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Rudderless party awaits Sonia shot in arm

Calcutta, Feb. 8: The last time Sonia Gandhi came to West Bengal before the Assembly elections in May 2001, Congressmen in West Bengal thought their time had finally come after 24 years, thanks to Mamata Banerjee’s dramatic separation from the BJP and her poll alliance with the Congress.

When she comes back this time to address the party’s rally at the Brigade Parade Ground on Monday, the party is back where it had been since 1977 — in political wilderness.

Party leaders would like to think Sonia’s rally will be yet another starting point for, if not a political comeback, at least a turnaround. They expect it to give the party the moral strength to go into the coming panchayat elections with some hope of ending its isolation.

Judging by the changed scenario in the state’s Opposition politics, their hope does not seem to be entirely misplaced.

Mamata has returned to the NDA as a tame hanger-on, her bargaining powers with the BJP completely gone and her credibility with the anti-Left masses drastically eroded. She still strikes at the Left, in word and deed, but that now increasingly looks like charging at the windmill. The short shrift she got in the latest Cabinet reshuffle has left her flock even gloomier.

There is thus a new vacuum in Opposition politics that the Congress could fill. In fact, there is an increasing attempt by the state BJP to do precisely that.

Ironically, although they are allies again, the BJP under its new, high-decibel state president, Tathagata Roy, is trying to carve out Opposition space for itself at the cost of the downbeat Trinamul Congress. The alliance notwithstanding, Mamata’s flip-flop between the Congress and the BJP has left the saffron parivar deeply suspicious of her.

The problem for the Congress is that it has not yet succeeded in wresting from Mamata the banner of anti-CPM politics. And in that, Sonia is seen more as a hindrance than a help.

Her compulsions in national politics make her do business with the Left in New Delhi. Even the recent rapprochement between her and Mulayam Singh Yadav is known to have been the result of the CPM politburo leaders’ relentless efforts to bring together anti-BJP forces.

So how can the Congress in Bengal regain the centrestage of anti-CPM politics, if the two parties need each other at the national level ' It isn’t really as conflicting as it looks, if one considers the situations in Kerala and Tripura, where the Congress and the CPM fight each other.

When they come to attend her meeting at the Brigade, Congressmen would like Sonia to tell them that they have as real a fight here with the Marxists as she has with the BJP nationwide.

The second important directive the party’s Bengal leaders would like to have from her is about the state unit’s organisation, which continues to be in complete disarray. Ever since Mamata left the party in 1997, the Congress in Bengal has had a leadership vacuum. While Somen Mitra remains the most prominent face of the local leadership, the other two — Pranab Mukherjee and Priya Ranjan Das Munshi — have important national roles.

Partymen would like Sonia to make up her mind about the Bengal leadership. More and more partymen seem to think that Das Munshi is the man for the job. But then he has to win the trust and help of the Mitra loyalists who dominate district units.

Mitra, however, thinks that the leadership issue is secondary to a “bold and credible” party programme that would make supporters “spring to their feet again”.

After the party’s debacle in Gujarat, the Congress morale is not exactly riding high in national politics. But then the Congress in Bengal have nothing to lose. Sonia’s visit may stir the party into some action to try and get back a share of the Opposition space.

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