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Apr 13, 2023

Despite the Loss of National Party Status, TMC Is Unwilling to Let Go of its Expansion Dream

TMC’s national expansion bid has seen several successes but all have been short-lived. Through it all, it is the Congress which has borne the maximum brunt.  
TMC chief Mamata Banerjee. In the background are attendees at a TMC rally. Illustration: The Wire. Photos: Twitter/@AITC

“Trinamool is Bengal’s party. It doesn’t matter if the party uses an ‘All India’ before its name. It had got the status of a national party, which they have now lost. Everybody thinks of the Trinamool as a political party of Bengal and Bengalis, except for the Trinamool,” wrote Garga Chatterjee, the founder-leader of the Bengali rights organisation, Bangla Pokkho, in a Facebook post, after the Election Commission of India (ECI) withdrew the national party status given to West Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee’s Trinamool Congress.

For the party (popularly abbreviated as the TMC but officially All India Trinamool Congress or the AITC), the loss of the national party status, which they got in 2016, has come as a shock for multiple reasons.

First, even though the ECI had show-caused the party way back in 2019, asking why their national party status should not be withdrawn, the party was hoping it would buy its arguments and allow the status to continue till the 2024 Lok Sabha elections.

Second, the decision came at a time the party was looking to play a pivotal role in shaping the opposition space ahead of the 2024 Lok Sabha elections and the loss of the status may result in a loss of the party’s stature and prospects outside the state.

And third, the party always aspired to have a presence beyond Bengal, right from the time of its inception about a quarter of a century ago.

Despite all its efforts to expand its footprint outside the state, Chatterjee’s opinion that everyone except for the TMC looked at the party as a ‘Bengali party’ may not be entirely wrong. Even in the 2023 Meghalaya assembly elections, in which the TMC pitched to form the next government, the party had to face an intense campaign targeting it as ‘a Bengali party’ and ‘outsider.’ This led Banerjee to clarify that the TMC was not an ‘only Bengali’ party. Eventually, their performance was less than impressive. Assam’s TMC leaders had to give similar clarifications.

“Our big push for last year’s Goa assembly election was actually aimed at replacing the Congress as the main opposition and ensuring a 6% vote share in the least to get the state party status there. We knew we were going to lose our state party status in Arunachal Pradesh and Manipur. Therefore, state party status in Goa and Meghalaya could have saved the status. But we fell slightly short in Goa. In addition, Tripura’s result was also disastrous,” said a minister in the Mamata Banerjee government, requesting not to be named.

The TMC, of course, put up a brave face.

“Even if we are a state party, it does not change the fact that we trounced three national parties (the BJP, the Congress and the CPI-M) in 2021 assembly elections,” said the party’s state unit spokesperson Arup Chakraborty.

Lok Sabha MP Sougata Roy said that the option to move to court against the ECI order was open to the party but they were yet to take a call.

‘No change in expansion plan’

The party has also made it clear that the ECI’s decision is not going to impact their national aspirations. Speaking to The Wire, the party’s national spokesperson and Rajya Sabha member Sukhendu Sekhar Roy said, “Our national expansion drive under the leadership of national general secretary Abhishek Banerjee is on and shall continue. We can regain the status by meeting the necessary criteria with our performance in the coming elections.”

Roy claimed that the loss of the status would not matter much in terms of the party’s prospects in the coming elections. “Our party was named All India Trinamool Congress right from the beginning but our national party status came only in 2014. We won elections outside the state without the national party status,” he said.

This means, despite party chief Mamata Banerjee’s recent call for a ‘one-is-to-one’ contest against the BJP at the national level in the 2024 Lok Sabha election, the TMC was also preparing to field candidates in other states where they have a poor track record.

Also watch: ‘To Beat BJP in 2024, Opposition Needs State-Level Alliances’: MP Manish Tewari

It is because of the party’s national aspirations, eyeing especially the 2024 Lok Sabha elections, that the TMC sent former Goa Congress leader Luizinho Faleiro and former Assam Congress leader Sushmita Dev to Rajya Sabha from West Bengal, got former BJP Lok Sabha MP from Bihar, Shatrughan Sinha, elected from West Bengal, and made former BJP MP Kirti Azad a national spokesperson of the party. They also had former BJP stalwart Yashwant Sinha as the party’s national vice-president for a while until he quit the party to contest the Presidential election.

