TMC targets Gandhi in Parliament: Why this is a huge deal and what it means for Bengal politics

The shards of a broken relationship were strewn all over the Rajya Sabha floor when Trinamool Congress on Monday sought to corner the Congress over the AgustaWestland chopper scam. And the seeds of a possible realignment in Bengal politics were also sown in those very few minutes.

As TMC MP Sukhendu Shekhar Roy rose during the Zero Hour to demand from the treasury benches why the government is silent on 'AP', 'Gandhi' (an apparent reference to Sonia Gandhi and her political advisor Ahmed Patel in the 225-page Italian court judgment) and who the alleged bribe takers were in the VVIP chopper scam, it marked the official break-up of one of the most long-standing relationships in the rough and tumble of Indian politics.

File photo of Mamata Banerjee and Sonia Gandhi. AFP

File photo of Mamata Banerjee and Sonia Gandhi. AFP

If the Congress president had this polling season taken the first step by sacrificing a personal bond at the altar of political compulsions, Mamata Banerjee completed the final rites on Monday.

To understand the significance of what happened yesterday, we have to go back several decades when a young, spunky, firebrand Mamata was still earning her political stripes as a youth Congress leader under the tutelage of Rajiv Gandhi.

Having entered politics at the age of 15, Mamata quickly rose up the ranks. She was made the state Mahila Congress leader in late 1970s. But it wasn't until the 1980s when Mamata achieved real fame, having defeated the formidable Somnath Chatterjee in the 1984 Lok Sabha elections.

That victory also sparked a special bond with then Congress President Rajiv Gandhi who made her the All India Youth Congress general secretary and came to her aid every time she ran into trouble with party colleagues in West Bengal — be it the Somen Mitra or the Priya Ranjan Dasmunshi factions. (Trysts with Democracy: Political Practice in South Asia by Stig Toft Madsen, Kenneth Bo Nielsen, Uwe Skoda. Anthem Press, 2011).

The assassination of Rajiv Gandhi and the events thereafter forced Mamata to float Trinamool Congress in 1998 (she understood that Congress was too compromised to uproot the Left Front in Bengal) but she never forgot Rajiv's contribution in her career.

"When it comes to Rajiv Gandhi, I have always been led by very strong sentiments," she writes in her autobiography (Mamata Banerjee: My Unforgettable Memories, Roli Books, 2012).
Last year, during the former Prime Minister's 24th death anniversary, the TMC supremo tweeted: "Fondly remembering Rajiv Gandhi ji on the day he left us. Gone but not forgotten."

Mamata's ties with 10 Janpath, the official residence of the Gandhis, never came under strain and was untouched by the vagaries of time of political compulsions.

She maintained a cordial relationship with Sonia Gandhi even as a Union minister in the Atal Bihari Vajpayee government. In the wake of Operation West End — a sting by Tehelka's Mathew Samuel showing BJP President Bangaru Laxman accepting cash for a defence deal — when Mamata left the NDA cabinet in a huff, she promptly turned to Sonia and struck a pre-poll alliance with Congress for the 2001 Bengal Assembly polls.

"I have not met her for a long time and I will enquire after her well being since she was not keeping well. I have got a personal relationship with her," Mamata had said in 2012 just ahead of the Presidential polls, one of the many times she has acknowledged the attachment.

There have been ebbs and flows in the bond, as in any other but Mamata always called upon Sonia whenever she visited Delhi, a fact brought up by Narendra Modi during poll campaigns this year.

"Even if she (Mamata) remains absent from the Chief Ministers' meeting, she never fails to call on to Sonia Gandhi. In fact, whenever she comes to Delhi, Mamata didi makes it a point to visit Sonia ji and seek her blessings. They even pose for photos together," taunted Modi.

In August last year, when the Bengal Chief Minister was in Delhi to seek flood assistance from the Prime Minister, she called upon the Congress president in the central hall of the Parliament House. While Mamata complimented her for giving the BJP a good fight, Sonia is understood to have said she had learnt this from the Trinamool supremo.

If Mamata showed reverence, Sonia was careful never to criticise her on public platforms. Until last month, that is.

In rallies after rallies in Bengal last month Sonia tore into the Trinamool Congress chief, saying she had "forgotten all her promises." The Congress president accused Mamata of rampant corruption, lack of job creation, failing to maintain law and order and the security of women and the unkindest cut of all, she even compared the TMC chief with Narendra Modi.

"I am cautioning you that one who calls herself Didi and one who keeps raising the chant of 'NaMo NaMo' are hand in glove with each other.

“Trinamool Congress and BJP have put on different masks but they are two sides of the same coin… The nexus between Modi and Mamata is a threat for Bengal. These two powers, full of pride, are a threat for democracy…”

It could be that Sonia's hands were forced by the compulsions of an alliance with the Left Front that naturally left no space for a personal bond but there was no denying that the proverbial Rubicon was crossed.

A stung TMC was stunned into silence. When it finally came out with a reaction, the shock, pain and a sense of betrayal was evident.

"After listening to what you said in your #BengalPolls campaign meeting, you have tested the limits of our politeness and compelled us to react. How could you – how dare you, we would say – compare Mamata Banerjee to Narendra Modi?

"How could you even concoct something as devious and ridiculous as that? This is sad and unfortunate, it is also petty and speaks of political desperation. The lengths people go to, to try and score cheap points in election season," a statement issued by TMC chief national spokesperson Derek O'Brien read.

With TMC on Monday hitting Congress where it hurts the most — by mentioning Sonia Gandhi and AgustaWestland in the same sentence — indications are that Mamata Banerjee has finally moved on. She won't let personal regard interfere with her politics any more.

New alignment in Bengal politics

Other formations could be under way in the badlands of Bengal as well. At least a hint of it was revealed when BJP — who savoured TMC's attack against Congress in Rajya Sabha over VVIP chopper deal — took umbrage at the way Sukhendu Sekhar Roy was expelled from the House.

The Congress-Left Front alliance has already sealed the possibility of a "secular front" should simple majority elude any of the forces post 19 May. Mamata knows that the exclusivity of her claim over minority votes evaporated the moment CPM and Congress joined hands. Keeping that in mind, TMC's move yesterday indicates a shift in stance and an effort to keep a window open for BJP should the need arise. By raising the name of Gandhi in Rajya Sabha yesterday, TMC may have dismantled one relationship in favour of another.

Updated Date: May 03, 2016 18:48 PM

Also See