Wednesday, December 6, 2023

Mamata Rising: From Bhabanipur to New Delhi?

The future is a lot more brighter for the All India Trinamool Congress chief than anything or anybody else.

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By Sujit Bhar

Mamata Banerjee won the Bhabanipur bypoll by a record margin of 58,835 votes defeating BJP candidate Priyanka Tibrewal. After the win, the West Bengal Chief Minister said, “This is my third victory from Bhabanipur. In 2011, I won the bypoll by a margin of over 54,000 votes. In 2016 Assembly polls, I had won by a margin of over 26,000 votes. This time, the margin has gone over 58,000 votes. So, I have broken my own record.”

The issue here is that her winning from Bhabanipur cannot really be categorised as ‘news’. From the very beginning, it was almost a fait accompli that was handed to Tibrewal, and whatever her allegations post-defeat – she has been quoted as saying, “If people were allowed to vote, the result would have been different… Even I got hold of fake voters on the polling day… In several booths, polls were rigged…But I will admit that our organisation was weak in Bhabanipur… We have to improve this.” Mamata Banerjee’s home constituency is still an impenetrable fort of the All India Trinamool Congress (AITC).

Statistics say only part of the story. Banerjee polled 85,263 votes, which was 71.9 percent of the turnout, showing a positive swing of 14.19 percent, while Tibrewal polled 26,428 votes, which was 22.29 percent, with a negative swing of 12.87 percent. In an area which Banerjee has recently called “mini India” – that was a counter to her own narrative of “outsiders” that she used during the overall elections – what the CM achieved can be to a small extent credited to the very low turnout of 57.09 percent in an area where the count of non-Bengali voters are as high as 40 percent.

But this “non-Bengali” nomenclature is a bit misleading for those who know Bhabanipur. A huge community of Sikhs (Punjabis, to generalise) are very old residents of the area, and Oriyas, or those who had migrated from Odisha a long time back, are deep into the Oriya para. Both these communities, once staunch Congress supporters, are now Mamata followers. There is a huge collection of Biharis as well, but, unlike in Kolkata’s business district of Burrabazar, Bhabanipur Biharis have for long integrated themselves into Bengal’s culture.

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How did the Marwaris and Gujaratis arrive in Bhabanipur (as well as in Kalighat), a very old Bengali locality of the city? This happened in two parts. As the northern parts of the city grew more congested and dirtier, many rich families, including Bengalis and Marwaris, moved south, to more fashionable new areas of Bhabanipur and Ballygunge. That too was over a hundred years back. Then, recently, several new residential complexes that have come up, have hosted mostly Marwaris and Gujaratis. That population has grown and, along with that, businesses run by them. Hence, there is a blend of old and new (mostly new) in this area, which has always been host to a large number of people from other states, typically drawn to the business that the temple area generates.

The general attitude of these businessmen stems from three things: In Mamata Banerjee’s reign, their businesses have only flourished and second, they really do not want trouble. The third issue is even more interesting. A large number of these Marwari families actually identify themselves with Bengalis, participate in pujas and other cultural activities. The second reason may have caused the low turnout, if not the Covid scare. Therefore, it cannot be said that a higher turnout would have automatically eaten into Banerjee’s victory margin.

Trinamool’s national ambitions

Statistics apart, the news is about what Banerjee wants to do hereafter, how the AITC is preparing for a nationwide foray for the party, moving into other states, assimilating political intellect from other parties – mostly from the Congress, though party leader Sudip Bandopadhyay has made it clear that this move is nothing against the Congress per se, but just a political survival strategy.

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Banerjee’s and AITC’s forays into Goa and Manipur are well-known. To that end, Congress leader and former Goa Chief Minister Luizinho Faleiro, along with Goa Congress general secretaries Yatish Naik and Vijay Vasudev Poi, and former state secretaries of the party, Mario Pinto De Santana and Anand Naik, and five others have joined the Trinamool Congress. Sahitya Akademi Award winner and poet Shivdas Sonu Naik and Maharashtrawadi Gomantak Party leader Lavoo Mamledar were among them.

That is a big catch from a small state. But if you look deeper into Faleiro’s experience, the bigger picture emerges. Faleiro served as a general secretary in the All India Congress Committee since 2013 and was in-charge of the seven north-eastern states of Manipur, Meghalaya, Mizoram, Sikkim, Arunachal Pradesh, Nagaland and Tripura.

That information is critical, when one patches it up with another “reliable” piece of information, which says that AITC is in advanced talks with former Meghalaya Chief Minister Mukul Sangma about joining Trinamool Congress. It is being said that members of Prashant Kishor’s team had talks with the veteran Congress leader. No deal has been struck as yet, but considering Sangma’s ire at the appointment of Congress MP Vincent Pala as the Meghalaya Congress chief, this is a possibility. Sangma has said that he will press for course correction within the Congress, but how much he can wrangle out of the Congress High Command is to be seen.

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Meghalaya isn’t immediately on AITC’s radar, but a leader of the stature of Sangma will be a boost. Mamata Banerjee’s national dream started in September 2016 – that was before her nephew Abhishek Banerjee was made national general secretary of the party – when the party was declared a national party by the Election Commission of India. The party was initially recognised as a state party in four states — West Bengal, Manipur, Tripura and Arunachal Pradesh.

When it came to fighting elections in these states, the party managed five MLAs in Arunachal Pradesh in 2009, and seven MLAs in Manipur in 2012. It drew a blank in Tripura in 2018 and then lost state party status in these states as it won in one seat in Manipur, which took its vote share from 17 per cent in 2012 to 1.4 per cent in 2017 in the state.

With the arrival of Prashant Kishor and the drawing up of new poll strategies, looking ahead to 2024, these states are again in focus and the experience of Faleiro and possibly of Sangma will be immensely helpful.

The Punjab experience

When trouble started between former Punjab Chief Minister Amarinder Singh and Navjot Singh Sidhu, the AITC had sent feelers, it has been learnt reliably. Things could have moved further, but Amarinder’s three-hour meeting with Home Minister Amit Shah seems to have poured cold water on that effort, as of now. Nothing dies in politics, so the possibility exists, especially with the Shiromani Akali Dal and the festering Farm Laws issue still a largish toehold that the Congress has failed to latch on to.

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Punjab is yet a far cry, with the Aam Aadmi Party having a much larger say, but one has to remember that Arvind Kejriwal was among the first to congratulate Mamata Banerjee on her victory and the two have a decent working relationship. Also, AAP is trying to make as much a foray into national politics as AITC is.

The common factor in all this, of course, is the pitiable and crumbling state of the Congress. For all practical purposes, it will be difficult for the Congress to make any decent tie-ups in the coming elections. It has killed its own chances in many places and neither the AITC, nor the AAP – with whom the Congress has, stupidly, fought many battles over the state (a municipality, really) of Delhi.

More importantly, the Congress’ recent strange acts have sort of ‘liberated’ Mamata from her historical weakness: she has always been a keen admirer of Sonia Gandhi and has never forgotten her Youth Congress roots. She has now slowly removed that memory. The future is a lot more of Trinamool Congress than anything or anybody else.

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