Notably, Faleiro tendered his resignation from the Upper House as well as the party a day after the ECI withdrew the TMC’s national party status. However, the party’s Bengal unit leaders said that it was unconnected with the ECI’s move.

File image of Luizinho Faleiro with Mamata Banerjee. Photo: Special arrangement

“Faleiro’s resignation came as part of our Goa unit reorganisation efforts. He had been inactive since the Goa assembly elections and the party was asking him for over a month to resign from Rajya Sabha,” said a TMC Lok Sabha MP who did not want to be named. The MP asserted that the party’s mission for the Lok Sabha election in Goa was ‘on track,’ and so were the initiatives in Meghalaya and Assam.

While the Congress has repeatedly accused the TMC of coming to the aid of the BJP by trying to weaken the Congress in different states, Banerjee’s party has justified their expansion drives, arguing that the TMC provided better leadership than the ‘crumbling Congress’ against the BJP.

According to Abdul Matin, who teaches political science at Jadavpur University in Kolkata, it is high time that the TMC understood its limitations and withdrew from the national expansion drive ahead of the crucial 2024 elections to facilitate opposition unity against the BJP.

“It was only technically a national party. In reality, they could not capture the imaginations even in the neighbouring states of Jharkhand, Bihar, and Odisha. Their efforts in Goa and Tripura were meant to come to the BJP’s help by weakening the Congress. It’s time that the TMC accepts the reality that a national opposition alliance is not possible without Congress. If they really want to bring down the BJP government, they should take a break from the national expansion drive for the time being,” Matin told The Wire.

Stories of short-lived successes

In the 1998 Lok Sabha election, the TMC, then a few months old, contested only in West Bengal, in alliance with the BJP. The very next year, they fielded a candidate in Tripura West Lok Sabha seat right in the Lok Sabha election. Former Tripura chief minister Sudhir Ranjan Majumdar of the Congress had launched the party’s Tripura unit and contested the Lok Sabha election, coming second with 26.4% vote share, while the Congress came third.

Since then, all their expansion drives have been focused on poaching the Congress to build the party’s respective state units – the prime reason why the TMC has been active in recent years in trying to build an opposition alliance without the Congress.

Tripura’s early success withered soon. Majumdar fared miserably in the 2002 Tripura West bypoll, getting only about 5% vote share. In the 2003 assembly election, contesting 18 seats, they lost their deposits in all, the highest vote share being 2.9% in Bishalgarh. One of these candidates, Amal Mallick, also contested the 2004 Lok Sabha election from Tripura West and secured 9.6% votes, but it was fought in alliance with the BJP, as the TMC was still part of the NDA.

In the 2004 Lok Sabha election, the party also fielded former Lok Sabha speaker P A Sangma, who had left Sharad Pawar-led Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) for the TMC, from Tura in Meghalaya, former Congress MLA from W. Morung Makunga from Outer Manipur and former tw0-time Congress MLA Tadar Taniang from Arunachal West. However, while Sangma won from his stronghold of Tura, the party candidates in Manipur and Tripura got less than 4% of the polled votes. Their Meghalaya success story, too, ended soon, with Sangma returning to the NCP.

In the 2008 Tripura assembly election, the party fared even poorer – secured only .4% votes contesting 22 seats. In the 2009 Lok Sabha election, the party fielded candidates in both of Tripura’s seats, besides Godda and Jamshedpur in Jharkhand, Lucknow in Uttar Pradesh and Salem in Tamil Nadu, Thiruvananthapuram in Kerala, and the only seat in Nagaland. However, they failed to get more than 1% vote in any seat outside Bengal.

