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Adhir tough on Mamata, Rahul soft — how the Congress cornered itself in Bengal

Ever since it severed ties with the TMC, the Congress has found itself in a dilemma in Bengal. With no tall state leaders now, that nervousness is showing.

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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.

Also read: Abbas Siddiqui’s dilemma—bring Muslims from TMC and still be secular enough for Left-Congress

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.

Also read: With CBI at Mamata’s family doorstep, BJP got what it wanted in Bengal — a dynasty issue

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.

Also read: How BJP became TMC’s challenger in Bengal, wooing elite and working-class Hindus

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)

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  1. The author mostly emphasizes on “will congress get Muslim votes?”. It appears that meeting Muslim aspirations should be the core theme of the party. The Communist government only caused misery in all countries world over. Even in states like Bengal, Tripura. Kerala is prosperous mainly because of the Keralites migrated to other countries, worked in inhuman conditions and sent back US$. Why is Congress joining them? Both are looking for survival in Bengal. Let us wait for a day more.

  2. Why every time Media is posting only the news about the decline of both Congress and Communist the media althrough their history never supported Communist now they have started posting against Congress also is it because the Media is being well paid by BJP, TMC or likewise parties it has to be accepted that Media is no longer impartial and the days have gone when Media is supposed to be the fourth pillar of our constitution

    It will not accepted by anybody now but I am sure that a hung assembly will be seen on 2nd of May 2020 after counting of votes because it is to noted as thought by all it will not be straight fight between TMC and BJP but it will be there cornered fight between LEFT leader United Front consisting of Congress and ISF, TMC, and BJP and all three groups will get more or less 93-94( + / – 10 seats on either sides)

  3. Rahul Gandhi is a pan India leader, is unlike Modi who is Hindi heart land leader. Rahul’s Vission of sonar Bangla is aptly correct. Rahul is not a one individual, he is vission of Indian Sub-continent.Rahul is dedicated empowerment of women, that is the reason why he developed soft Conner for Didi. Unlike BJP who are misogynist. What BJP did for the country. The vision of Rahul is all pervading. BJP engine is sent to Motor garage for “BORRING”. By 2024 BJP will insgnificant.

  4. Public perception is that he is a Pappu.
    Sold out media like The Print try very hard to build an image of him like some modern avatar of Kennedy with Einstein like intellect – which is fine. However, it’s extremely difficult to change public perception.
    But the biggest hurdle of all ……..and the unfortunate reality is …………..he actually is a Pappu!!!

  5. Congress has not been able to pull itself together after the 2019 defeat. Though it is the only other national party with a rich history, today’s Congress is no match to BJP. It will be a great pity if India becomes a single party ‘democracy’. It does not look like Congress even with its competent and sensible stalwarts has dismally failed the citizens and our hopes of it rising again as a credible alternative have been dashed. What could be the alternative. Perhaps we should look for regional leaders like Mamata ruling states with efficiency. The states become stronger and demand and get more power and freedom. It should be a truly federal system with no one person or party becoming as powerful as has become now. Each state could elect a leader to the central cabinet who will look after the interests of the state without infringing on the rights and freedom of other states. It would need a little tweaking of the constitution. Any amendments will have to be approved by a 2/3 majority of the states where the legislatures approve with 2/3 majority. Then changing the provisions of the constitution at the will of a strong man/party will not be possible unless it is acceptable to all the states. An alternative Mody is not likely in the foreseeable future. If if such a person materialises we my be leaping from the frying pan to the fire.

    • Haha this is really funny “It would need a little tweaking of the constitution.” Yeah, like adding “socialist” and “secular” to it. Tiny, tiny little tweaks. “Changing the provisions of the constitution at the will of a strong man/party will not be possible unless it is acceptable to all the states.” Dear Sir, Constitutional change requires 2/3 majority in both houses of the Parliament and does not happen by one person’s will. The party which has full majority at the Centre has followed every rule of electoral Constitutional provisions and is there by the WILL OF THE PEOPLE, just as your darling other parties were for 70-odd years. So no, the Constitution has not changed, the PEOPLE OF INDIA have voted in a different party, and you will respect the mandate of the PEOPLE and not conspire to ‘tweak the Constitution’ to serve your whims and fancies. If anyone is talking like a megalomaniac, YOU are. And irrespective of your political affiliation, since you are capable enough to discuss “tweaking the Constitution” I would assume you would be able to spell the four-alphabets-only surname of the Prime Minister correctly. Don’t be petty, and don’t hate the players. If you want to win the national elections and ‘tweak the Constitution’ you need to bring your A game and impress the voters first, and then get FULL MAJORITY covering all the states that you wish to empower. Good luck.

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