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Why Dilli remains door for Mamatadi

May 07, 2014 11:37 IST

'The numbers have been scaled down for the Trinamool Congress. Today, the upper number seems to be 30, with 25 seats being the realistic option.'

'The Trinamool Congress may still be the largest non-BJP, non-Congress party in the next Lok Sabha, but it may not make it to the Cabinet table, leave alone sit in the top chair,' says T V R Shenoy.

Mamata Banerjee'Dono haath mein laddoo!'

The Hindi metaphor indicates a win-win situation.

It was how Narendra Modi characterised the prospect of a BJP ministry in Delhi while the Trinamool Congress ruled from Kolkata.

That was in February, and Narendra Modi was speaking at the Brigade Parade Ground in the capital of West Bengal. If a week is a long time in politics, then three months is an eternity.

By April, the Trinamool Congress's Derek O'Brien was describing Narendra Modi as the 'butcher of Gujarat.' The BJP's prime ministerial candidate was asking Mamata Banerjee just who had shelled out crores of rupees to buy her paintings.

What changed?

While the general election was flagged off on April 7, only 12 constituencies voted in the first two stages. April 10 saw as many as 91 seats going to the polls, and the results of various surveys -- still undeclared, as per the Election Commission's diktat -- appear to have given the BJP a lot of comfort.

Where the party had once thought that it would need support from major regional players it started to believe that it could do without the help of some of the more prickly potential partners.

If you notice, Narendra Modi took on both the Biju Janata Dal and the Trinamool Congress more aggressively starting in mid-April, mocking Naveen Patnaik's poor command of Oriya and Mamata Banerjee's claim of 'Paribartan'. But it is the latter that has become the greater target.

Ask anyone in Kolkata -- particularly its taxi drivers -- and they say there is a definite 'Modi effect', if not quite a 'Modi wave'. But they are equally sure that this will not translate into actual victories in the Lok Sabha elections.

However, the BJP has decided to play the waiting game. It has concluded that it cannot build a national presence unless it takes on regional parties along with the Congress. And Mamata Banerjee -- whose party leans heavily on Muslim votes -- was never going to be a comfortable partner for Narendra Modi.

As far as West Bengal is concerned the BJP is fighting this general election to win vote-share rather than seats (which will be a bit of a bonus). Realistically, you can probably count the number of BJP MPs elected from West Bengal on the fingers of one hand -- and have a couple of fingers left over at that.

The BJP has been helped by the chinks that have appeared in Mamata Banerjee's armour. The Trinamool Congress boss's ace in hand was not her reputation for efficiency, but her personal probity. This was exemplified on February 13 when Anna Hazare praised the West Bengal chief minister, pointing out that she still lived in the same modest house as she had before assuming office, that she did not surround herself with the paraphernalia of chief ministership, and that her relatives had been kept at arm's length.

Today, each of those assumptions is being questioned.

Is it still true that Mamata Banerjee's family does not take advantage of the relationship?

Look no farther than the Lok Sabha constituency of Diamond Harbour. The Trinamool Congress candidate for the seat is a certain Abhishek Banerjee. His father just happens to be Amit Banerjee, who is the chief minister's brother.

Abhishek Banerjee runs a company called 'Leaps & Bounds', with interests running the gamut from financial services to real estate. The Web site claims that Mr Banerjee 'ventured into the world of business at the age of 15'! He is also president of the Trinamool Yuva, a wing of his aunt's party. The implication is that this is a dynasty in the making.

On April 28, just as I arrived in Kolkata, the buzz was about allegations levelled by Gautam Deb of the CPI-M. He claimed that Mamata Banerjee's brothers (and their wives) had bought Rs 20 crore (Rs 200 million) worth of property in and around Kalighat in the heart of Kolkata. This, according to Comrade Deb, had happened since 2011, the year in which Mamata Banerjee assumed the chief ministership of West Bengal.

There may be a perfectly legitimate explanation for this rise in the assets of the Banerjee clan. But to an educated middle class that is increasingly frustrated with corruption, it looks like a worryingly familiar phenomenon.

The most potentially damaging allegation concerns the chief minister of West Bengal in person. Every registered party is supposed to submit its accounts to the Election Commission, and these are documents available to the public. Reporters found that the Trinamool Congress had earned Rs 6,469, 0000 (Rs 6 crore, 46 lakh, and 90,000/ Rs 64.69 milion) through the disposal of Mamata Banerjee's paintings.

Interestingly, these paintings were picked up only in the years after the artist in question became the chief minister.

Several questions have been asked. Who bought the paintings? Were they sold via auctions, or at a marked price? Did the money go directly to Mamata Banerjee, or to the Trinamool Congress?

If it went to the distinguished painter, then -- irrespective of whether or not she subsequently donated the cash to the party -- did Mamata Banerjee declare it on her income tax returns?

The rumours -- please remember that they have not yet been proved -- is that the paintings were obtained by various people who were involved in a chit fund scam. This allegation has the potential to cut at the Trinamool Congress's Muslim support base. Muslims invested in large numbers in chit funds because these schemes meet the complex standards required of Islamic finance.

How much of an effect will this have on the fortunes of the Trinamool Congress? In February -- when both Narendra Modi and Anna Hazare were praising Mamata Banerjee -- it was felt that the Trinamool Congress would win 30 of the 42 Lok Sabha constituencies in West Bengal, possibly even going up to 35 seats.

If so, then the Trinamool Congress would probably have been the third largest party in the 16th Lok Sabha, behind only the BJP and the Congress.

There was, back then, much talk of a 'Third Front' or a 'Federal Front'. With the largest number of MPs at her command in this front, Mamata Banerjee would have been within reach of the prime ministership itself.

Three months on, the numbers have been scaled down for the Trinamool Congress. Today, the upper number of victories seems to be 30, with 25 seats being the realistic option. The Trinamool Congress may still be the largest non-BJP, non-Congress party in the next Lok Sabha, but it may not make it to the Cabinet table, leave alone sit in the top chair.

Let us not rule out any possibility. It is possible that the Trinamool Congress found no better candidate for Diamond Harbour than Abhishek Banerjee. It is possible that the Banerjee clan obtained property worth crores through entirely legal means. It is possible that every transaction regarding Mamata Banerjee's paintings was revealed to the tax authorities.

But it is also possible that the hitherto squeaky clean image of the chief minister of West Bengal has been sullied just a little bit.

Narendra Modi may indeed have been correct in predicting a BJP government in Delhi and a Trinamool Congress ministry in Kolkata. But that prospect is not necessarily a cheerful one for the ambitious boss of the Trinamool Congress.

For earlier columns by Mr Shenoy, please click here.

T V R Shenoy