Rajya Sabha offer to Congress is a Mamata Banerjee masterplan, but rising Hindutva may play spoilsport
From Mamata Banerjee’s point of view, an understanding with Congress in West Bengal and at the national level makes sense because BJP is emerging as the biggest threat to her party
The recent developments in West Bengal over the Rajya Sabha nominations have highlighted some emerging political re-alignments which may prove crucial with panchayat elections around the corner (followed by the General Elections to Lok Sabha in 2019), and with the often-heated discussions over the growing presence of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in the state.
West Bengal will send six new representatives to the Rajya Sabha. Ruling party Trinamool Congress has already named five and has said it is ready to support Congress party’s Meira Kumar for the sixth seat. Kumar and Congress have not yet responded formally to the offer. Meanwhile, the Communist Party of India (Marxist) has turned down repeated petitions from its Bengal unit to nominate general secretary Sitaram Yechury for a third term. The BJP is, of course, out of the mix with just three MLAs in the 294-member West Bengal Assembly.
The Bengal unit of CPM has been pressing for closer ties with Congress for a while. This insistence paved the way for an informal seat-sharing agreement between the two parties during the 2016 Assembly election to make common cause against the Trinamool Congress. It didn’t succeed in making any dent in the ruling party’s electoral fortunes. Ironically, Congress emerged as the second largest party in the state, relegating the Left Front to third position, even though it had a much smaller percentage of the vote (compressed mainly in two districts).
Since then, the Bengal unit and central leadership of CPM have had disagreements over the correct political line even though the latter has stuck to its position that it does not want any political relations with Congress. TMC’s offer to Kumar must be examined in this context.
The Congress needs to put together an alliance against BJP, even though, it must be said, the way Congress has been going about it is hardly inspiring. Still, the Trinamool Congress, with its as yet solid phalanx of Lok Sabha members cannot be ignored. The CPM meets next year in Hyderabad for its party congress; it does not appear that there will be a change in its political-tactical line to accommodate Congress.
West Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee has, thus, been astute in inviting Kumar for a Bengal nomination. Her party’s five nominees are virtually sure to make the cut, unless the fifth nominee is hit by cross-voting, which is possible but not very probable. The sixth nomination is up for grabs: a candidate enjoying the support of the two Opposition parties, the CPM and Congress is sure to make the cut.
The Congress can, of course, reject the Trinamool Congress offer on legitimate grounds that it cannot nominate a former Lok Sabha speaker and a presidential candidate for a Rajya Sabha seat. But it will still have to decide its best interests keeping in mind the 2019 Lok Sabha elections. Clearly, in a purely logical sense, the national leadership of the party must have realised that its importunate courtship of the CPM is going nowhere, though it can still wait for the 2018 party congress. But even if there is a change of line, what will the CPM be able to offer the Congress? It's nowhere near the numbers that Banerjee can offer. And, of course, they will have to fight each other in Kerala.
From Banerjee’s point of view, an understanding with Congress in West Bengal and at the national level makes sense because BJP is emerging as the biggest threat to her party because CPM’s leaders at local levels, cadres and voters are crossing over to the BJP. A lot is being said about BJP's surge in Bengal, but no tangible evidence suggesting that it has the momentum to seriously challenge the Trinamool Congress has been produced. It did well (though it still lost) in an Assembly by-election when almost the entire CPM vote got transferred to the BJP, but nothing more than that has happened electorally. Nevertheless, from Banerjee’s perspective an understanding with the Congress would make sense.
Before winding up, one must mention the number of communal 'riots' that have hit West Bengal in an unprecedented way over the last couple of years. There is little doubt that elements owing allegiance to the Sangh Parivar have had a hand in stoking these fires, as have Muslim fundamentalists.
There is no evidence, however, anywhere that the kind of Hindu consolidation, which helped BJP come to power in some states in northern India, is taking place in Bengal. Nevertheless, from a broad perspective, it would be unwise to be complacent. In the interests of all concerned, therefore, Banerjee has to crack down hard on all the fundamentalists who are indulging in 'competitive communalism'.
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