Starting trouble for the Congress-TMC alliance
Congress wants more time and more seats. Mamata Banerjee says can’t wait
| Mamata Banerjee
After days of tense negotiations, the knotty truth about West Bengal’s ‘Mahajot’ finally became apparent. This alliance was to be the historic partnership that would uproot the 34-year-old Left Front regime. After a sudden unilateral seat declaration by the Trinamool Congress (TMC), the alliance now looks headed for a loose end.
Disregarding Congress pleas to wait, TMC supremo Mamata Banerjee called a press conference, flashed a list before the media and declared her candidates. She announced the TMC would field 228 candidates. Sixty-four boxes were left empty for the Congress. The Congress party has until 21 March to decide whether it will fill them. If it does, many will look upon it as ‘surrender’. If it doesn’t, the Bengal election could becomes less a great battle and more a great gamble.
The main points of contention between the TMC and the Congress are the number of seats allotted, the winnability of seats, and most significantly, the seats where Banerjee wants to field TMC candidates in place of sitting Congress MLAs.
On the numbers front, the Congress had demanded 90 seats and was reported to have come down to 70 in the process of negotiations. When Union Finance Minister Pranab Mukherjee and Banerjee met in Kolkata on for the final round of talks, it was believed that 65 would be the magic number. The talks ended inconclusively with the Congress asking Banerjee for more time to discuss details with UPA Chairperson Sonia Gandhi, who was then in London. However, baffling several state Congress leaders, Banerjee allotted 64 seats unilaterally.
In her press conference, Banerjee indicated she continues to be committed to the alliance, but also said her list of 64 alternative candidates is ready, should the TMC be required to fight by itself. “This is our first and last chance to unseat the CPM,” she said. “I wish I could wait for the Congress. I have waited for 18 days since the initial seat-sharing talks began. I would be happy to wait even until the counting day, but there is a time frame within which I have to work.”
The election dates were announced on 1 March, the last day to file nominations is 31 March, and the first phase of the election begins on 18 April.
Immediately after Banerjee’s declaration, West Bengal Pradesh Congress Committee Manas Bhuniya held another press conference to say talks would continue over the weekend and that he was ‘optimistic and hopeful’. Beyond the semantics, the Congress and TMC alliance in West Bengal appears to be in a fragile stage. The election is so crucial for both that they could in the end paper over the differences, but there is discomfort right now.
Bhuniya later acknowledged a sense of betrayal. “There is a sad feeling in my mind,” he told TEHELKA. “In spite of having such an affectionate relationship with the Congress high command, she could not wait for a few days. I am hurt.” Asked to decode Banerjee’s decision to declare her list unilaterally, he said: “I can’t do a psycho-analysis of the great lady at this point. All I can say is I expected a little more trust and affection.”
Of the 64 seats, at least half could be termed unwinnable, in areas where there is stiff competition from CPM veterans. Some seats like Gorbetta and Keshpur in West Midnapore district not only fall in traditional CPM strongholds, but have also been the centres of political violence in West Bengal. For the Congress to dislodge the CPM from these seats is a near-impossible feat. However, in the seats within red bastions where the CPM hold has been weakening since the 2009 Lok Sabha election—Arambagh and Khanakul in Burdwan district for instance—the TMC has fielded its own candidates.
However, after the discussions, a few seats emerged as potential deal-breakers. While Banerjee wants to field TMC candidates in all 11 assembly seats in Kolkata, the Congress has been bargaining hard to keep two—Calcutta Port and Metiabruz, both of which have sitting Congress MLAs. Both are also minority seats. In her list, Banerjee has kept all 11 for the TMC.
Before delimitation, the Calcutta Port seat was part of the Kabitiritha constituency. Congress MLA Ram Pyare Ram has won the seat six times and has said he would contest independently, should the Congress accept the TMC’s candidate.
There are other seats outside Kolkata where the Congress alleges that the TMC has ignored sitting Congress veterans. For instance, the TMC has listed its own candidate in Kharagpur Sadar, where sitting Congress MLA Gyan Singh Sohanpal has won nine times.
Another source of disagreement is the fielding of Congress defectors in Congress strongholds of North Bengal. For example, the TMC has fielded Congress defector Savitri Mitra in a Malda seat. In Murshidabad, the TMC has picked defector Mahua Moitra, a former JP Morgan executive and once a prize face of Rahul Gandhi’s Youth Congress in West Bengal.
“I am not happy with these 64 seats,” Bhuniya said, describing it as a ‘horrible situation’ for the Congress to be in. “Yet, we are hopeful because in a democracy it is always possible to resume talks,” he said.
Repeating the words ‘love, respect, and dignity’ with marked frequency, Bhuniya recalled how the Congress had made sacrifices for the TMC in the 2009 General Election.
“Banerjee should be positive because she is the declared CM of the alliance,” he said. “The Congress showed generosity and faith in 2009. She was given 28 of the 42 seats when then the TMC had only one MP. We had six MPs and yet we contested only 14 seats. Is that not Congress magnanimity? The Congress needs everything in reciprocity. I had hoped the affection would be responded to.”
The Congress response to Banerjee’s offer could be complicated by the WikiLeaks revelations, its renewed need to have allies, and the recent experience of the Bihar assembly election—where the Congress decided to fight alone and won only four seats. Another complicating factor could be the Assam assembly election, where the TMC and the Congress are not in alliance. There too, the TMC has offered tickets to seven Congress defectors.
Bhuniya and a team of state Congress leaders are headed to New Delhi for further discussion with the Congress brass. Asked about what is non-negotiable, Bhuniya said, “We do not have conditions. We want to see the relationship move forward with dignity and prestige.” Asked if that dignity had already been chipped, Bhuniya said after a marked pause, “Not yet.”
Mittal is Principal Correspondent with Tehelka