| Mamata Banerjee
Calcutta, Feb. 28: The three principal formations in Bengal today scored one-all in the bypolls, the results throwing up tantalising questions but yielding few answers.
The Forward Bloc wrested the Nalhati (Birbhum) seat from the Congress, cashing in on a split in non-Left votes even though its vote share came down. In Rejinagar (Murshidabad), former Adhir Chowdhury aide and current minister Humayun Kabir, who switched to Trinamul in November, lost to the Congress candidate. Trinamul won Englishbazar (Malda), trumping the Congress in A.B.A. Ghani Khan Chowdhury’s backyard.
Three bypolls offer too modest a sample to arrive at definite conclusions. Besides, the results in Englishbazar and Rejinagar suggest that entrenched individuals, too, have played a key role.
But the results did raise some red flags that all parties are certain to keep in mind in the run-up to the 2014 general elections.
A theory that has come under stress is a perception in Trinamul that the Congress has been reduced to a cipher after the two have parted ways. Winning one of the three seats and coming third in the other two are surely not signs of the Congress’s demise, as Mamata would have liked it to be.
The outcome suggests that the Congress has retained its share of the anti-Left vote and Trinamul has not been able to monopolise it. This means that if Trinamul and the Congress contest elections separately, the Left will be the gainer even when it is unable to restore its strength.
Had Trinamul and the Congress fought together in Nalhati, such an alliance would have got 20,000 votes more than the Bloc.
The question now is: will Mamata, who fought an Assembly or Lok Sabha poll on her own for the first time, return to the old wisdom that says it is best to join an enemy you can’t beat?
It is never easy to predict what Mamata will do next, but the Congress’s good show in the bypolls could revive questions about one more turnaround in the Trinamul chief’s equations with the estranged ally.
In private, Trinamul leaders spoke of the Nalhati result and acknowledged the “huge benefits” of an alliance with the Congress.
Even while Mamata ponders over this question, many Trinamul leaders today felt that before the 2014 polls, her options may narrow down to the situation in 2011. Her party had then stitched an alliance with the Congress.
The other option of a tie-up with the BJP would be far less attractive. The Trinamul leaders pointed to the possibility of the Muslim population in Bengal being alienated in the event of any understanding with the BJP. Besides, the BJP would be more unpalatable to Trinamul if Narendra Modi is projected as the prime ministerial candidate.
The second big question relates to Mamata’s tactical dependence on Muslim votes. The by-election results confirm what was always a possibility: that an open policy to woo the minority community could trigger a polarisation.
In all the three constituencies, the percentage of Muslim votes was notably high: 80 per cent in Rejinagar, 57 per cent in Nalhati and 48 per cent in Englishbazar. Had Mamata’s pro-minority strategy worked, Trinamul would have won all the three seats. Add to this the advantage Trinamul enjoyed as the party in power.
In Englishbazar, Krishnendu Chowdhury’s popularity may have seen Trinamul through. But why did the party come third in the other two constituencies, Mamata may be wondering.
Mamata said this evening: “I have congratulated Krishnendu. Till now, we did not have any of these three seats. Now, we have one. The overall result is good.”
Even as she may be rethinking her political strategies, and possibly wondering whether to refashion them, Trinamul leaders today ruled out the chance of an alliance with any party before the panchayat polls, where not just political affiliation but local factors and personalities also matter significantly.
Addressing the media at Trinamul Bhavan this afternoon, party all-India general secretary and MP Mukul Roy said: “In politics, seat adjustments and alliances happen. I cannot predict the political future but I can say Trinamul has proved it can go alone. This has paved the way for our win in the future.”
Roy asserted that the results of the three by-elections were “positive” for the party.
“We went to contest the polls with a 3-0 deficit. None of the three seats were with us. Now we have got one,” Roy said.
He said the results of the Rejinagar and Nalhati bypolls were “especially creditable” for the party as in these two constituencies Trinamul had to start “from scratch”.
“We had to start from scratch in these two seats. After the elections, we have been able to go to the people with our party symbol, talk to them about Mamata Banerjee and the government’s development programmes,” Roy said.
Another factor that stood out in today’s results was the sharp drop in the Left’s vote share, even in Nalhati where the Forward Bloc won. The Left’s vote share went down by 12 per cent in Rejinagar, 11 per cent in Englishbazar and about 6 per cent in Nalhati.
Left leaders said it would be “unfair” to conclude on the basis of the results of three bypolls that its situation has worsened since the 2011 debacle.
Addressing the media at Alimuddin Street, party state secretary Biman Bose attributed the decline in vote share to organisational weaknesses, suggesting that the Left was unable to mobilise its supporters to step out and vote in the bypolls.
“There were organisational problems at the booth level in these three constituencies. That is why the Left’s vote share dropped in the three Assembly constituencies,” Bose said.
The Left is now fighting such polls as an Opposition combine without official patronage — an unfamiliar position in over 34 years.
The Congress took consolation in the fact that it was the runner-up in one constituency.
State Congress president and MP Pradip Bhattacharya said from Delhi tonight that the Congress’s victory in Rejinagar was “a pointer to the party’s steady organisational consolidation in Murshidabad”.
“We have come second in Nalhati while the ruling Trinamul has been reduced to the third position. Our major loss is in Malda, where we trailed behind Trinamul despite it being our citadel,” he said.