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Bengal Elections: With Once-Trusted Lieutenants Training Guns At Mamata Banerjee, TMC is Hit By Desertions

File photo of West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee.

File photo of West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee.

The TMC has so far tried to put up a brave face whenever its leaders switched camps, maintaining that the desertions would not hurt the party.

This weekend, January 30 and 31, West Bengal will likely stay glued to TV news channels to see who are the latest Trinamool Congress (TMC) leaders leaving the Mamata Banerjee camp and switching over to the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which is hoping to topple the TMC chief’s 10-year regime in the state.

This explains why Union Home Minister Amit Shah’s public rallies in Thakurnagar, Bongaon (January 30) and Dumurjala, Howrah (January 31) have been generating a great deal of curiosity. At his last public rally in Bengal, on December 19, a TMC Lok Sabha MP and six MLAs joined the BJP, which included Mamata Banerjee’s former lieutenant, Suvendu Adhikary. There is buzz that a few more TMC MLAs are going to switch sides in Shah’s presence during the next two days.

The TMC has so far tried to put up a brave face whenever its leaders switched sides, maintaining that the desertions would not hurt the party. The TMC cites two reasons—the party contests elections in Mamata Banerjee’s name and every candidate wins because of her appeal, and those leaving the party had already remained inactive for a while, allowing the party to find suitable replacements.

Contesting in Modi’s name

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The TMC leaders are right and wrong at the same time. While it is true that the TMC leaders, at least most of them, win in Mamata Banerjee’s name and not because of their personal charisma, there is now another name that these leaders can use to win elections—that of Narendra Modi.

That contesting elections in Modi’s name works in Bengal was evident in the 2019 Lok Sabha elections, when TMC Lok Sabha MP Saumitra Khan won from Bishnupur (Bankura district) on a BJP ticket despite being unable to campaign in most parts of his constituency due to a court order prohibiting his entry in the district. Four-time TMC MLA Arjun Singh took on Mamata Banerjee and won on a BJP ticket defeating TMC veteran Dinesh Trivedi; similarly, in Cooch Behar, TMC’s expelled youth wing leader Nishith Pramanik won on a BJP ticket.

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It is evident that the TMC is not taking this issue lightly. The party carried out a prolonged discussion with Adhikary to resolve his grievances, and after the heavyweight youth leader jumped ship, Mamata Banerjee decided to contest from Adhikary’s Assembly constituency, Nandigram.

There is another factor to consider—not all leaders deserting the TMC have a poor image, as is being claimed by the party. Leaders with certain perceivable popularity have also left the party along with their supporters.

Rajib Banerjee, for example, who has resigned from the Mamata Banerjee-led cabinet, hinting at the possibility of joining the BJP, has a rather clean image. His name has not come up in any scam, nor does he have the reputation of being a loud mouth. The same is true for Cooch Behar Dakshin MLA Mihir Goswami.

An uphill task

So far, the TMC has lost MLAs Subhrangshu Roy, Biswajit Das, Sunil Singh, Wilson Champramary, Dulal Bar, Sabyasachi Dutta, Sovan Chatterjee, Monirul Islam, Arindam Bhattacharya, Mihir Goswami, Biswajit Kundu, Dipali Biswas, Saikat Panja, Shilbhadra Dutta, Sukra Munda and Banashree Maiti to the BJP.

Because of these desertions, Mamata Banerjee will now have to spend more time in these constituencies, especially the high-profile ones. For instance, she would have liked spending less time in East Midnapore district had Suvendu Adhikary not left. The Adhikary family, which controls the politics in the district, has disassociated from the TMC. The Adhikary family includes two Lok Sabha MPs, Sisir and Dibyendu, and a former civic chief, Soumendu. While Soumendu Adhikary has already joined the BJP, speculations are rife about Dibyendu taking the same route; octogenarian Sisir Adhikary may retire from active politics.

