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CHANGING GEARS TO SUIT THE TARGET

For those who have closely followed Mamata Banerjee’s political career, there is no reason to be carried away by her populist exuberance or sudden decisions that throw opponents and followers alike off guard. Bengal’s Congress has a history of challenging the ‘high command’. Chittaranjan Das, Subhas Chandra Bose, Bidhan Chandra Roy, Ajoy Mukherjee got into serious tiffs with the party leadership in their time. All these stalwarts, except Bidhan Chandra Roy, broke away from the Congress and formed their own parties.

The Swarajya Party of Chittaranjan Das or Biplobi Bangla Congress of Ajoy Mukherjee sank without a trace, while Bose’s Forward Bloc is a junior partner of the CPI(M) in the Left Front. None of the parties that these leaders created really made it on their own. Except Mamata Banerjee’s Trinamul Congress.

She followed in the tradition of revolt, of challenging the high command and then breaking off in disgust. But not long after she realized the need for an alliance with a powerful national party that controlled the Centre. Without that kind of an alliance, she knew she stood little chance against the well-oiled party machine built by the CPI(M). And so she went with the Bharatiya Janata Party. Banerjee’s decision to join the National Democratic Alliance government was a calculated move because it helped her capitalize on the Left’s hypocrisy of not joining the United Front government.

If a party like the Trinamul Congress gets a few berths in the Union cabinet, much can come Bengal’s way — this line of Banerjee’s struck a chord. Even as the CPI(M) dithered, Banerjee could hold up to the electorate in West Bengal the ‘positive side’ of being in power in Delhi, something that stalwarts like A.B.A. Ghani Khan Choudhury and Ajit Panja had used to keep up the Congress power base in the state.

But the BJP’s politics of religious polarization convinced Banerjee she had no real chance of ousting the Left in Bengal unless she won over the religious minorities. To beat the Left, she would have to beat them at their own game, not turn saffron. Finally, she left the NDA. Her pretext was less than convincing but it worked both ways — she held herself up as a clean politician and endeared herself to the Congress which was looking for allies to topple the NDA. Her long innings with the Congress helped her weaken the Left, which had turned adversarial after the Indo-American nuclear deal. The Left’s departure forced the Sonia Gandhi-Manmohan Singh brigade to become more dependent on Banerjee.

But Banerjee made it clear that if her party was a junior partner in the United Progressive Alliance coalition in Delhi, it was the Congress which was the junior partner to the Trinamul Congress in West Bengal. After Nandigram and Singur, her message to the Congress became more emphatic. So during the Calcutta Corporation polls, when the Congress tried a tough bargain, its leaders were clearly told that “the Congress would be reduced to a signboard” if it did not accept the Trinamul Congress terms. Not only was the Congress not able to override her even on issues involving Bangladesh, but it also failed to stop her from storming the Congress strongholds by abrasive use of administrative machinery.

The break with the Congress finally had to come. But again, Banerjee used issues that would help her pro-people image. Opposition to foreign direct investment in retail and land takeovers are critical for her not only because that creates the right vibes in a state that loves the underdog, but also because that helps her out-radicalize the Left, her principal opponent in Bengal. It helps her undermine the Congress on people’s issues too. Much of her pro-people populism stems from this political necessity, not ideology.

Heading a regional party, she knows the importance of monopolizing power in the state she controls to be able to get importance in Delhi. In this, she follows the Left — the only difference being she would love to get as many cabinet berths as possible unlike the Left with its politics of support from outside. Having broken off from the Congress, Banerjee is now switching gears to create a Federal Front. Opinion polls suggest her party, on the strength of her showing in West Bengal, would emerge as the fourth most important political group. That gives her the confidence to work out an anti-Congress and anti-BJP front of regional parties. If she has to ensure a long innings for the Trinamul Congress in Bengal, she has to decimate the Left and the Congress — more so the Congress which offers a ready platform for her dissidents within her party, like Somen Mitra.

The Trinamul Congress general secretary, Mukul Roy, has said that after the Lok Sabha polls, the Left will be reduced to insignificance in West Bengal which will not allow it to play any significant role in national politics. Whether that happens or not, this reflects the Trinamul gameplan. Since it is now in direct competition with the Left to form — and if possible, lead — a non-Congress, non-BJP third front, it will have to win as many seats as possible in Bengal. The second part of the strategy is to pick up as many seats as possible in neighbouring states — or wherever they come from. Which is why the support she might have got from the anti-corruption crusader, Anna Hazare, and is getting from Syed Ahmed Bukhari is crucial to her. An additional 10 to 12 seats outside Bengal may actually make her party the third important bloc ahead of the Left. That would help her to emerge as the magnet for a non-Congress, non-BJP front. And that explains her decision to campaign outside Bengal. But the strategy is limited to picking up important dissidents from the Congress or other parties and giving them a ticket. This helped the Trinamul pick up a few seats in assembly elections in smaller northeastern states and Banerjee hopes it may help her elsewhere in the country.

The CPI(M)’s effort to form a Third Front seems to already have suffered a body blow. Some regional leaders had refused to give Left parties the number of seats they were looking for. Deriding the Third Front as the “tired front”, Banerjee has decided to call the alternative platform a Federal Front. That is to emphasize that regional parties rather than backward caste parties would be the dominating force of such an alliance.

The Congress’s refusal to reward her with a big financial package after she ousted the Left continues to rankle and is said to be one of the causes of the final rupture. Realizing this, Narendra Modi and Rajnath Singh offered to help Bengal ‘revive its economy’ by giving her a moratorium on her huge debt servicing commitments. The fear of losing minority support may keep Banerjee away from the BJP and her only real chance of getting for Bengal what she can with a ‘favourable government in Delhi’ lies in something like the Federal Front. But can she, as a region-based politician, ignore someone who may come to power in Delhi? So all options will have to be kept open because for regional politicians, controlling Delhi is one sure way of retaining power in the state and keeping challengers like the Left at bay.

For those who know Banerjee closely, her shifting of gears comes as no surprise. Sure of another strong performance in West Bengal, she now wants a bigger role in national politics. This is a two-way process — use national power to cement the power base in the state and use the position in the state to claim an ever greater share of national power.