The winds of change continue to blow across West Bengal, and, contrary to the CPM’s claims, have shown no signs of weakening. Mamata Banerjee’s Trinamool Congress swept the polls to 81 civic bodies across the state, dashing the revival dream of Marxists. She also dealt a severe blow to the Congress, which had wanted far more seats in Kolkata than Mamata was willing to concede, thus leading to the breakdown of the alliance between the two parties in West Bengal. The civic polls, projected as the semi-final before Assembly elections next year, have established that people of the state, cutting across all sections, see in Mamata a viable alternative to the Left that has ruled Bengal for 33 years now.
Trinamool’s spectacular showing in Kolkata, including in the upper-middle-class pockets of the city, has shattered the myth that Mamata is popular among only rural folk and the urban poor.
For the CPM, which suffered a humiliating drubbing in last year’s Lok Sabha polls, these results have crushed all hopes of substantially regaining lost ground. That the Trinamool would post these results, and that too without an alliance with the Congress, was beyond the careful calculations of the party leadership. The results have also given the lie to the CPM’s claims that its ongoing ‘rectification’ drive has helped the party re-connect with Bengal’s alienated masses.
And crucially, these results have shown that it is not because of an alliance between the Congress and Trinamool, but because of its deep unpopularity among all sections of society, that the CPM-led Left Front suffered setbacks last year. As for the Congress, which took the civic polls as an expedition to test its solo acceptance among the people, the results have put it at the mercy of Mamata who may well reject any offer of an alliance before the Assembly polls—at best, she would give the party only a few seats to contest. The Congress can now only rue its decision to go it alone in the civic polls.
A preliminary analysis of the results shows that the Trinamool and Congress would, no doubt, have bagged more seats had the two been allies. In many wards where the Left, especially CPM, candidates won, the winning margins were slender. In their strongholds, too, the Left’s victories have been very close and the Trinamool and Congress candidates’ combined votes outnumber the Left’s. “The results have shown that the people of Bengal have chosen Mamata Banerjee as their leader. They’ve accepted her appeal that the fight is between the Trinamool and the Left, and other parties (read: the Congress) don’t matter. The results are a huge setback to both the CPM and Congress,” Trinamool leader Partha Chatterjee tells Open.
Congress leaders acknowledge this. “The people of Bengal didn’t vote for us. We will try our best to enter into an alliance with the Trinamool before the Assembly polls,” says Congress’ state working president, Pradip Bhattacharyya. Mamata Banerjee’s campaign against the Congress, accusing it of going it alone just to help the CPM by splitting anti-Left votes, seems to have struck a chord among the masses.
“There’s no doubt that voters have ignored the Congress, which could not shake off the popular perception that it has always had a secret pact with the CPM. Some Congress leaders like Pranab Mukherjee are perceived to be close to the CPM. And when they launched scathing attacks against Mamata, as Pranab did in Congress bastions like Ranaghat, the electorate rejected them and voted overwhelmingly for the Trinamool. Trinamool’s gains have been the CPM’s and Congress’ loss,” says a Congress leader who does not want to be named. The results are a personal setback to Pranab Mukherjee, who was confident that the Congress would put up a respectable show, and hence be in a good bargaining position vis-à-vis the Trinamool before the Assembly polls. “Now, we will have to accept whatever little Mamata gives us. An alliance with Mamata is crucial to our survival now. If we don’t join hands with Mamata, we’ll be wiped out next year,” the Congress leader, who is a prominent MLA, adds. Congress’ marginalisation would be particularly galling to Pranab Mukherjee, who had campaigned extensively.
But that’s nothing compared to the feeling of frustration that has overcome the CPM. Party leaders have been trying to tell people that they’re serious about cleansing the party and correcting all mistakes it had committed. But the electorate was clearly not impressed. The CPM’s attempt to drive a wedge very cleverly and subtly between the Congress and Trinamool didn’t work as the anti-Left votes largely coalesced in support of Mamata.
The CPM’s campaign to highlight Mamata’s alleged failings as Railway Minister cut no ice either. Its perception that the urban middle- and upper-middle classes would reject Mamata for her disruptive politics and alleged lack of administrative acumen proved unfounded. Their attempt to link Mamata with Maoists didn’t impress voters. “Nothing we said and did worked. We can’t fathom how intelligent people can vote for Mamata… how educated and politically aware people can accept a leader who has no clear vision for Bengal and raises only emotive and shallow slogans. We understood people want change, and we had tried to project ourselves as a party that has changed and can bring about a change in Bengal’s fortunes, but that didn’t work,” a senior CPM state committee member admits. He acknowledges that his party’s defeat in the Assembly polls seems inevitable: “The turnaround that we were expecting didn’t happen, at least not to the extent we calculated.”
While going by current trends, it would be tempting to predict a robust victory for Mamata in the Assembly polls, a lot would depend on how her party runs affairs in the civic boards it has won, including the Kolkata Municipal Corporation. A lot would also depend on how she and her partymen conduct themselves. In the public eye, Mamata has already mellowed down a lot and has been behaving responsibly. She has dumped her earlier disruptive brand of politics and appears more tolerant. She has a team of eminent persons, comprising prominent academics, ex-bureaucrats and intellectuals who advise her and help shape her policies.
But there’s also a wild and unreasonable streak in her, as was evident after last week’s Jnaneswari Express disaster when she blamed a “political conspiracy” (hinting at CPM involvement) for the accident, ignoring the overwhelming evidence of Maoist involvement in the sabotage. There’s also the chance that if not Mamata, at least sections in her party would become arrogant now and take victory in the next polls for granted, precisely the mistake that the CPM had made.
That’s why, say political observers, it would have been good for the state if a Trinamool-Congress alliance had swept the civic polls instead of only the Trinamool doing so. The haughtiness and over-confidence that can result from clean sweeps, like the one posted by the Left Front in the 2006 Assembly polls (it won 235 of the 295 seats) before it kept committing one blunder after another, is still fresh in people’s minds. The presence of a partner would have been a sobering influence on the Trinamool. Without it, it could sabotage its own chances in the finals.