Mamata Banerjee greets pilgrims at Haj House off VIP Road on Friday. (PTI)
Mirror, mirror on the wall
Who is the most pro-people of them all?
That is the question Mamata, the CPM and the BJP will now be asking the people in Bengal.
In a curious turn of politics, all three, enemies otherwise, are in the same boat opposing the Congress’s “anti-people” reforms.
The next stage begins now with each going into the campaign mode with claims of better “pro-people” credentials than the others.
Mamata has a clear advantage over the others. She not only opposed the reforms, but also made a sacrifice for her cause by withdrawing the Trinamul ministers from the Union government. Her moral case could be strengthened by the claim that she would have no truck with a government tainted by one scam after another.
With her party withdrawing its support to the UPA II government, she matches the CPM’s record vis-à-vis the UPA. But there, too, she claims an advantage. The issues on which she severed her links with the UPA, according to her, would appeal to the people far more directly than the CPM’s withdrawal of support to UPA I in 2008 on the Indo-US nuclear deal did.
The diesel price matters to farmers who need the fuel to run shallow tubewells in their fields just as FDI in retail involves the livelihoods of farmers, she will argue as she launches her campaign for the panchayat elections. The prices of LPG cylinders concern every household, particularly in urban areas. By contrast, the nuclear deal was far too removed from ordinary people’s lives.
The difference between the two withdrawals shows the difference between a populist leader like Mamata and a party ideologue like CPM general secretary Prakash Karat. That Karat’s campaign over the nuclear deal had made no impact among the people was proved by the CPM’s huge defeats in elections in the party’s two strongholds of Bengal and Kerala in the post-withdrawal elections.
But Mamata’s advantages may be partially offset by the new hostilities she will face from the Congress and also from an inspired BJP.
Also, for all her posturing to the contrary, Mamata will face worse problems in managing the state’s finances. She may protest that the UPA government did not help even while her party was part of it. But she will know the difference in not being a partner in the government in Delhi.
CPM leaders in Bengal now admit the difference between the two withdrawals and are hence somewhat worried over the possible impact of the Congress-Trinamul separation on Bengal politics. Alimuddin Street’s initial jubilation at the Congress-Trinamul divorce is, therefore, tempered by some caution over Mamata’s possible gains from it.
If exiting the UPA now frees Mamata from the burden of defending the Centre’s reformist policies, it deprives the CPM of its opportunity to hold her accountable for the UPA’s acts of omission and commission.
The CPM, however, hopes that it can still reap good enough benefits from the division between the Congress and Trinamul. The division, the party estimates, will only get more sharpened in the coming months and cannot leave Trinamul’s support base unscathed.
It is almost certain that the Congress will try two things simultaneously — reorganise itself to defend and expand its areas of strength and also strike deals with the CPM in its fight against Trinamul. The induction of some Congress leaders from Bengal in the reshuffled Union cabinet can do its bit in reviving the party in Bengal.
But the party has to rework its strategies in the new scenario. On the price rise and the FDI issues, the CPM and Trinamul are on the same side. But this will soon pass and the battle between the two will focus on issues involving Bengal. It is obvious that Mamata will increasingly depend on a strident anti- Centre campaign as the CPM had done for many years.
The CPM’s challenge will be to pin her down to Bengal and to her government’s alleged lapses.
In some ways, though, Mamata may find it easier to tackle the CPM’s challenge than a new threat from the BJP.
The people who still have not forgiven the CPM but are increasingly disillusioned with Mamata may want to give the BJP a chance. The coming weeks may see the BJP launch its campaign in Bengal by attacking all the other three — the Congress, CPM and Trinamul — as partners in political sins. CPM leaders, however, are confident of holding on to or even increasing their vote share from what it had shrunk to in 2011.
The BJP’s chances will partly depend on how Mamata responds to the party’s campaign. The saffron onslaught will try to highlight Mamata’s high-profile attempts to win over Muslim support. The BJP will be only too happy to see Mamata reacting to such campaigns with more open and aggressive pro-Muslim positions.
She may also have to worry that the dramatic new developments may send confusing signals to sections of Muslim voters who may like to go back to the Congress as the party of their traditional choice.