Not all states may be equal in the Congress’s scheme of things, but the unimportance of Bengal is something of a tradition that India’s grand old party cannot quite live down. It was so in the days of Mahatma Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru and it is no different with the Congress under Sonia Gandhi. Only Subhash Chandra Bose was able to force a change in the strange equations between the Congress and Bengal, but only up to a point. But that was perhaps more because he had a vision for India than for any other reason. Bengal and its Congress politicians continued to be of peripheral interest even for Indira Gandhi and Rajiv Gandhi. The way the Congress high command forced the Bengal unit to withdraw from the poll contests in Sealdah and Bowbazar is all of a piece with its record of treating Bengal as dispensable. It is not a question of just two assembly seats or even of what the high command’s decision does to the morale of Congressmen in Bengal. The real issue is a feasible revival plan for the party in West Bengal. But New Delhi’s decision is a blow to the party’s future in the state.
The contrast with the party’s preferences in other states makes its indifference to Bengal particularly inexplicable. It is generally believed that Rahul Gandhi is keen on reviving the party in states where it has been in decline for several decades. Before him, the party has tried to achieve this aim by aligning with other players such as Mulayam Singh Yadav in Uttar Pradesh and Lalu Prasad in Bihar. The result was disappointing for the party, with its allies benefiting from the tie-ups, while the Congress was forced to act as their appendage. In the run-up to the last Lok Sabha polls, Rahul Gandhi boldly tried to change this and achieved spectacular success in Uttar Pradesh. Contrast this with the party’s alliance with the Trinamul Congress. The alliance worked completely on the terms set by Mamata Banerjee. The party’s tally in the Lok Sabha remained what it had been in the previous polls, while the TMC’s gains soared. The Congress leadership’s decision to surrender to Ms Banerjee the two assembly seats ended another humiliating episode for the party’s flock in Bengal. The way the Bengal unit begged for even one seat and was snubbed again by Ms Banerjee made for a rather pathetic spectacle.
Yet, Congressmen in Bengal had reasons to hope that the time had, at long last, come for them to try to rebuild the party. It has been quite a while since the Congress had a comfortable position in Parliament. Numbers apart, the party’s image and the credibility of a government led by it have rarely been so high. It is perfectly logical for the party’s units in the states to draw moral strength from its renewed position at the national level and try to set their own house in order. But Bengal has no place in the party games.