Cong in a fix, BJP held at bay, Didi rules in Bengal

West Bengal Lok Sabha and Assembly poll results. DH Graphics

Whether Mamata Banerjee’s ‘United India’ rally at the Brigade Parade Ground in Kolkata will actually unify the opposition parties ahead of Lok Sabha elections is a question yet to be answered. But the West Bengal chief minister’s massive show of strength has altered several political equations in Bengal.

Strategists of all the three major opposition parties in the state — CPI(M), Congress and BJP — have been forced to go back to the drawing board. Currently, there are three alignment possibilities in Bengal. First, the CPI(M)-led Left Front is keen to join forces with Congress to take on both TMC and BJP. Second, the state Congress leadership wants to contest the LS polls on its own strength, turning it into a four-way contest.

If that happens, it’s likely to benefit TMC by dividing the opposition votes. Third, the support extended to Mamata’s rally by Rahul and Sonia Gandhi has created a possibility, not totally ruled out by the state Congress leadership, that the Bengal Congress may join forces with TMC, like in the 2011 assembly elections. The BJP, meanwhile, has to go it alone in the state.

Mamata’s rally has to some extent disrupted the first possibility. The rather sudden Congress support to the rally and Rahul Gandhi’s praise for the TMC supremo has come as a shock to the state leaders of both CPI(M) and Congress. The CPI(M) has been left asking if Congress is about to make a U-turn and join hands with TMC. “Congress wants to keep all options open,” senior CPI(M) MLA Sujan Chakraborty said summing up his party’s view of Congress. 

Yet, despite facing flak from Left Front allies, CPI(M) state secretary Surjya Kanta Mishra has urged Left supporters to vote for Congress wherever the Left Front is unable to field candidates to keep the BJP at bay.

The second possibility related to Congress has got complicated, too. Now the state Congress leadership is in a spot as the party high command seems to be leaning towards an alliance with TMC. It’s a snub to the state leadership, which has repeatedly conveyed to the high command that they do not want an alliance with TMC. 

The Bengal Congress’ experience of aligning with TMC in the 2011 assembly elections was bitter. Soon after the alliance ended the 34-year reign of the Left Front in Bengal, it fell apart, with the TMC pulling out of the UPA government at the Centre, leaving no option for Congress but to quit the coalition government in Bengal. Since then, TMC has engineered defections from Congress and several Congress MLAs in Bengal have publicly expressed support for TMC.

“We have made it clear to the high command that we do not want any kind of alliance with TMC, which has tried to destroy Congress in Bengal,” state Congress president Somen Mitra said. However, the state Congress leadership’s fear of a possible alliance with TMC has intensified after the mega rally.

Despite its repeated assertion that it wants to go solo in Bengal, the state Congress is well aware of its organisational weakness. “With our current organisational condition, TMC will not give us more than four seats if we get into an alliance with them. However, with the Left Front, we will be in a better position to bargain as they need us as much as we need them,” a senior state Congress leader told DH.

Short-term gains

As for the third possibility, aligning with the TMC may provide some short-term electoral gains to Congress, but in the long run, the party will struggle to retain its political relevance in the state. With its current organisational clout, the TMC is not exactly in need of an alliance in Bengal. Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee and several senior TMC leaders have made it clear that the party wants to bag the maximum number of Lok Sabha seats in the state.  

However, the state Congress leadership did not have much to say as to how Priyanka Gandhi’s entry into active politics would affect the party in Bengal. “Our party workers are happy that she has entered active politics. It is a big boost for them,” said Mitra. 

How does the United India rally affect the BJP’s prospects in Bengal in the upcoming Lok Sabha elections? The BJP has been trying to make it a Modi versus Mamata fight in the state for the Lok Sabha elections as the party lacks any leader of stature in Bengal. Banerjee’s mega rally was also aimed at isolating the BJP further in Bengal and to prevent it from making any more inroads into the state. Mamata has managed to isolate the BJP from its only ally in the state, the Gorkha Janmukti Morcha (GJM), during the Gorkhaland agitation. With the ouster of Bimal Gurung from GJM, the party has now become a close ally of TMC.

With this, the BJP’s chances of retaining the Darjeeling seat is thin. The saffron party’s only hope seems to hinge on further erosion of the support base of the Left Front and Congress. If one takes into consideration the BJP’s electoral performance in Bengal since the 2014 Lok Sabha elections, the growth in BJP’s vote share has come at the expense of the CPI(M)’s vote share. 

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