A string of showdowns, bitter squabbling, and images that depict bad blood among the INDIA (Indian National Developmental Inclusive Alliance) bloc partners raise a critical question – how such a sparring coalition is still stitched together.
What is forcing the Congress party to soft-pedal the Trinamool Congress (TMC) and keep the door open for its supremo Mamata Banerjee?
Why TMC’s Alliance Matters for the Congress in Bengal
It is evident now, that Didi’s power politics emanates from her strength of a win-win situation in her home turf of West Bengal.
A triangular fight between the TMC, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), and the Congress-Left combine in West Bengal will potentially see the former reaping the richest harvest and maximising its seats. The Congress may face a complete rout.
The grand old party as an alliance partner, on the other hand, would effectively minimise anti-incumbency for the TMC and may garner a breakaway portion of the traditional minority vote bank in districts like Malda, Murshidabad, Dinajpur, and other parts of North Bengal.
In this arrangement though, the TMC's benefits come at the cost of sharing at least three to four seats with the Congress out of a kitty of 42 Lok Sabha seats in Bengal.
The scenario largely explains why the Congress has carefully downplayed the flagrant violation of coalition dharma by one of its most important allies.
Should the alliance fail to work, the Congress runs the risk of a total rout in West Bengal, including its most popular and articulate parliamentarian Adhir Ranjan Chowdhury in Murshidabad's Berhampore.
In Adhir-Mamata Clash, a Weakening Coalition
Adhir Chowdhury has represented the Congress from Berhampore for close to 20 years now and continues to be a charismatic, Robinhood-esque politician enjoying the blessings of both Muslim and Hindu voters in most segments of the Assembly.
But the TMC has engineered defections from his rank and file, with Didi vowing to draw blood. It would thus be a seat too hot for the comfort of the Congress.
There are also whispers of old Congress loyalists and old war horses of the Ghani Khan Choudhury gharana switching over to the TMC should the Congress ally with the Communists in Bengal. At least one of the Ghani Khans is still a sitting MP of the Congress from one of the two seats in the Malda district.
For an alliance that should be contending for power, these are harsh challenges and realities facing the partners. Mamata Banerjee’s humiliating outbursts have provided raw ammunition to PM Narendra Modi who picked up her jibes and ridiculed the Congress, saying that he will pray that the party crosses the 40-seat mark in the Lok Sabha.
But even in the face of such remarks by Mamata, the Congress leadership has had a muted response.
Is a Mamata-INDIA Patch Up Imminent?
Political prudence by the Congress in dealing with the TMC seems to have averted a flare-up. But its dithering is taking a heavy toll.
The spirit of an exuberant, vibrant coalition is lost. Compelling political considerations seem to be at work to keep the alliance alive. The bitter acrimony had been limited to verbal abuse and rhetoric, and a real breakup that looked imminent every moment, has still not happened.
What are these compulsions that keep the INDIA alliance ticking?
A cross-section of political leaders and analysts suggests that the stakes are much bigger for the alliance than the mere feud over a couple of seats here and there. While domestic political compulsions in West Bengal are of course there, coalition sentiment at the national level is also significantly playing a part against the INDIA boat being rocked.
In the wider national canvas, the Congress high command is wary of taking the blame for breaking the alliance by adopting a tough stand against the partners, especially the TMC.
After Janata Dal (United) leader Nitish Kumar’s exit from the alliance, there is considerable political pressure from INDIA bloc partners on the Congress to ensure that there is no drastic move that should alienate Mamata despite her belligerence.
Fighting a Common Enemy: Why Congress Needs Mamata
Many of the key partners of the INDIA alliance – like Sharad Pawar of the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP), Lalu Prasad Yadav of the Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD), Akhilesh Yadav of Samajwadi Party (SP), and Arvind Kejriwal of Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) consider Mamata Banerjee an indispensable force in the coalition.
But peer pressure aside, the Congress high command also firmly believes that Mamata is genuinely and stridently "anti-BJP".
This is why Congress leaders like spokesperson Jairam Ramesh and even Rahul Gandhi have consistently courted Mamata Banerjee. All through Rahul's Bharat Jodo Nyay Yatra in West Bengal and beyond, i.e., into Jharkhand and Odisha, a damage control mechanism had been in place despite Didi’s stunning outbursts and provocations. The Congress has maintained the buzz that the alliance is on track.
"There may be minor hiccups but the maksad (goal) is the same – fight [the] injustices of the BJP government together,” Ramesh has said repeatedly.
The Congress, therefore, does not want to close the door on Mamata even if it means a unilateral softening of its stand and pandering to her. It’s been a really difficult choice for the Congress both in West Bengal as well as at the national level.
Is a Congress-Left Equation Viable To Win Polls in Bengal?
Another factor that has remained like a thorn in the neck is the Congress leadership's tilt towards the Left, particularly the CPI(M) [Communist Party of India (Marxist)].
In Delhi, Sitaram Yechury is more often than not seen in close parleys with Rahul Gandhi, while in Kolkata, Adhir Chowdhury, the state Congress chief, looks more comfortable in the company of Md Selim, the CPI(M) politburo member and the state general secretary of the party.
Poll arithmetic, however, does not support a Congress-Left combination in Bengal. It has been tried and tested for a considerable time now, but the chemistry did not work with the electorate. Historical data shows that there had been a large-scale shift of Left votes to the BJP in several contests in the state.
The Congress high command is aware that in case of a CPI(M)-Left alliance, (formal or non-formal), the Marxists will not only demand a number of seats in Congress strongholds like Raiganj, Purulia, and Murshidabad but there is greater danger of anti-TMC, anti-incumbency votes, particularly from the Hindus, migrating to the BJP.
A Congress-Left combine minus the TMC is rife with the possibility of BJP’s Hindu vote bank getting galvanised and consolidated even further.
The battle lines, therefore, are drawn. Missing on the grounds are definitive actions and a forward momentum.
(The writer is a Kolkata-based senior journalist. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)