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Will TMC’s Hard Bargain With the Congress in Bengal Help the Opposition's Cause? 

Whether the Congress allies with the TMC or the Left may impact the election in different ways.
TMC chief Mamata Banerjee and Congress leader Sonia Gandhi at an INDIA alliance meeting in September 2023. Photo: Special arrangement

Kolkata: The cold tension between the Congress and the Trinamool Congress (TMC) that prevailed over opposition unity initiatives since 2019 continues to prove a stumbling block for the INDIA bloc ahead of the 2024 parliamentary election, as the two parties’ seat-sharing talks have reached a stalemate.

West Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee’s TMC has refused to talk to the Congress’s five-member national alliance committee, which has already held talks with other constituents of the INDIA bloc such as the Samajwadi Party (SP), Aam Aadmi Party (AAP), Shiv Sena (UBT), Nationalist Congress Party (NCP), Janata Dal (United) and Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD).

On Saturday, Bengal Congress leaders told Congress working committee member and Bengal in-charge G.A. Mir that they do not want an alliance with the TMC, as it would be politically suicidal for them in the state. Mir listened to them but did not say a word, according to those present at the meeting in Kolkata.

The TMC maintains that the party’s offer to the Congress was already communicated to them on December 19 – when the INDIA leaders met – and there was no scope for further negotiations with another panel.

The ‘offer’ that the TMC leaders are speaking of is that only two out of the state’s 42 Lok Sabha seats will be contested by the Congress. Given that the Congress won these two seats – Baharampur and Malda Dakshin – fighting on its own in 2019, they find the offer unacceptable. They want eight to 10 seats.

The TMC argues that based on the results of the 2021 assembly election and the subsequent municipal and panchayat elections, the Congress is not in a position to retain even Baharampur and Malda Dakshin on its own.

After taking this ‘take or leave’ approach with the Congress, the state’s ruling party also gave a miss to the INDIA leadership’s video conference on Saturday, arguing that the invite came only 16 hours before the event and it was too short a time for a chief minister to change her schedule.

However, a veteran TMC parliamentarian told The Wire that it would be too early to conclude that the talks have failed.

“A phone call from Sonia Gandhi to Mamata Banerjee can change a lot and we may agree to give them a couple of seats more. But the Congress must negotiate realistically, keeping in mind their organisational weakness in Bengal,” the MP said, requesting anonymity.

Banerjee long enjoys a good personal rapport with Sonia Gandhi but she is not known to get along well with Rahul Gandhi or his team.

The Congress-TMC conflict is not only about West Bengal but also concerns Meghalaya and Assam. The TMC also wants one of the two seats in Meghalaya – Tura to be precise – and at least two of the 14 seats in Assam, another leader of the party indicated.

“If we don’t get one seat, it might get difficult for us to retain Mukul Sangma in the party,” said the TMC leader regarding the former Meghalaya chief minister. In last year’s Meghalaya assembly election, the Sangma-led TMC and the Congress had both won five seats each and about 13% of the vote share, though the TMC’s share was slightly above the Congress’s.

Similarly, anything less than two seats would be upsetting for the TMC’s Assam leadership, which is made up of former Congress MPs Sushmita Dev and Ripun Bora, among others.

According to political commentator Udayan Bandyopadhyay, an associate professor at Bangabasi College in Kolkata, the TMC should be lenient and go for a ‘soft bargain’ with the Congress to seal the seat-sharing deal.

“A Congress-TMC alliance would most likely take away BJP’s seats like Malda Uttar, Raiganj, Jalpaiguri and Purulia. If reducing the BJP’s tally is the priority of the opposition bloc, then the TMC should agree to give the Congress five to six seats. It would help both the Congress and the TMC to increase their tallies and bring down the BJP’s,” Bandyopadhyay said.

He feels that Congress leaders like Nepal Mahato and Deepa Das Munshi would have a high chance of wresting the Purulia and Raiganj seats, respectively, from the BJP, if the Congress receives the TMC’s support. Similarly, Congress’s support can help the TMC wrest some seats where the contest with the BJP is expected to be close.

“If the seat-adjustment deal fails and the Congress teams up with the Left and the Left-Congress alliance starts accusing the TMC of betraying the INDIA bloc and having a secret understanding with the BJP, it would make things more difficult for the TMC at a time when central agencies are after a series of senior leaders and ministers on charges of corruption,” he said.

However, Bandyopadhyay feels that for the seat-sharing deal to materialise, Bengal Congress leaders like Adhir Ranjan Chowdhury would also need to tone down on their anti-TMC rhetoric.

A senior leader of the Bengal Congress, who wished to remain anonymous, said that the party’s top leadership is expected to wait till January 15 for a ‘realistic response’ from the TMC and then initiate seat-adjustment talks with the CPI(M). “The majority of state Congress leaders want to fight in alliance with the CPI(M),” said the leader, “but the high command will take the final call considering the national circumstances.”

CPI(M) state secretary Md Salim has made it clear that the CPI(M) in West Bengal will not seek votes in the name of the India bloc. A senior state-level leader said that no seat-sharing talks with the Congress have been initiated, and the party is preparing to contest as the Left Front only, but they are open to hear the Congress’s offer, should it come.

