The very idea that one day West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee would publicly stand up for a statue of lenin that had been installed to commemorate the CPI(M)’s victory in Tripura in 2013 would have seemed quite preposterous until last week. Despite the ‘progressive’ streak in the Congress — from whose bosom the Trinamool Congress sprang from — the West Bengal Congress tradition was quite decisively anti-CPI(M), if not outrightly anti-left. The TMC epitomised the hardline of the anti-left tendencies, one that brooked absolutely no compromise with the left. It was this unwillingness to sup with the Marxists—unlike the national leadership of the Congress — that explained her break from the parent body in 1997. It even explained her decision to team up with the BJP from 1998 to 2006.
The wheel has come a full circle. Three days before the declaration of the Assembly results in Tripura, Mamata pointed an accusing finger at the much-diminished CPI(M) benches in the West Bengal Assembly. She openly stated that she would have liked the Reds to have prevailed in Tripura but was fearful that they had caved in meekly before the BJP onslaught. Subsequently, as the results showed a landslide for the BJP in Tripura, she accused both the CPI(M) and the Congress of ‘surrender’ to Narendra Modi. The CPI(M) was charged with not objecting to Central forces and the (quite imaginary) tinkering of the Electronic Voting Machines. And the Congress was charged with not putting up enough credible candidates to divide the anti-left votes that consolidated around the BJP. Now Mamata has offered a robust defence of lenin’s statue.
It is not as crazy as it appears. For some time, Mamata has been observing the steady collapse of the CPI(M). In 2016, the Congress-CPI(M) alliance was the main Opposition to the TMC in the West Bengal Assembly election. After that alliance’s clear defeat, both the CPI(M) and the Congress collapsed in West Bengal. The TMC ate into whatever remained of the Congress and left the CPI(M) to collapse in a heap. The two lok Sabha by-elections since 2017 demonstrated that, despite profound organisational weaknesses, the BJP had emerged as the main challenger to the TMC in West Bengal.
Ideally Mamata should have been glad that the BJP was a poor number two and that the CPI(M) was still there at number three. But the results in Tamluk and Uluberia also indicated that most of the votes lost by the CPI(M) gravitated towards the BJP. Unlike in Odisha where the crumbling vote of the third party, the Congress, moved towards the ruling Biju Janata Dal, in West Bengal the left swung to the Right.
For Mamata this was a sign of danger and it became more so after Tripura. In that Bengali-speaking North-Eastern State, the BJP quite clearly demonstrated its ability to consolidate votes against the ruling dispensation.
Most important, the BJP was able to brush aside the organisational depth of the CPI(M) and create a popular wave.
In West Bengal, all the trends have suggested that the disoriented CPI(M) voter would rather team up with the BJP than surrender to the TMC. This may explain why Mamata now feels the need to go soft on the CPI(M) and perhaps even woo a section of it to the idea of forging a grand anti-BJP coalition that may also include the Congress. As the CPI(M), far from being resurgent, is now basically fighting for its very survival, Mamata obviously feels it is no longer in a position to challenge the TMC in West Bengal. In the coming days, as the battle over the CPI(M)’s future tactical line intensifies between the Prakash Karat group and the Sitaram Yechury group, it will be interesting to observe how Mamata’s strident anti-BJPism is received within the Marxist-fold. Will a section of the CPI(M) veer to the position that it would be tactically prudent to have a covert understanding with the TMC if only for protection and to conserve resources to fight another day.
Mamata, of course, is fighting a battle on two fronts. At one level she is taking on the BJP frontally both in West Bengal and in Parliament. In West Bengal, she has unleashed both police and TMC cadre on BJP workers. The assault on BJP workers protesting against the desecration of Syama Prasad Mookerjee’s bust in Kolkata last Thursday was a foretaste of things to come in West Bengal. As the general election approaches, things are likely to get more and more ugly. At the same time, Mamata is likely to try and forge links with all the political parties that have issues with the BJP. This includes the Shiv Sena in Maharashtra, the Telangana Rashtriya Samiti and the Telugu Desam Party in Andhra Pradesh.
Simultaneously, Mamata is anxious to prevent the dominance of the Congress in any anti-BJP formation. She is willing to cede space to the Congress in the northern and central Indian States but believes that the basic idea of the Federal Front — a variant of the United Front model that played a role in Indian politics between 1996 and 1998 — must not be compromised. Ideally, she would love to lead the Federal Front in the belief that she will have nearly 38 lok Sabha MPs under her belt in 2019, and will not countenance any challenge from the Congress. The question is: will the Congress accept the leadership of a Mamata groupingIJ
These are today’s imponderables. The BJP can best counter this challenge by first winning the Assembly election in Karnataka and, subsequently, by intensifying the pressure on Mamata inside West Bengal. As of now the ruling party seems better prepared for a recovery in Karnataka than any significant advance in West Bengal.