There was a surprise show of democracy at the Trinamul Congress meeting in Calcutta’s Town Hall on Tuesday. Mamata Banerjee let others speak for nearly three hours before she spoke. Never mind that they all read out from her script, but it was such an unprecedented move that there had to be a strong enough reason for it.
The reason, by all accounts, was this: she was waiting for a call or a text message on her phone from the Prime Minister or Sonia Gandhi or at least from Ahmed Patel that she could have flaunted as a victory sign for her campaign. It never came.
Mamata, stung by the Congress’s studied silence, retaliated with her Quit UPA call. The question is whether Mamata found herself pushed into a corner and left with less room to manoeuvre than she had bargained for. For a change, the Congress seems to have refused to play ball with her, leaving it to her to go her own way and face the consequences.
That the line of communication had fallen silent before the coming break-up was proved by what the two sides said on Wednesday. While Congress leaders in Delhi, including P. Chidambaram, maintained that they had tried in vain to reach out to Mamata for four days, she called it all a lie.
What was apparent was that the positions hardened on both sides — Chidambaram brushing aside talk of reforms “rollback” and Congress ministers in Bengal staying away from a cabinet meeting for the first time, evidently under instructions from Delhi. The divorce on Friday now seems to be unavoidable, unless one side concedes defeat and surrenders.
But then, Mamata’s break-up with the Congress has been waiting to happen for sometime now. If it were not the fuel price hike or the FDI in retail, it could be some other issues such as insurance or pension reforms.
If the break-up finally happens on Friday, it could set the stage for a new, if uncertain, phase in her — and Bengal’s — politics. What Mamata makes of that future may have largely influenced her decision on Tuesday.
Sinking ship scent
She seems to share the common perception that the Congress is a sinking ship, which, as the wise rats know, must be deserted quickly. But she also knows that her desertion may not sink the ship immediately. Mulayam Singh Yadav’s Samajwadi Party, Mayawati’s Bahujan Samaj Party and one or two other small parties could come to the Congress’s rescue.
She may have decided that if the break-up was inevitable, it had better happen on the so-called reforms issue than on something else. In her view, her campaign against the fuel price hike, cuts in the supply of subsidised LPG cylinders and, above all, FDI in retail will give her pro-people image a boost.
With practically all non-Congress parties opposing these reforms, she would not miss the opportunity of a politically charged campaign.
That the CPM too is using its anti-reforms campaign to regain ground in Bengal, with a Bangla Bandh on Thursday to bolster it, seems to have forced Mamata’s hands. All this, in her calculations, is the right stuff for starting the campaign for the panchayat polls in Bengal, which she wants to advance to early next year.
But it is the poll arithmetic in Bengal that makes her move so full of uncertainties even for herself. Her break-up with the Congress holds up several new poll scenarios, all deriving from the fact that she would be ploughing a lonely furrow for the first time.
All these years, she had fought her battles against the CPM with either the BJP or the Congress as an ally. Also, she would now fight elections as the party of the government, which she has not done before.
Even if her campaign on the “anti-people” reforms helps her, the new poll alignments could prove to be a handicap. She may find herself in the position that the CPM faced for long — fighting a disunited Opposition. But she may not benefit from it the way the CPM did. The simple reason is: whatever votes the Congress and the BJP get fighting on their own will be garnered largely from the anti-Left segment.
In the 2011 Assembly elections, which proved to be the CPM’s worst-ever electoral show in Bengal since the controversial elections of 1972, the Left vote share was still 41.1 per cent of the total. The TMC-Congress combine had 48.3 per cent.
Take away the Congress share and the TMC’s vote could come down dramatically close to the Left’s. True, the Congress itself could be mauled without an alliance with the TMC. But for the Congress leadership in Delhi, losing some Lok Sabha seats in Bengal may not be a big price to pay for freeing the UPA from Mamata’s ceaseless blackmail.
What could add to her woes is the possibility of a rise in the BJP’s vote. The party got a little over 4 per cent of the vote in 2011. But a nationwide surge in the party’s favour and a backlash against Mamata’s high-visibility pro-Muslim politics, already in evidence, could push the BJP votes significantly up.
Such a surge swelled the BJP vote in Bengal to an unprecedented 11 per cent in the 1991 parliamentary polls. The crucial thing for Mamata is the possibility that such a growth for the BJP will happen mostly at the TMC’s expense. So, she faces a scenario in which the Left and the BJP do better than in 2011. The Congress could be a loser but that hardly helps her cause.
But doesn’t Mamata anticipate this change in poll scenarios in Bengal following a break-up with the Congress? Her high-octane politics has won her elections, most spectacularly in 2011. But it has also lost her other political games, as in the presidential election when she lost out to the Congress.
Could the Friday pullout see her being thrown from the frying pan into the fire?