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As Mamata Hints at Going it Alone, Bengal Braces for Likely Triangular Contest in 2024

The BJP is expected to take the Hindu polarisation campaign to higher pitches.
Mamata Banerjee speaking on January 22. Photo: X/@AITCofficial

Kolkata: In a likely setback for the opposition INDIA block, West Bengal chief minister and Trinamool Congress (TMC) supremo Mamata Banerjee on Monday dropped clear hints of going it alone in the upcoming Lok Sabha elections.

While addressing a Solidarity March criticising the Ram Temple inauguration, she indicated that her party was preparing to take on the Bharatiya Janata Party on the one hand and a possible alliance between the Left, the Congress and the Indian Secular Front (ISF) on the other.

“I coined the name INDIA. I am sad to say whenever I attend the meetings, I see the CPI(M) is controlling the meetings. I fought them for 34 years. I will never take their advice. I felt insulted,” she said.

Banerjee added that she had proposed that the Congress should let the regional parties deal with the elections in their strongholds. “You contest alone in 300 other seats. We will help. But they say they will do as they wish. Just keep one thing in mind, do not help the BJP. If you help the BJP, Allah kasam, no one will forgive you. I will never forgive you,” she said.

The CPI(M)-led Left Front governed West Bengal between 1977 and 2011, until Banerjee toppled it in 2011. Her attack on the CPI(M), nevertheless, is intriguing because the party reached a historic low between 2019 and 2021. Even though the CPI(M) managed to slightly improve their vote share in the 2022-23 civil and rural elections, they are not considered to be in a position to trouble the TMC electorally on its own.

While she did not name the ISF, her reference to “religious leaders” was understandably for Abbas Siddiqui, a cleric at the Islamic religious site Furfura Sharif who launched the ISF ahead of the 2021 assembly election. Since then, Abbas has moved out of the limelight, and his brother, Nausad Siddiqui, is leading the ISF.

Nausad Siddiqui was the only candidate put up by the Left-Congress-ISF alliance to win in the 2021 assembly election and has recently expressed his interest in contesting against Abhishek Banerjee from the Diamond Harbour Lok Sabha seat. Abhishek, the chief minister’s nephew and the party’s all-India general secretary, is a two-time Lok Sabha MP from Diamond Harbour, where Muslims make up a sizeable chunk of the electorate.

During Monday’s event, the TMC supremo used most of her speech to win the confidence of Muslims, which indicated she is expecting to face the Left, Congress and ISF in alliance. While the Left and the Congress have a certain support base in the Muslim-majority districts of Murshidabad, Malda and Uttar Dinajpur, the ISF and the Left have some support in the Muslim-dominated pockets in the districts of North 24-Parganas, South 24-Parganas, Nadia and Howrah in south Bengal.

“When they tried to bring NRC [National Register of Citizens], only we were on the streets and took out a unity rally. We protested, resisted and prevented the NRC,” she said, adding that even on the question of the Ram temple inauguration, it was only her party that took to the streets.

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Following her speech, a senior leader of the Bengal Congress told The Wire that the state unit leaders were already in favour of allying with the Left but were waiting for the central leadership to decide.

“Now that she has given her message clear and loud, we hope to get clearance from the top leadership to proceed with talks with the Left,” the leader said. The seat-sharing adjustment with the ISF would be taken care of by the Left parties, he said.

CPI(M) state unit secretary Md Salim alleged that the TMC was trying to ditch the INDIA block, creating pretexts, but Banerjee would not succeed.

“She has essentially been anti-CPI(M) since the mid-1980s. Even today, when the battle lines are clearly drawn, she chose to target the CPI(M). The whole argument behind creating the INDIA block was to build political momentum but she was interested only in seat sharing, not only in Bengal but also in some other states. She was never concerned about the issues,” Salim told The Wire.

He said that they have always favoured an electoral understanding with non-BJP and non-TMC forces, and are ready to negotiate not only with the Congress and the ISF but also any other Left party that would be ready to fight both the TMC and the BJP.

In the 2019 Lok Sabha election, the Left-Congress seat-sharing talks broke down at the last moment, giving the BJP an edge over them in emerging as the main anti-TMC force.

As the anti-TMC votes consolidated in favour of the BJP, it recorded a meteoric rise, bagging 18 of the state’s 42 Lok Sabha seats. The Congress managed to win two, while the Left won none. The TMC’s tally came down from 34 in 2014 to 22 in 2019.

This time, there is a view among a section of TMC leaders that while a triangular contest may give the BJP some chances in a few seats in the Muslim-majority districts if the anti-BJP votes split, a Left-Congress alliance can prevent consolidation of anti-TMC votes in the BJP’s favour in several south Bengal seats.

“This is precisely why the party chief seemed to be focused on winning over the confidence of the Muslims,” said a veteran TMC parliamentarian unwilling to be named.

The Left and the Congress are slated to face each other in Kerala, which has 20 Lok Sabha seats. The political understanding is that the Left-Congress bipolar alignment of the state’s electoral nature has kept the BJP at bay. Therefore, even if the two parties join hands in Bengal, is it unsure if the top leaders of the two parties would share a dais anywhere in West Bengal.

Leaders of West Bengal BJP hinted that they may take the Hindu polarisation campaign to higher pitches. “The TMC is clearly trying to ensure the Muslim votes remain polarised and the Hindu votes get divided. That’s their strategy. We have to ensure the highest possible polarisation of Hindu votes,” said a Lok Sabha MP from the state.

The MP hoped the central investigating agencies would make more raids on TMC leaders in the next couple of months, resulting in a few more arrests, which would effectively turn the election into a Centre vs state and BJP Vs TMC battle. “We will make it clear to the people that only we can take on TMC, only we can harass and punish the TMC,” the leader said.

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