The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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In Mamata melodrama, a BJP scene-stealer

The chorus of condemnation notwithstanding, Mamata Banerjee's antics in the Lok Sabha must have cheered the BJP leaders, both in Delhi and Bengal. This wasn't the first time she had acted in uncivil ways, inside or outside Parliament. But the political message she gave out this time is even more dramatic.

This was the first time that she had made a BJP issue her own. The infiltration of Bangladeshis into Bengal has always been the main plank of the saffron campaign in the state. But Mamata shied away from it all these years. So much so that after she allied with the BJP in 1998, she forced the saffronites to drop the issue from their agenda for Bengal. They were free to campaign on the issue of false voters' lists, she would tell the BJP leaders, but linking it to Bangladeshi influx was politically inexpedient.

The Bengal BJP leaders were naturally not happy, but being entirely dependent on Mamata in their fight against the ruling Marxists, they had little choice.

Mamata skirted the Bangladeshi issue for fear of alienating Muslim voters, who form nearly one-third of the state's population. Despite her party, the Trinamul Congress, being a partner of the NDA, she was also anxious to keep a distance from the BJP in the state for the same reason.

For the BJP leaders, therefore, Mamata's outcry on the influx is a significant change. It does two things. It brings Mamata closer to the BJP, at least in public perception. This is seen as a major gain for the party, from which she was thought to be drifting away after the last Lok Sabha elections.

If she gets closer to the BJP, she has to keep her distance from the Congress. It is no secret that the Congress leadership is keen to lure her back into the party or an alliance with it in elections in Bengal. The Congress had succeeded in doing so in 2001 and would like to do it again.

Although the UPA government's dependence on the Left has complicated things, the Congress will like to regain her and put up a fight against the Marxists in Bengal the way it does in Kerala. But Mamata's saffronisation could queer the Congress's pitch as well.

The question is: why did she do it' Why did the Bangladeshi influx become so important in her political agenda' Why did she choose to raise now an issue that she had been careful to avoid before'

All Opposition parties in Bengal have routinely cried foul at the CPM's manipulation of voters' lists and the inclusion of illegal Bangladeshi settlers has figured sometimes in these complaints. Despite the CPM's denials, it is widely accepted that the voters' lists in many places, particularly in areas close to the India-Bangladesh border, do have some settlers' names.

But what prompted Mamata to take up the saffron agenda so definitively seems to be her fear of the delimitation of the Assembly constituencies.

The Trinamul is largely an urban party with its nerve-centre in Calcutta and its areas of influence reaching out to a few districts not far from the city. The delimitation plan hits the party's base ' of the 18 Assembly constituencies to be shifted out of their current areas, 10 are in Calcutta, two each in West Midnapore, Purulia and Hooghly and one each in Burdwan and Birbhum.

With a 10-seat loss in Calcutta, Mamata's own South Calcutta parliamentary constituency may not be unsafe for her, but her party's chances in next year's Assembly polls certainly look dimmer.

Most of these constituencies are to be shifted from low population growth areas to high population growth areas. And here comes the crux of the Bangladeshi issue. Five of the 18 seats are to move to North 24-Parganas, three each to Murshidabad and South 24-Parganas, two each to Nadia and North Dinajpur and one each to Malda and South Dinajpur and one to Darjeeling.

All these districts, except Darjeeling, have Muslim voters, ranging from 24 per cent (North 24-Parganas) to 49.7 per cent (Malda) and 63.7 per cent (Murshidabad).

Bengal has a 10-member team to represent its case with the Delimitation Commission. But the lone Trinamul nominee on it, former IAS officer and party MLA Dipak Ghosh, has a formidable task of battling it out against the Left and Congress members, who do not want the Bangladeshi issue to be highlighted.

CPM sources, however, argued that the criterion for the delimitations ' shifting constituencies from low population growth areas to high population growth areas ' was a national one and had nothing to do with Bengal's politics.

They also wondered why Mamata had not raised the issue in Parliament before July 29, the deadline for the submissions to the commission.

As always, Mamata is unconcerned about such details. She seems to have decided to make it one of her main campaign points in the months before the Assembly polls. And to do that she would rather stay in Bengal than in the Lok Sabha. She has to save the last bit of her turf. The irony is that she has to go saffron to do that.

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