Sunday, December 26, 2010

Handle with care

West Bengal poses a real dilemma for the Congress

By Swapan Dasgupta

In the realm of domestic politics, 2010 seems set to end with both the Congress and the Manmohan Singh Government looking somewhat fragile. A series of corruption-related scandals that began from the run-up to the Commonwealth Games last August and reached its climax with the Opposition agitation for the appointment of a Joint Parliamentary Committee to explore the 2G Spectrum allotments have shaken the Congress's self-confidence. The Congress leadership's bid to talk up the party's morale by mounting a shrill offensive against the Bharatiya Janata Party at this week's otherwise purposeless AICC session in Delhi doesn't seem to have repaired the damage. On the contrary, the cocktail of scandals, telephone intercepts and leaked diplomatic cables have dented the image of the Prime Minister and called into question the leadership potential of the Congress' designated heir presumptive.

Politics, however, is a long-term game and with no general election scheduled till the summer of 2014, it is presumptuous to rush to the conclusion that the United Progressive Alliance has become too beleaguered to function as a purposeful government. Time is still on the UPA's side. Whether or not it will be able to stage a grand recovery and shift the national agenda to issues of its own choosing may, however, be substantially dependant on the verdict in the next summer's Assembly elections in five states. The West Bengal Assembly election result in particular holds the key to how national politics will shape up.

The significance of the West Bengal poll can hardly be overstated. Having ruled uninterruptedly for 34 years, the Left Front has a special interest in ensuring it holds on to its control of Writer's Building. With Kerala, which also elects its Assembly in the summer, looking increasingly susceptible to change, a Left defeat in West Bengal will underscore the marginalisation of the Communist parties in national politics.

Just prior to the 2009 general election, when the Left Front accounted for a solid bloc of nearly 70 Lok Sabha MPs, the CPI(M) played a seminal role in nurturing the illusion of a Third Front which would hold the balance of power in a fractured Parliament. It was on the strength of the CPI(M)'s seemingly impregnable base in West Bengal that Prakash Karat could challenge the bipolar division of politics in the country. The 30 plus Lok Sabha seats it was forever confident of winning from West Bengal provided it the launching pad for predatory raids on the National Democratic Alliance, many of whose partners were wary of the negative impact of their association with the BJP on minority voters. The alternative possibilities offered by a CPI(M)-led Third Front was one of the factors behind the desertion of the Telugu Desam Party and the Biju Janata Dal from the NDA. It was also a factor behind the perennial hesitation of the Asom Gana Parishad to cement a long-term alliance with the BJP, an alliance that many in Assam see as "natural." Had the CPI still retained the influence it once had in Bihar, it is entirely possible that the same compulsions that propelled N.Chandrababu Naidu and Naveen Patnaik into leaving the NDA would have influenced Nitish Kumar too.

More than the Congress, for which it posed a headache only during the last two years of the first UPA Government, the Left, in recent years, has proved a very effective spoiler to the BJP by providing an alternative pole of attraction to many of its NDA partners. The Congress, on the other hand, has been the direct beneficiary of a process that has prevented all the anti-Congress regional parties from rallying behind the BJP-led alliance.

Since the Left could not have performed this divisive role without the assurance of firm electoral support from West Bengal, some Congress strategists are understandably nervous of the national implications of a decisive Mamata Banerjee win in 2011. If the 2009 Lok Sabha results are replicated in next year's Assembly election, along with an extra dose of incremental support for the Trinamool Congress-led alliance, the CPI(M) is unlikely to be in any position to revive its Third Front pipedream for the 2014 general election. Its entire energies and resources are certain to be taken up by the challenges of survival in a hostile environment. The CPI(M)'s internal preoccupations in turn would—in theory at least—leave the field wide open for the BJP-led NDA to emerge as the sole challenger to the UPA on the national stage.

The possible re-emergence of national bipolarity, as happened between 1998 and 2004, may be beneficial to the Congress if it transforms the contest into an undiluted secular-communal battle. However, it is far from certain that the BJP will oblige. More likely, the NDA is likely to fight the general election on a centrist plank and target the UPA's 10-year record. In that event, a battlefield where a weak Left is confined ineffectively to the margins, will not seem attractive to the Congress.

West Bengal poses a real dilemma for the Congress. Its state unit wants a breather from uninterrupted Left rule; but its national compulsions favour Left rule in the state, as a counterweight to the BJP. The choice would have been less stark had the Congress been an equal partner of the TMC. But the Congress is virtually leaderless and is only relevant in just four border districts. More to the point, it sees little hope of being able to influence the mercurial TMC chief whose one-point priority is to decimate the Left; everything else is incidental. As the TMC's conduct during the recent stalemate in Parliament suggests, Mamata does not share the Congress' national priorities and is willing to side with the Opposition if it suits her self-interest. This individualism may have been spurred by the suspicion in TMC circles that the Congress is willing to sacrifice its interests in West Bengal for 'national' compulsions.

It is in this context that the tensions between the TMC and Congress over the future of the mahajot in West Bengal can be located. A beleaguered CPI(M) is aware that its hope of somehow transforming an imminent rout into a contest lies in dividing the anti-Left vote. The CPI(M), , for example, is discreetly encouraging the BJP into believing that it can secure more than seven per cent of the popular vote by contesting all the 294 seats. Likewise, Lutyens' Delhi resonates with whispers of the Left offer of a covert bail-out of the UPA government in the Budget session of Parliament if the Congress chooses to make its "self-respect" an issue in the seat negotiations with the TMC. The Left has calculated that a headstrong Mamata won't think twice before walking out of the UPA Government, if the Centre's image becomes a liability. As such, the CPI(M) is persisting with its unwavering attack on the Congress at the Centre. It is hoping that the more the UPA is vulnerable in Delhi, the more it will be inclined to strike a local deal in Kolkata, and the more likely Mamata will see her junior partner as an unnecessary passenger.

On the ground, the West Bengal election resembles ugly street battles and even a dance of death. In rarefied Delhi, it is marked by byzantine parlour diplomacy where the will of the people is viewed as a negotiable commodity. Yet, it is imprudent to judge the politicians too harshly. This is one rare occasion when the collective wisdom of West Bengal will determine the course of national politics. The stakes are very high.

The Telegraph, December 24, 2010

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