Various equations 

The TMC is citing the Congress’s poor performance in the 2021 assembly election as the reason behind offering them only two seats. The Congress failed to win any assembly seat in 2021 – for the first time since the first assembly election in 1952 – marking a record low.

In the seven assembly constituencies that make up Congress Lok Sabha leader Adhir Ranjan Chowdhury’s constituency, Baharampur Lok Sabha, of the total 13.67 lakh votes polled in the 2021 assembly elections, the TMC bagged 6.85 lakh or 50%, the BJP got 4.31 lakh or 31.5%, and the Left-supported Congress candidates could secure only 2.05 lakh or 15% of polled votes, standing third in all seats.

In the seven assembly constituencies that make up Congress veteran Abu Hashem Khan Chowdhury’s Malda Dakshin Lok Sabha, of the total 13.77 lakh votes polled in the 2021 assembly elections, the TMC won 7.29 lakh or 53% votes, while the BJP got 3.73 lakh or 27% votes and the Left-Congress alliance candidates managed to get only 2.05 or 14.88% lakh votes.

However, the 2023 panchayat elections revealed that the Congress continued to enjoy some support in the districts of Murshidabad, Malda and Uttar Dinajpur – all of them Muslim-majority districts.

“The equations of Lok Sabha and assembly elections are largely different. In the Lok Sabha, the personal appeal of Adhir Chowdhury and that of the Khan Chowdhury family is enough to regain lost votes,” said a former Congress MLA.

He added that Rahul Gandhi’s Bharat Jodo Nyay Yatra is scheduled to pass through districts like Malda and Murshidabad, and it would further energise the Congress organisation and support base there.

In 2019, a split in opposition votes helped the BJP win at least six of their 18 seats in the state. The combined votes of the TMC and the Congress stood above the BJP’s in Malda Uttar, Balurghat, Raiganj, Bardhaman-Durgapur, Jhargram and Barrackpore.

TMC leaders argue that they are currently in a position to wrest all these seats from the BJP on their own, while Congress leaders are calling this the TMC’s ‘overconfidence’.

State Congress general secretary Ritzu Ghosal said that the party has appointed observers for all 42 Lok Sabha seats in the state, which is an indication that the party is ready to go solo if the TMC makes unrealistic claims.

He argued that the party’s existing support base in the state is largely anti-TMC and forcing an unrealistic alliance with the TMC on the state Congress could be counterproductive, as the voters may well go the BJP’s way.

“Whatever support we have retained is largely because of our fight against the TMC’s corruption and misgovernance. Unless the TMC shows real convictions and commitments towards defeating the BJP, how will we convince our voters to vote for TMC candidates?” Ghosal asked.

Maidul Islam, a political scientist at the Centre for Studies in Social Sciences, Calcutta (CSSSC), feels that a Left-Congress alliance as a third force in the election can be even more harmful to the BJP, as it would divide the anti-TMC votes.

According to him, in the 2019 Lok Sabha elections, as the Left and the Congress fought separately, people considered them weak and the anti-TMC votes consolidated in favour of the BJP. Besides, there was still some confusion among Muslim voters about their best political choice, which is why a split in Muslim votes helped the BJP win a few seats.

“However, Muslims in the state no longer seem to be in any such confusion. They are largely consolidating behind the TMC when the question is to keep the BJP away from power. Under such circumstances, a Left-Congress alliance would provide a space for the secular anti-TMC voters and prevent consolidation of anti-TMC votes in the BJP’s favour,” Islam said.

In West Bengal, the BJP’s support has significantly decreased since their 2019 Lok Sabha election peak of 40% vote share and 43% seat share (18 of 42 seats). The 2021 assembly election saw them getting 38% of polled votes and 25% seat share (75 of 294 seats). In the 2023 panchayat election, the combined vote share of the Left, the Congress and the Indian Secular Front (ISF) – which stood at a meagre 10% in the 2021 assembly election – had crossed 20%. The BJP’s share was down to 23%.

Earlier, an analysis of the 2022-23 panchayat and municipal election results published in The Wire showed that the Left-Congress combined vote share had surpassed the BJP’s in areas making up BJP-held Lok Sabha seats Hooghly and Malda Uttar.

In BJP-held seats like Bishunpur and Ranaghat, panchayat and civic election results showed a significant improvement in the Left-Congress’s vote share against the BJP’s decline – compared to the 2019 Lok Sabha and 2021 assembly elections.

A senior TMC leader agreed that a Congress-TMC alliance would most likely ensure a clean sweep of seven seats in the central and north Bengal districts of Murshidabad, Malda, Uttar Dinajpur and Dakshin Dinajpur – three of them currently held by the BJP – whereas a triangular contest between the TMC, the BJP and the Left-Congress alliance my turn five of these seats “slightly uncertain”.

“However, a Left-Congress alliance may come to the TMC’s advantage in several south Bengal seats by splitting the anti-TMC votes,” the leader opined.

In 2018, the BJP won seven of eight seats in northern Bengal and 11 of 34 seats in the southern part of the state.

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