he said, seemingly with the national perspective in mind.

It appears that the TMC is on a mission to corner the Congress and reduce it to irrelevance wherever possible - leaders in Tripura, Assam, Goa and Meghalaya are primary targets. But some of the G23 leaders are believed to be on the list, too.

Quite evidently, this is the party's bid to use the internal turbulence in the Congress for its growth beyond Bengal before any anti-BJP grand alliance takes shape for the 2024 Lok Sabha elections so that the TMC has the leading role in such an alliance. As a TMC Rajya Sabha MP explained to this author, "We are not looking for an alliance without the Congress, but we don't want a Congress-led alliance either. The Congress has lost the ability and credibility to lead a battle against Modi-(Amit) Shah." 

The party hopes to assume that leadership role after making a mark in Goa, Tripura and Meghalaya. It remains to be seen if its hopes are based on political acumen. But the TMC's national aspiration is not new. It launched a drive in Meghalaya, Tripura and Andaman Islands soon after coming to power in West Bengal in 2011 and even tasted initial success. But the BJP's rise at the national level in 2014 thwarted the TMC's plan. Since 2016, Mamata Banerjee has sought a national alliance of regional parties - she loves to call it "Federal Front". 

The TMC took the initiative for an opposition alliance ahead of the 2019 Lok Sabha election, too, hosting a grand rally in Kolkata's Brigade Parade Ground in January of that year. Leaders from 18 parties opposed to the BJP, including the Congress, attended. But no formal alliance took shape, as its prospective components had conflicting interests in territorial expansion and existing holds. 

Now, in this renewed effort to ally with opposition parties, the TMC has started its journey by targeting the Congress, without which no possible opposition alliance can be imagined at present. At the all-party meeting in Delhi that Congress working president Sonia Gandhi chaired, Mamata Banerjee said anti-BJP parties with whom the Congress has conflicting interests, such as the Aam Aadmi Party, should have also been invited. 

Still, in a friendly gesture, the Congress decided not to field any candidate in the September 30 Assembly bypoll that the chief minister was contesting to get elected to the Bengal Assembly. The TMC returned the gesture by attacking the Congress in the campaigns for the same bypoll. 

Mamata Banerjee even asked why the Centre never harassed anyone from the Congress, except for P Chidambaram, but was after every leader of the TMC. It was because the Congress did not give the BJP enough trouble, she contended.

Of course, every party has its rights to ideological and organisational expansion, and every party has the right to win over leaders from rival parties. The TMC cannot be blamed for inducting prominent Congress leaders from different states. It is for the Congress to introspect why leaders outside the TMC's base of West Bengal were joining Mamata Banerjee's party. How did she become a symbol or, in their eyes, a bankable brand? 

But there are some serious questions that the TMC needs to introspect, especially about public perception. Poaching leaders is one thing - the Congress really can't complain if it fails to keep leaders from leaving for a smaller party. But launching a tirade of attack on a prospective alliance partner, literally at the drop of a hat, does not go well with the idea of a dependable alternative to the ruling alliance. The Congress may have weakened and ridden with internal trouble. However, it still is a significant force in several states, including against the BJP - Punjab, Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Karnataka and Kerala. 

The Congress's lowest Lok Sabha tally of 44, and the TMC's highest ever of 34, were in the same elections, the 2014 Lok Sabha polls. Of the states, the TMC is eyeing beyond Bengal, which has 42 Lok Sabha seats, at Goa, Meghalaya and Tripura, all with two seats each. Assam has 14 seats, but on paper, the TMC can at best have an appeal only in two-three Lok Sabha seats. In contrast, Rajasthan, Punjab, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh alone have 78 Lok Sabha seats. In all likelihood, an opposition alliance would require the leaders of its partners to share a dais, hold each others' hands and release a common minimum programme.

If bitterness were to mar the relationship between the Congress and the TMC, would the voters trust their alliance for a stable government? 

(The writer is a journalist)

Disclaimer: The views expressed above are the author's own. They do not necessarily reflect the views of DH.