So Will These Two Tie a Jot?
The Bengal paradox: the BJP needs the TMC as the West Bengal chief minister needs the Centre
An unwritten narrative of the bitterly contested battle for West Bengal in 2016 is the paradox that is emerging for the BJP. After a spectacular showing in the 2014 Lok Sabha polls — in which it tripled its vote share to 17%, bagged as many seats (two) as the Left Front did that ruled the state for 34 years, pushed the Congress to fourth place, and was being hailed as a rising force in West Bengal — the BJP’s glorious run has ended with a whimper.
Two years ago, it led in 24 assembly segments, including, surprisingly, in Mamata Banerjee’s own seat of Bhabanipur in Kolkata where it beat her Trinamool Congress (TMC) by 184 votes. Today, the BJP has crash-landed in a sharply polarised battlefield where the arithmetic of the Left-Congress ‘jot’ (alliance) is locked in tight contest with Banerjee’s personal chemistry as the singlemost dominant leader on West Bengal’s political landscape.
Here’s the paradox. While the BJP’s hopes of conquering new territory in its quest for a Congressmukt Bharat are fading, a window of opportunity is opening for the Narendra Modi government. A mellowed Banerjee, with the assembly election behind her, may well prove an asset worth cultivating, especially for the battles that loom in the Rajya Sabha where the BJP will remain woefully short of numbers even after the upcoming polls in June-July for 56 seats. The TMC has 12 MPs in the Upper House.
Aflash of a possible new equation was visible in the first half of the Budget session when Trinamool MPs in the Rajya Sabha did not support a Left-Congress-sponsored amendment to the motion of thanks for the president’s address. If Banerjee wins Bengal again — she does seem to have her nose ahead despite the formidable arithmetic arrayed against her — she can be expected to play the chief ministerial game and extend her hand in cooperation to the Modi government at the Centre.
Left, Wrong, Left
There are two reasons for this. One is the political power-play that the ongoing election has thrown up in West Bengal. The decision of the Congress to fight Banerjee in alliance with her mortal enemy, the Left, has seriously ruptured her relationship with the party that had once helped her to decimate the Marxists. There is no going back now because Banerjee does not forgive and forget easily, not when it concerns the Left.
The second reason is West Bengal’s development. If Banerjee does become chief minister again, there will be tremendous pressure on her to perform. She got away with emotion and high drama in her first term because she delivered the state from 34 years of Left tyranny. But there is visible disappointment that she has failed to live up to her promise of ‘poribartan’.
It is in the interest of every chief minister to have a working relationship with the Centre. Cash-strapped West Bengal certainly needs all the help it can get from New Delhi. But more than debt write-offs and easy loans, the main task for Banerjee will be to attract domestic and foreign investment to boost the state’s economy and create jobs.
As a first step, she must work out an equitable compromise with the Tatas on the Singur land dispute so that investors understand that she is ready to do business.
She is aware of this. In an election-time interview to a TV channel, she dropped broad hints that she is willing to welcome the Tatas back to West Bengal and Singur. “I have no political vendetta,” she said. The Centre can be a valuable facilitator for a resolution to back channel negotiations that are believed to be underway already.
The Atal Bihari Vajpayee government was often accused of sacrificing the BJP’s political interests at the altar of coalition compulsions and allowing regional parties to grow at its expense. Disappointed BJP supporters in West Bengal say pretty much the same thing about the Modi government. It is certainly strange that after setting the Hooghly on fire with a ‘Bhaag, Mamata, bhaag’ war cry, the BJP suddenly called off the attack in early 2015. Its silence coincided with securing the TMC’s support for the passage of several key Bills in Parliament, including the long-pending India-Bangla- desh Land Boundary Agreement.
Parliamentary compulsions prompted the BJP to go soft then. Today, the Modi government may actually prefer to see a Mamata-led government in Kolkata rather than a LeftCongress dispensation.
Writing on Writers’ Building
Banerjee is, after all, the leader of a regional party. The Congress-Left jot is an experiment for a national configuration that hopes to challenge Modi in the 2019 national election. Its victory in West Bengal could be the start of a tectonic shift in national politics.
It is significant that the BJP dived into the election campaign and upped the ante against Banerjee when the Left-Congress alliance started eyeing its 17% vote share in the hope of adding those numbers to its antiMamata arithmetic. Conventional wisdom says that even a small surge by the BJP will only end up helping the TMC by dividing the anti-incumbency votes. Clearly, there’s more at stake in West Bengal than occupying Writers’ Building. The choice before Modi is a no-brainer: government before party.
Why is he sweating each time she looks at him?