November 8, 2000


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The Rediff Special

The X factor

Syed Firdaus Ashraf asks if Mamta Banerjee will be the CPI-M's nemesis

PART I: Bengal after Basu
PART II: West Bengal's new helmsman

It could be an incident of violence in Keshpur, Midnapore. Or even some minor problem in Calcutta. For the last 15 years, the Jyoti Basu-led Left Front government has been taken to task for every aberration by one crumpled cotton sari-clad lady. Mamta Banerjee. Her diminutive figure has been the rallying point for every Bengali disenchanted with the Communist Party of India-Marxist.

It is accepted that Banerjee is the only person in decades to have posed a threat to Jyoti Basu and the CPI-M.

A vociferous member of the Congress party until 1998, she won the Congress 82 seats in the 1996 West Bengal assembly election.

In 1998, she broke away to form her own party: the Trinamool Congress. The results of that year's general election reflected the damage to her former party. The Congress, which won 15.2 per cent of the vote, won only one seat as compared to 1996, when it won four seats and 41.38 per cent of the vote.

The Left Front won 34 seats and 43.86 per cent of the vote, with the seat/vote break-up as follows: CPI-M -- 24/35.41, CPI -- 3/3.64, FB -- 2/3.3 and the RSP -- 4/4.48. To see the difference made by the Trinamool's presence, all we need to do is look at the 1996 results -- CPI-M (27/38.38), CPI (3/3.9), FB (3/3.95) and the RSP (4/4.69).

The newly-born Trinamool bagged 24.43 per cent of the vote and won six seats. Its ally, the BJP, opened its account for the first time in West Bengal with one seat. It also gathered 10.2 per cent of the vote, as compared to 2.6 per cent in the 1996 election.

After the results were declared, Chief Minister Jyoti Basu admitted: "Our task has become more difficult owing to the sizable shifting of votes from the Congress to the Trinamool Congress-BJP combine."

In the 1999 general election, Mamta's party increased its vote base to 26.05 per cent and won eight seats. They increased that tally to nine when Bikram Sarkar trounced Gurudas DasGupta of the CPI by nearly 41,000 votes for the Panskura parliamentary seat this year. The by-election was called after the death of the CPI incumbent, Gita Mukherjee.

Besides, the party stood second in 17 parliamentary seats. Its ally, the BJP, won two seats and increased its vote percentage to 11.14.

Though the Left Front did manage to increase its vote share to 48.59 per cent -- the CPI-M too increased its vote share to 35.59 -- it won only 30 seats; four less than it did in 1998.

The Congress share of the vote decreased by two per cent to 13.29, though it did manage to win one more seat and increase its West Bengal tally to two.

The Trinamool then went on to wrest the Calcutta Municipal Corporation from the Left Front. This was the first time in 30 years that the Marxists had suffered such a defeat.

Which is why the Trinamool are not too worried about the fact that, when the party was formed, only 19 of the 82 Congress MLAs joined them.

"We are sure we and our allies will get at least 180 seats in the assembly election next year," says Calcutta's confident mayor Subrata Mukherjee.

But Suman Chattopadhay, editor of the leading Bengali newspaper, Anand Bazaar Patrika, sounds a note of caution. He believes the fact that the Congress has been able to retain 10 to 12 per cent of the vote does not augur well for Mamta or her party.

A senior Trinamool leader disagrees, "We know we will gain a certain per cent of the vote if we ally with the Congress. But then, we will lose the BJP, who have a good per cent of the vote bank. It does not make sense to ally with the Congress at the cost of giving up the BJP. That is why we planned for a Mahajot (a grand alliance between the Congress, the BJP and the Trinamool) against the Left Front government. But the Congress did not agree."

Political experts believe the Congress lost its credibility as an Opposition party when -- after the fall of the H D Deve Gowda government in April 1997 -- they lobbied with the Left Front in an attempt to form a government at the Centre. And, in April 1999, when the Vajpayee government collapsed, the Congress and Left Front held unsuccessful talks about forming the new government.

Mamta Banerjee Mamta successfully filled that void, points out Subrota Mukherjee. "Mamta Banerjee has proved to the people of Bengal that she is the only Opposition leader who can take on the Left Front government. This is because of her approach towards people and their problems. No other Opposition leader has been able to do this in West Bengal."

But Pradip Bhattacharya, general secretary of the West Bengal Pradesh Congress Committee, believes the Congress cannot be factored out. "Nobody can rule out the Congress in West Bengal," he says. "We are surely going to play a decisive role in the formation of the next government in West Bengal, like we did in Bihar."

Mamta, though, is not willing to give her former party even that much leeway. In her book, Trinamool, she says: 'You are aware that, for a long period of time, at the behest of the lords of Delhi, a section of the political leadership of the Congress in West Bengal have compromised the interest of the party in the state. Be it admission of their wards in medical and engineering colleges, or winning a seat in the Rajya Sabha election (by indirect franchise), or obtaining a lucrative government contract, they have willfully neglected the responsibilities of a constructive Opposition party for the spoils of office.'

The Calcutta-born Mamta has a string of degrees including B Ed, M A, Ph D and LLB from varied educational institutions including Calcutta University, the Jogesh Chandra Choudhury College of Law and the US-based East Georgia University.

The last-named proved fodder for Jyoti Basu who insisted there was no such university. He accused her of cheating people called her a "420." Mamta promptly doubled that figure, called him an "840" counter-accused him of looting the state in the name of the poor.

Their dislike for each other plunges to such depths that the Trinamool boycotted Basu's exit ceremony.

A political commentator points out that Mamta might lose much of her steam now that Basu is not longer on the scene. "Mamta will have to change her strategy for next year's election. Her focus so far has been on corruption and the decay of West Bengal. Now, she will have to evolve a new strategy."

Banerjee disagrees. "The Trinamool's prospects, or election plank, is not dependent on Jyoti Basu. The people of Bengal want to get rid of the misrule of the Left Front that has been going on for more than two decades now."

Mamta, who the Trinamool believes, will give the state a new dawn, comes from a middle-class family. She first made her mark with a stunning victory over CPI-M heavyweight Somnath Chatterjee in the 1984 parliamentary election, when the Indira sympathy wave swept the country.

Now, she has an equally tough task in the state election next year. Political experts have termed Mamta an urban phenomenon because the Trinamool has not been able to make inroads in rural areas, thanks to the strong foundation laid down by CPI-M cadres. And, according to available statistics, 216 of West Bengal's assembly seats fall in rural areas, 64 in urban areas with the remaining 14 falling in what is called mixed areas.

Pankaj Banerjee, a senior Trinamool leader, refutes the observation. "This is not true. Our party is very influential in rural areas too. The problem is that the CPI-M rigs elections. The entire state machinery is with them. We cannot win elections in rural areas until the CPI-M stops rigging election."

PART IV: 'In Bengal, ministers have become redundant'

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