Congress Gam­ble In Ben­gal

‘Grand Old Party’ has lim­ited pres­ence in Malda and Mur­shid­abad. Post 2014, mass at­tri­tion of Congress work­ers to­wards Trin­mool and Left work­ers to­wards BJP has taken place


Congress pres­i­dent Rahul Gandhi had a meet­ing with the new­ly­con­sti­tuted West Ben­gal Pradesh Congress Com­mit­tee (PCC) and its new chief Somen Mi­tra last fort­night. The sig­nals that the meet­ing seemed to send out seem, at first sight, equiv­o­cal.

When Mi­tra re­placed Ad­hir Choud­hury on 21 Septem­ber as PCC pres­i­dent, the ap­point­ment was widely seen as an at­tempt to clear the decks for an un­der­stand­ing with the Tri­namool Congress. Chowd­hury has al­ways been stead­fastly against the Tri­namool Congress and his per­sonal an­i­mos­ity against its boss Ma­mata Ban­er­jee is well known. Mi­tra is, how­ever, seen as a more flex­i­ble leader. Even though Ma­mata parted ways with the Congress while he was pres­i­dent of the Ben­gal unit of the Congress, he had later left the party and briefly joined the Tri­namool as well. He thus has con­nec­tions with the rul­ing party.

On as­sum­ing of­fice, Mi­tra had ini­tially been guarded. He had not cat­e­gor­i­cally ruled out the pos­si­bil­ity of join­ing hands with the Tri­namool, but he had said that even though an al­liance with the party would yield fruits in the short term, it would not be wise when seen from a longterm per­spec­tive. He had also said that the Congress needed to steady its ship be­fore en­ter­ing into any al­liance.

Rahul seems to have echoed that sen­ti­ment at Satur­day’s meet­ing. It has been re­ported that lead­ers present at the meet­ing later said that the party pres­i­dent made a few im­por­tant points: First, Mi­tra said, he made it clear that the cen­tral lead­er­ship would not im­pose its views on the state unit of the party be­cause he un­der­stood that a top-down ap­proach would not work; sec­ond, he stressed that the party should not com­pro­mise on its ‘dig­nity’ while ne­go­ti­at­ing a prospec­tive al­liance. Rahul is re­ported to have said that even if the party failed to get a sin­gle seat in Ben­gal to main­tain its dig­nity, it would be ac­cept­able.

After the meet­ing, Mi­tra re­it­er­ated his po­si­tion that the party must find its feet be­fore think­ing about an al­liance, which sug­gests that this view was en­dorsed by the party pres­i­dent.

All this rhetoric about dig­nity and self­suf­fi­ciency may sound good, but it hardly masks the fact that the Congress has a long way to go be­fore it finds its feet in Ben­gal. It won’t hap­pen in any­thing re­sem­bling a hurry — cer­tainly not be­fore the time comes to take hard de­ci­sions in the con­text of the 2019 Lok Sabha elec­tion.

The facts speak for them­selves. The Congress had a pres­ence in only two dis­tricts: Malda and Mur­shid­abad. In the 2014 Lok Sabha elec­tion, its vote­share was just un­der 10 per­cent, less than that of the Left Front or Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). It got four seats (the Left Front and BJP got two each) be­cause its votes are con­cen­trated in these two dis­tricts. In the 2016 Assem­bly elec­tion, its vote­share was 12.3 per­cent, but it was in an al­liance with the Left Front, which doubt­less boosted the share of its vote.

In the in­terim, sev­eral things have changed. In this year ’s pan­chayat elec­tions, the BJP emerged as the sec­ond largest party in Ben­gal and the only cred­i­ble op­po­nents of the Tri­namool Congress, sup­plant­ing the Left Front. Although the dy­nam­ics of the pan­chayat and Lok Sabha are ob­vi­ously dif­fer­ent, no one se­ri­ously doubts that the out­come of this year’s elec­tions will be repli­cated in 2019.

More im­por­tant, the Tri­namool Congress has de­stroyed the par­ent party’s re­doubts in Malda and Mur­shid­abad. In Mur­shid­abad, the Congress was wiped out, with the BJP limp­ing to the fin­ish line way be­hind the rul­ing party. In Malda, it fared some­what bet­ter, but it is clear that the Tri­namool now holds the whip hand in that dis­trict as well, with the BJP eat­ing into Congress sup­port.

If the Congress de­cides to fly solo, it is un­likely that it will win any­thing in Ben­gal;

Rahul’s zero out of 42 seats worst-case pro­jec­tion could play it­self out. It may, at best, win one seat. Even if the party ties up with the Left Front, its prospects don’t look great. The com­bined vote­share of the two was 31 per­cent in 2016. Since then, both the Left and the Congress have sig­nif­i­cantly lost ground — the first to the BJP and the sec­ond to the Tri­namool.

If the Congress de­cides against en­ter­ing an al­liance with the Tri­namool, it will suc­ceed in in­con­ve­nienc­ing the rul­ing party to some ex­tent, es­pe­cially con­sid­er­ing the fact that the BJP’s chal­lenge is be­com­ing more cred­i­ble even though it is far yet from be­ing a real threat.

The ques­tion is: Is there any per­cent­age in fol­low­ing for the Congress in fol­low­ing such a strat­egy?

The an­swer is: Prob­a­bly not.

The Congress has to con­trib­ute saliently to­wards stitch­ing to­gether a na­tion­wide Op­po­si­tion al­liance against the BJP. Who can con­trib­ute more to this en­ter­prise? The Left, which is likely to win not more than 10 seats in 2019, or the Tri­namool, which is likely to get around 40 seats? The Congress ‘high com­mand’ must ask of it­self a fun­da­men­tal ques­tion: Is it worth pur­su­ing the chimera of self-suf­fi­ciency in Ben­gal just to make a point at the cost of los­ing a valu­able ally on the na­tional stage?

The an­swers will, or should be, plain to the high com­mand, which is why, pre­sum­ably, Chowd­hury was re­placed with Mi­tra. One does not know what Mi­tra was think­ing when he re­ported Rahul’s re­luc­tance to im­pose New Delhi’s views on the PCC, but from where we stand it does sound like a bit of a joke.

The Congress high com­mand has been im­pos­ing its views and lead­ers, like Mi­tra, on PCCs for four decades or so. Noth­ing has hap­pened that we have been in­formed about yet that could have trans­formed the Congress party into a party im­bued with the spirit of in­ner­party democ­racy. Don’t be sur­prised, then, if Rahul’s next sig­nif­i­cant state­ment on Ben­gal an­nounces an al­liance with the Tri­namool Congress.

Congress Pres­i­dent Rahul Gandhi be­ing gar­landed party can­di­dates Mala Roy (L) and PCC Pres­i­dent Somen Mi­tra dur­ing an elec­tion cam­paign rally in Kolkata

Somen Mi­tra with Ma­mata Ban­er­jee

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