Ever since the time a Communist Party of India membership or connection was the best passport for entry into journalism, the Indian media has been excessively charitable to the Left. A loosely Left-liberal set of assumptions, including anti-Americanism, a distaste for the private sector and a loathing of ritualized religion, were hallmarks of the English-language media — at least until aggressive television news channels, with sharply divergent value systems, re-established balance.
The most important consequence of this slanted politics was that the communist parties (and their fellow-travellers) were able to punch much above their weight. In its 34 years in government, the Left Front in West Bengal benefited considerably from the goodwill and generosity showered on it by a national media enamoured of its progressive credentials. Copious tears, for example, were shed when the Communist Party of India (Marxist) politburo turned down the United Front’s invitation to Jyoti Basu to become prime minister of India in 1996. However, very few column inches were devoted to examining the realities behind Basu’s reputation as a capable administrator. For an influential section of the editorial classes that had once fought battles on behalf of Jawaharlal Nehru and his daughter, the communist parties were the holy cows and West Bengal their sacred pasture.
Mamata Banerjee, by contrast, was always an object of intense suspicion. Ever since she emerged to occupy the main anti-Left space in West Bengal, she was portrayed as a maverick, an incorrigible populist and an utterly irresponsible individual. This reckless image persisted through the 2009 general election, when it was lamented that Prakash Karat had facilitated his own party’s downfall by his decision to withdraw support to the Manmohan Singh government over the nuclear agreement between India and the United States of America. Indeed, a section of the fourth estate clung on to the belief that Mamata’s Lok Sabha success was a fluke and that she would be stopped at the gates of Writers’ Buildings by a determined Left. Even as late as a month before the May 2011 assembly poll, the media watering holes in Delhi were full of tales of how there was a ‘late swing’ to the Left, resulting from a popular realization that Mamata would be too costly a burden for West Bengal. The results told another story.
The Congress, which had entered into a grudging ‘mahajot’ with the Trinamul Congress after the Left withdrew support to the UPA government, was both a producer and a willing consumer of the negative perceptions of West Bengal’s most famous Didi. Sonia Gandhi and the prime minister were no doubt grateful to Mamata for teaching Karat a lesson he wouldn’t forget in a hurry, but this was coupled with concern over the consequences of the gentlemanly Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee being replaced by an unguided missile. In 2011, the Congress wanted the Left Front to lose but it hoped that the TMC would fall short of an outright majority and enable it to play a balancing role — a euphemism for insisting Mamata dance to its tune for the next five years.
These calculations were upset by last summer’s resounding and categorical endorsement of Mamata by the West Bengal electorate. Mamata was now her own boss, with very clear ideas of how she would manage relations with her national ally.
At the local level, she moved fast. First, she gave inconsequential portfolios to the Congress ministers she inducted into her ministry. Second, she sought to undercut the remaining Congress bases in North Bengal.
The Congress high command didn’t respond to these provocations too adversely. Traditionally, the Congress has always viewed its local units as subordinate to the national party. As long as Mamata played ball in the Centre, the Congress was willing to turn a blind eye to her local transgressions.
Unfortunately for the Congress, Mamata had her own ideas. Angry at being fobbed off with mere lollipops instead of the grand Bengal package she had banked on, she did what most non-Congress chief ministers from J. Jayalalithaa and Narendra Modi to Nitish Kumar have done: elevate the battle to a principled tussle over federal relations. It is federalism that has governed Mamata’s prickliness over matters as diverse as the Teesta waters treaty with Bangladesh, the communal violence bill, the lok pal bill and the food security bill. In addition, she used her representation in the cabinet to raise awkward questions on fuel price hikes and the de-control of retail trade. More to the point, she used her numbers in Parliament to join hands with the Opposition and embarrass the government.
The CPI(M) had a position similar to Mamata’s in the four years it provided ‘outside support’ to the UPA between 2004 and 2008. It used its strategic clout far more discerningly and in characteristic communist style: to support the ‘progressive’ initiatives by Sonia Gandhi and oppose the ‘neo-liberal’ policy moves of the prime minister. In addition, it used its good offices to secure the appointments of ‘progressives’ in positions of influence and authority, particularly in the realms of higher education. The CPI(M), more or less, replicated the approach of the CPI between 1969 and 1977, when it upheld the ‘progressive’ regime of Indira Gandhi, particularly in her fight against the ‘reactionary’ Syndicate.
Mamata, on her part, has not been so calibrated in her approach as the comrades. She has been principled insofar as she has focussed on the big questions and not bothered at all with trivial issues of appointments to governorships and quangos — something the Congress is innately more comfortable with. The result is that Mamata does not have backers among either those who look to 10 Janpath or those with one eye to the wisdom emanating from Race Course Road. After she embarrassed the government in the Rajya Sabha over the lok pal bill, the exasperation of the Congress with her scaled new heights — to the point where senior ministers are now singing praises of the sweet reasonableness of the Left. As of today, Mamata is regarded as the joker in the UPA pack and the Congress is itching to be rid of her.
For the Congress, the way out of West Bengal lies in Uttar Pradesh. For the past month, relevant circles in Lutyens’ Delhi have been abuzz with talk of ‘secret’ negotiations between the Congress and Samajwadi Party. According to those who make it their business to fish in troubled waters, the ‘deal’ involves a post-poll coalition between the Samajwadi Party of Mulayam Singh Yadav and the Congress in UP, and the Samajwadi Party joining the UPA at the Centre in return for cabinet berths. The Congress, it would seem, has made up its mind to swap the TMC with the Samajwadi Party. This may explain why Mamata has sharpened the intensity of her attacks on the Congress.
There is still one imponderable. The Congress needs both the TMC and either the Samajwadi Party or the Bahujan Samaj Party to get its candidate into Rashtrapati Bhavan later in the year. It would be in difficulty if a discarded Mamata decides to back a united Opposition candidate. The possible way out, which is being explored, courtesy a politburo member of the CPI(M), is for the Left to bail the Congress out in return for an agreement on the candidature of the vice-president.
The Left has been playing a quiet role in accentuating the differences between the Congress and Mamata. Having been severely battered in the assembly election, its only hope of a recovery lies in Mamata self- destructing and a split in the anti-Left votes in West Bengal.
No wonder the stage is being set to portray Mamata as Bengal’s new ogre.