Rahul Gandhi has said no more rallies in West Bengal. But the truth is, there is no Congress in the state anymore. As the assembly election finally draws to a close, the Grand Old Party has remained just that — old and largely unsung. Every conversation is now about the Trinamool Congress and the Bharatiya Janata Party.
The tall leaders of the Congress in Bengal have either gone or died. The Congress is now riding piggyback on the Left and attacking Mamata Banerjee’s TMC. It is even trying to insinuate a ‘secret pact’ between the BJP and the TMC.
But the Congress’ problems didn’t start this election. It is seeing a slow and steady decline, and a number of unsuccessful relationships in Bengal. The party lacks clarity on its stand on the TMC, its voters are switching allegiance and its national and state leaders are sending mixed signals.
Congress’ base and its ruin
In Bengal, North Dinajpur, Malda and Murshidabad were the traditional strongholds of the Congress. Muslims, the majority population in these three districts, rallied around heavyweight Congress leaders such as A.B.A. Ghani Khan Choudhury in Malda and Priya Ranjan Dasmunsi in North Dinajpur, and later, Adhir Ranjan Chowdhury in Murshidabad. The leaders could provide them with the security that minorities look for, even when their party was not in power. Through these three leaders, the poor youth got jobs too.
Later, Pranab Mukherjee, with two Lok Sabha terms from Jangipur (Murshidabad), tried to meet the aspirations of the voters.
After the demise of Dasmunsi, Ghani Khan Choudhury and Pranab Mukherjee, the mantle passed on to Adhir Chowdhury. But with no access to power in both the Centre and in the state, the Congress increasingly became vulnerable and could hardly provide succour to the people who voted for it. Moreover, the 2018 panchayat election saw the Congress unable to provide security to its candidates and supporters in the face of attacks by alleged TMC goons. So, the Muslims started looking for support elsewhere, and the ruling TMC came in handy.
To create holes in the otherwise impregnable fortress of the Congress in these three districts, the TMC started engineering defections and found that the voters were willing to shift allegiance. As India sees more and more religious polarisation before elections, the BJP’s chances of making serious inroads in these three districts will rise if the Muslim vote gets divided between the Congress-Left and the TMC. It is not for nothing that Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath recently campaigned in these areas and declared that the selling of beef and running of illegal abattoirs would be banned once the BJP came to power.
According to Tahedi Islam, who runs a small social organisation in Murshidabad, the campaign tone of the Congress betrays the nervousness of Adhir Chowdhury as he tries to impress upon the Muslim voter that Mamata Banerjee has not done anything meaningful for them.
“Adhir babu‘s shrill campaign reflects some sort of anxiety,” Islam observed.
A confusing strategy
There seem to be two slightly divergent political lines that are being pursued by the state Congress and its national leaders in the Bengal campaign.
True to their Left allies, Adhir Chowdhury, Abdul Mannan and other state leaders are sharply attacking the ruling TMC, and bracketing both the BJP and the TMC as equally dangerous. But national leaders of the Congress are speaking less and less about Mamata Banerjee.
Samirul Islam, the president of the Bangla Sanskriti Mancha, a social organisation engaged in campaigning for “No Votes to BJP” in Malda, Murshidabad and Birbhum, is apprehensive of this trend in state Congress leaders.
“This has given birth to a lot of speculations about Adhir Chowdhury’s future political career,” Samirul said.
But a school teacher and author from Malda (who does not want to be identified) has a different take. The Congress high command has other priorities at the national level for which they need the TMC. Rahul Gandhi, in his two meetings at Darjeeling and North Dinajpur, went hammer and tongs at the BJP and Modi government, but kept a relatively low tone while talking about the Mamata government. Like Samirul and Tahedi, the Malda teacher also feels that the Congress is likely to be mauled badly in the elections and both the BJP and the TMC will be beneficiaries.
“The Congress is a spent force now. We are firmly with the TMC,” Tarikul Islam, a social worker in Malda, told me.
Murshidabad is the last bastion of Congress where Adhir Ranjan Chowdhury is still holding fort. But, the TMC has been systematically chipping away at the Congress — taking MLAs and elected representatives of panchayat bodies.
National purpose or state fight
Ever since it severed ties with the Trinamool Congress, the Congress has found itself in a dilemma.
The Congress had lent its full support to Mamata Banerjee during the 2009 Lok Sabha and 2011 assembly elections to end the 34-year Left rule in Bengal. It even allowed itself to be a minor partner of the TMC in electoral battles. But Mamata Banerjee did not allow the Congress political/electoral space in south Bengal where more than 200 assembly constituencies are located. Thus, the Congress was reduced to a political force with influence only in north Bengal. Subrata Mukherjee, the only heavyweight Congress leader in south Bengal, realised this and promptly left the Congress and joined the TMC. With its vote bank on a steady decline, the Congress was doubly disadvantaged as it found itself often working at cross purposes with its national leadership.
Sonia Gandhi’s occasional parleys with Mamata Banerjee on national issues do put the state Congress leaders in an uneasy position. Malda MP Abu Hasem Khan Choudhury, brother of late Ghani Khan Choudhury, recently said that his party (Congress) should support the TMC in forming government if the need arose. It was promptly ruled out by state president Adhir Chowdhury.
But is the alliance such a far-flung idea? Look at the Maha Vikas Aghadi government in Maharashtra. The Congress joined hands with the Shiv Sena and the Nationalist Congress Party solely to keep the BJP away.
In Bengal, the low-key criticism of Mamata and high-pitched attack on Modi and the BJP by Rahul Gandhi should be seen in this light. Despite their hatred of Mamata, state Congress leaders would have little option but to eat humble pie if the post-poll scenario offers the Congress such an opportunity to stave off the BJP.
Already the Congress high command has shown signs of reigning the state leaders in. Adhir Chowdhury was unceremoniously removed from his post as leader of the party in Lok Sabha. His removal was announced after his unsympathetic comment on Mamata Banerjee meeting with an accident during campaigning. The Congress and Adhir Chowdhury later denied this with the party saying it was a temporary move to let the leader concentrate on the Bengal election. To pour fuel on Adhir’s agony, Mamata Banerjee recently shot off a letter addressing Sonia Gandhi and other opposition leaders proposing a joint nationwide movement against the BJP. Add to that, the RSS has already arrived in north Bengal in a big way in 2019.
The Congress has been caught between the pincer movements of the BJP and the TMC. Can the Left resuscitate it in Bengal?
The author is a journalist and political analyst. Views are personal.
(Edited by Neera Majumdar)