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Howrah, a TMC stronghold, could also demand more of Mamata Banerjee’s time after the recent desertions. Her January 25 speech in Pursurah in Hooghly district betrayed the party's anxieties. Pursurah’s former TMC MLA Parvez Rahman has recently joined the BJP. Addressing fence-sitters, Banerjee said, “Those who want to go (to the BJP), be quick, the train is going to leave.”

The uncertainty over who’s going to stay and who is going to leave is affecting the party’s plan of entrusting leaders with responsibilities. “You are fleeing out of fear of not getting a ticket in the elections,” she said. This might not be entirely true, as it is difficult to believe the party would have denied tickets to Suvendu Adhikary or Rajib Banerjee.

A two-pronged strategy

The TMC has adopted a two-pronged strategy to deal with the problem. When Birbhum MP Shatabdi Roy hinted on Facebook that she might quit the party and join the BJP due to unaddressed grievances, TMC leader (and Banerjee’s nephew) Abhishek Banerjee promptly held discussions with her, following which Roy said she would stay with the party. Returning her gesture, the party appointed her as one of the state unit vice-presidents. Similarly, the party promptly resolved the grievances of Howrah MP Prasun Banerjee.

However, when MLA Vaishali Dalmiya, daughter of former cricket administrator Jagmohan Dalmiya, criticised the party during a live television debate, the party immediately expelled her. It also acted promptly in show-causing its Uttarpara MLA Prabir Ghoshal after he criticised the party’s district leadership at a press conference. The TMC, though, is yet to take disciplinary action against former Howrah mayor Rathin Chakraborty, who too has taken digs at the party.

Vote-bank worries

These desertions are coming at a time when the TMC needed to consolidate its organisation to save itself from the two issues troubling the party—a polarisation of Hindu votes (and also anti-TMC votes) in favour of the BJP and a groundswell of anti-incumbency against the TMC leaders running panchayats and municipalities due to high-handedness and various malpractices, including corruption and nepotism. These trends became evident in the 2018 panchayat elections and the 2019 Lok Sabha elections.

The TMC’s game plan was to win back some of its lost Hindu votes while retaining, or further strengthening, its Muslim vote-bank. However, with the entry of the Hyderabad-based All India Majlis Ittehad e Muslimeen (AIMIM) in the Bengal poll fray and the launch of a new party by influential Muslim cleric Abbas Siddiqui, things may not go as planned. Both the AIMIM and Siddiqui have targeted Mamata Banerjee for not doing anything for the Muslims, except paying lip-service.

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In a neck-and-neck fight, these desertions could affect the TMC, swinging some crucial votes in favour of its opponents. In the 2019 Lok Sabha elections, the TMC’s vote share (43.3%) was merely three percentage points more than the BJP’s (40.25%). Of the state’s 294 Assembly constituencies, the TMC was leading in 164, the BJP in 121 and the Congress in 9.

Although the difference in vote share increased to eight percentage points in the Assembly by-elections for the three seats six months later, no party is reading it as a benchmark, more so because there was no Modi or Shah in the scene at that time, and the polls were held before the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) was passed.

The CAA has found support among a large section of the migrant Hindu population from Bangladesh who were scared of a citizenship screening exercise in the style of Assam and that fear had reflected in the by-election results.

As of now, some of the TMC’s prominent faces are playing leading roles in the BJP’s Bengal campaign—former railway minister and Mamata’s right-hand-man Mukul Roy, former minister Suvendu Adhikary, MPs Saumitra Khan and Arjun Singh, former Kolkata mayor Sovan Chatterjee, and Rajarhat MLA Sabyasachi Dutta, to name a few.

Roy and Adhikary had been instrumental in getting several Left and Congress MLAs to defect to the TMC between 2012 and 2019. With her two key lieutenants, seasoned in political poaching, now training guns at her, there are reasons for Mamata Banerjee and the TMC to worry.

Disclaimer:Snigdhendu Bhattacharya is a Kolkata-based journalist and author of the recently-published book, ‘Mission Bengal: A Saffron Experiment’. Views are personal.

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