This time around Mamata Banerjee has to play on a larger arena — balancing between protecting her home turf while moving the chess pieces on the national board
TV channels and reporters covering the political violence in West Bengal this week were calling it “unprecedented”. Many of them are young journalists who may not have seen or remember the turbulent years of the seventies and eighties to know this was just a replay of the old Left and Trinamool street-fighting scenes of that era. However, one had not seen such an aggressive form of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in Bengal before this. Also, remarkable was the “over the top” reaction of the state police in the use of reinforced barricades, water-cannons, tear-gas, and lathi-charge usually reserved for countering agitations of a much larger scale. The police’s actions, which could not have happened without a ‘go ahead’ nod from the highest levels of the government, betrayed a level of nervousness in the state administration.
There were allegations from the Trinamool Congress (TMC) about the BJP mobilising people from the neighbouring states of Jharkhand and Bihar to take part in the protests as its own cadre-base in West Bengal was limited. At the same time, some senior Bengali journalists and video clips on social media channels averred claims of substantial local participation. The senior leadership of state BJP displayed a united front. Among them, leader of Opposition in the state Assembly, Suvendu Adhikari, the party’s state president Dr Sukanta Manjumdar and Member of Parliament Locket Chatterjee, national vice president and MP Dilip Ghosh were on the front-front. There were several layers of back-up so that even after the first line was taken into preventive custody there was no let-up in the demonstrations.
Notwithstanding the police action, reaction of Mamata Banerjee and the party has been rather muted. There has been some attempt to pin the blame on the BJP with pictures of agitators attacking policemen. Abhishek Banerjee, the national general secretary of TMC and Mamata Banerjee’s nephew, made a controversial gesture hinting that the police exercised restraint by not resorting to firing. Banerjee herself complimented the police for controlling the volatile situation without taking any extreme measures. A TMC Member of Parliament on a TV show drew comparisons with the Yogi Adityanath government’s use of bulldozers to raze homes of rioters in Uttar Pradesh to ward off criticisms about the West Bengal police. But beyond that, Mamata Banerjee and her party functionaries did not display her characteristic aggression towards Narendra Modi and Amit Shah after any such altercation with the BJP. This defensiveness in her attitude is hard to miss.
The ostensible excuse for the BJP’s show of strength was the allegation of corruption against various TMC leaders and the scams that have been unearthed by the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) and the Enforcement Directorate (ED) implicating party leaders Partha Chatterjee and Anubrata Mandal. Of greater concern has been the ongoing investigations against Abhishek Banerjee and his wife, which are too close to home for Banerjee’s comfort. Though Partha Chatterjee has been suspended from the party, Mamata Banerjee came out with a very strong statement in support of Anubrata (aka Keshto) bordering on defying the remit of investigating agencies.
However, political posturing and bravado apart there is a palpable sense of unease among her senior colleagues in the party. After the arrests of Partha Chatterjee and Anubrata Mondal a message has registered among the TMC honchos that none are ‘untouchable’ for the ED and CBI any longer. Mamata Banerjee has expressed apprehensions of her own arrest and exhorted her followers to come out on the streets in such an eventuality. Though that may be an exercise in painting a doomsday scenario to arouse public sympathy, there is also a genuine concern about the turn the investigations may take if any of the accused try to implicate her or her nephew in the alleged scams. Besides, there is also a crisis of public credibility. It is difficult to brush aside pictures of the cash hauls from the home of Partha Chatterjee’s associate Arpita Chatterjee. Similarly, Anubrata Mandal’s reputation as a history-sheeter precedes his arrest. Therefore, defending them would be to defend the indefensible.
Second, in an interesting development after the 2021 polls, the CPM (Communist Party of India – Marxist) has been showing signs of revival. Under the new leadership of Md Salim, it has been trying to chip away the anti-TMC constituency vacated and those who had turned towards the BJP but feel let down by the meltdown of its state unit after the electoral setback. This is not good news for TMC — because a three-way fight and a division in the minority votes would weaken its present dominance. Also, the CPI-M being a cadre-based party may be able to build up a resistance in forthcoming panchayat elections, in which the TMC will have to battle strong anti-incumbency. Losing its grip in the panchayats would also affect its prospects in the Lok Sabha elections of 2024.
The third element of anxiety for Mamata Banerjee is the rise of other contenders in the national Opposition space. After 2021, Mamata Banerjee and Arvind Kejriwal were billed as the two potential challengers of Narendra Modi in 2024. Since then, other stars have emerged in the firmament in the form of K Chandrashekar Rao (KCR) of the Telangana Rashtra Samithi (TRS) and recently Nitish Kumar. Trinamool’s debacle in Goa and unsuccessful foray into Tripura has been dampeners in the plans for expanding its national footprint. Banerjee’s attempt to play a lead role in selecting Opposition candidates for the elections of President and Vice President turned out to be a poor show.
Meanwhile, Congress with its Bharat Jodo Yatra has indicated that it is in no mood to surrender its place as the principal Opposition party and is determined to make Rahul Gandhi the prima donna in any anti-Modi configuration. This puts a check on Mamata Banerjee’s pan-India ambitions and restricts her primarily to West Bengal.
Does this mean “Khela Hobe – Season 2” has started in Bengal. Without doubt Mamata Banerjee is one of the most astute politicians in the country. Above all, she is a fighter gifted with exceptional political instincts. However, this time around she has to play on a larger arena — balancing between protecting her home turf while moving the chess pieces on the national board. Because, 2024 could be her “Ebar (now) or Never” moment to bid for the top job in Delhi.
The author is a current affairs commentator, marketer, blogger and leadership coach, who tweets at @SandipGhose. Views expressed are personal.
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