So Will Th­ese Two Tie a Jot?

The Ben­gal para­dox: the BJP needs the TMC as the West Ben­gal chief min­is­ter needs the Cen­tre

The Economic Times - - Breaking Ideas - Arati R Jerath

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?

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