The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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- The municipal battle has distorted visions and priorities

'It has been an amazing sight,' a bewildered Jawaharlal Nehru wrote to his friend, Dr Bidhan Chandra Roy, on March 27, 1930, barely a month before Mahatma Gandhi launched his second movement against British rule, 'On the one hand the country ringing with preparations for civil disobedience; on the other Congressmen spending their time and energy and money in attacking each other for the purpose of gaining admittance to the Calcutta Corporation.'

For Nehru, the Congress preoccupation with the Calcutta Corporation was akin to a 'Gilbert and Sullivan opera'. To Subhas Bose and his rival, J.M. Sengupta, however, this was no laughing matter. Both were unquestionably committed to the big project of freedom from British rule. But the factional battles distorted their vision and clouded their judgment. The results were intensely farcical. The unmemorable parting words, for example, of Sengupta to his supporters, while being led away to prison in 1933 were: 'Dissolve the EC of the BPCC!'

It is instructive recalling some of these dodgy facets of Bengal's past in the light of another Gilbert and Sullivan opera around the June 19 election to the Calcutta Municipal Corporation. That the Left Front would coast to an easy victory was a foregone conclusion the day the incumbent mayor, Subrata Mukherjee, broke away from Mamata Banerjee and joined hands with the Congress. The impression of utter disarray in the anti-left camp was further reinforced by a media-dictated campaign suggesting that Mamata is a write-off and that the Congress is emerging as the real alternative to the Communist Party of India (Marxist).

Curiously, there was a significant mismatch between the prognosis and the outcome. True, the Left Front wrested control of the CMC, but its margin of victory was small. The Trinamool-BJP alliance lost some ground but it easily outpolled the Congress-led combine. Had the anti-left votes consolidated, or had the Calcutta voters grasped the virtues of tactical voting at the constituency level, there is every possibility of the Left Front falling short of a majority. Despite the 'scientific rigging' at the booth level, the left hold over Calcutta has waned since the 2004 Lok Sabha election.

Predictably, the CMC poll outcome has triggered a spate of recriminations and fuelled speculation of yet another regroupment of anti-left forces. Those who wrote off Mamata and scripted the tale of a Congress recovery have abruptly changed tack and are now pushing for a Trinamool-Congress mahajot, much along the lines of the 2001 assembly election. It is being suggested that the Trinamool derives no advantage from remaining in the National Democratic Alliance. On the contrary, it would stand to gain Muslim votes by dissociating from the Bharatiya Janata Party which, in any case, is only a bit player in the state.

If wishes were horses and the West Bengal Congress not split in 1997, there would possibly have been a single anti-left force in West Bengal today. Yet, Mamata's departure from the Congress wasn't on account of local issues alone. At the heart of the problem was the pusillanimity of the Congress opposition to the CPI(M). Mamata quite rightly gauged that the state Congress would never be able to take on the Left Front ally as long as it had one arm extended to the comrades at the Centre. Regardless of personal predilections, the satraps would always be circumscribed by countervailing pressures from Delhi. In choosing between left help in opposing the so-called 'communal forces' at the Centre and encouraging the West Bengal Congress to do its opposition duty, the high command invariably exercised the first option.

In the past eight years, this situation has not changed. On the contrary, the relationship between the communists and the Congress has become more entrenched and institutionalized. There is now a greater degree of inter-dependence than was the case when the United Front led by H.D. Deve Gowda ruled at the Centre. The left is not merely extending 'outside support' to Manmohan Singh's government, it is actively shaping policy. Whether it is Arjun Singh's 'detoxification' campaign, the reversal of the NDA's privatization programme and the National Advisory Council-sponsored Rural Employment Guarantee Bill, the hand of the left is not all that hidden. And judging by the choreographed left tantrum over the proposed sale of Bhel shares, the Congress is more than willing to walk that extra mile to retain the 'progressive' tag.

Unlike Indira Gandhi who manipulated the comrades and Rajiv Gandhi who didn't distinguish between Karl and Groucho, Sonia Gandhi's attitude to the left is placatory. She owes left leaders, particularly Jyoti Basu and Harkishen Singh Surjeet, a deep debt of gratitude for bolstering her claims at every point of the 'foreigner' controversy. Again, it was the left that never wavered in supporting her bid to be prime minister after Atal Bihari Vajpayee's government fell by one vote in March 1999. Finally, it was the left that played a pivotal role in crafting the local alliances that contributed to the NDA's defeat in 2004.

Sonia is under an enormous obligation to the left for raising her political stature and legitimizing her extra-constitutional authority. It is difficult to recall a single instance of the Congress president attacking the left in any of her well-scripted political pronouncements. On the contrary, the priorities defined by her National Advisory Council correspond to the 'high tax-high spend' approach of the left. Sonia has, in fact, contributed more than any other Congressman, past and present, to making the left a natural ally of the Congress. There may be occasional hiccups in this relationship, but the big picture is one of conviviality.

It is unlikely that there is any space in this new arrangement to accommodate an unreconstructed anti-communist like Mamata. It is possible that Sonia may have indeed offered her the post of PCC president if she merged the Trinamool into the parent body. However, the very same problems that drove her out of the party in 1996 will inevitably resurface if she bites the bait.

Mamata did not endear herself to the electorate by abruptly snapping her ties with the NDA in 2001 and teaming up with the Congress shortly before the assembly poll. She painted herself as temperamental, erratic and opportunistic. Predictably, the arrangement did not last too long after the election and a chastened Mamata drifted back to the NDA. Today, the same people who lured her away from the NDA in 2001 are attempting to entice her into another alliance with a Congress that is no longer serious about fighting the Left Front. If Mamata succumbs, she will be writing her political obituary.

After 28 years of uninterrupted rule, the left exercises a stranglehold over West Bengal. Through a combination of organization, intimidation and skulduggery, it has made itself virtually invincible. Yet, an opposition space exists in the state. However, it will take patience, doggedness and political imagination for the opposition to oust the left. Mamata, at present, doesn't have either the organization or the political savvy to mount a truly serious challenge to Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee.

Fortunately, there is nothing permanent in politics. Mamata's great strength is her indomitable spirit and her resolute opposition to left tyranny. Without her combativeness she is nothing. For her, it makes more sense to keep alive the spirit of resistance and show resilience and tactical finesse. Her battles may not yield immediate returns but collaboration and compromise with the left will kill her politically.

Mamata should heed the lessons from history. The battles for Calcutta's municipal body have invariably unleashed passions and distorted the vision and priorities of even the political giants. She can't afford to repeat their follies.

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