Nevertheless, they got their first taste of success outside the state in 2009 itself, when the party bagged five seats in the Arunachal assembly election with 15% vote share. All these winners were sitting Congress MLAs of the last assembly who were denied party tickets, which is why they joined the TMC. In 2010, the TMC launched its Manipur unit under the leadership of former Congress MP Kim Gangte, won an assembly by-election in 2011, and emerged as the second largest party in the 2012 assembly elections with seven seats and 17% vote share. They also opened their account in Uttar Pradesh with an assembly by-poll victory in 2012.

However, all these successes remained short-lived, as they repeatedly failed to keep their flock together.

In Arunachal, four of their MLAs went back to the Congress in end-2012 and the sole remaining MLA merged the party with the People’s Party of Arunachal in 2013. Thereafter, in the 2014 Lok Sabha election, the party polled only 2.7% votes in the Arunachal West seat and that was the end of the party’s run in the state.

In Manipur, their 2014 Lok Sabha election was dismal – 1.7% vote in Outer Manipur and 6.3% in Inner Manipur. The party unit went into turmoil thereafter, split, and subsequently they lost all MLAs by 2016 – four of them to the Congress and three to the BJP. In the 2017 assembly election, TMC’s Manipur tally came down to one seat, and the vote share plummeted to 1.4%.

The sole Uttar Pradesh legislator went to Bahujan Samaj Party in 2016.

In fact, the TMC had high hopes of expansion ahead of the 2014 Lok Sabha election, hoping to cash in on the anti-Congress sentiment, and ended up fielding as many as 131 candidates. However, the BJP’s rise unsettled all their equations. Not only all of its 34 seats came from West Bengal, but they fared miserably in every other state – getting less than 2% vote in all 19 seats in Uttar Pradesh, all 12 in Assam, all eight in Rajasthan, all five in Odisha, Bihar, Delhi, and Kerala each, all three in Maharashtra and Chhattisgarh each, both in Haryana, and one each in Goa and Sikkim. In Jharkhand, except for Lohardaga where they obtained 18.7% votes, their share in nine other constituencies stood below 5%.

The only ‘impressive’ performance was in Tripura, where the party polled 9.7% vote share, coming third in both Lok Sabha seats. Riding on this success, the party planned to focus more on Tripura. In 2016, they made major gains when six Congress MLAs switched over to the TMC, only to switch over to the BJP – all of them – in 2017.

It was based on the party’s results in Arunachal in the 2009 assembly election, in the 2012 Manipur assembly election, and in the 2014 Tripura Lok Sabha election that the party got state party status in these states, helping them achieve the status of a national party in 2016, which was retrospectively effective from January 2014. Nevertheless, the party could not impress with its performance in any state outside Bengal post the BJP’s 2014 rise.

In the 2019 Lok Sabha election, the party fared miserably in Manipur and Tripura, while they did not contest in Arunachal at all. The party contested 19 Lok Sabha seats outside Bengal – seven in Assam, six in Jharkhand, three in Odisha, and one each in Tripura, Bihar, and Andaman and Nicobar Islands. However, they failed to get more than 2% vote share in any.

The national expansion drive was renewed after the party’s return to power in West Bengal in 2021 – eying mainly the small states of Goa, Meghalaya, and Tripura. While they managed to earn the state party status in Meghalaya, they fell slightly short of the required 6% vote share in Goa and Tripura witnessed yet another dismal performance.

Currently, the party has state party status in West Bengal and Meghalaya. They need such status in two more states. While they look set to test their luck in Goa and Assam in 2024, whether they try opening new fronts remains to be seen.

At the moment, however, the party’s recent efforts to find a national footprint appear to have suffered a series of reverses.

According to columnist Udayan Bandyopadhyay, who teaches political science at Bangabasi College in Kolkata, the TMC would do better to concentrate on Bengal till the coming Lok Sabha election.

“Every party has the right to aspire to be a national party but the TMC certainly needs more homework. At present, though, they should focus on winning as many seats as they can out of Bengal’s 42 Lok Sabha seats. Nothing would be a bigger disaster for them than poor performance in Bengal. Whatever resources they are planning to invest in other states should be channelised for West Bengal because it’s their bastion and it’s from here that they can maximise their parliamentary presence,” Bandyopadhyay told The Wire.

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