Mamata cannot afford to go it alone in Assembly polls, if she is serious about a smooth entry into Writers' Building.
The results of the West Bengal civic elections, in which the Trinamool Congress (TC) surged ahead of the ruling Left Front and left the Congress a poor third, came as no surprise. But even as TC workers celebrated on the streets of Kolkata and flung abir (colour) at one another, there was a rather unpalatable message for Railway Minister and party chief Mamata Banerjee, hidden in the fine print: the TC has failed to touch the halfway mark, winning only 27 of the 81 municipal corporations – including the prestigious Kolkata Municipal Corporation (KMC), which it swept. This is even though the Left Front secured only 18 corporations, down from the 54 it held in 2005, and the Congress failed to reach the double digit-mark, plateauing at seven, down from 16 last time. How has this happened? This is because no party has managed a majority in at least 25 civic bodies. And it is this detail that Ms. Banerjee will have to consider carefully. For, if she is working to get a clear verdict in next year's Assembly elections, the compulsions of West Bengal politics will force her to make peace with the Congress and forge an alliance with it. She cannot afford to go it alone, as she did in these local polls, if she is serious about a smooth entry into the Writers' Building.
For the Congress, too, the results held a worrying portent: the ground has not just shifted from under the feet of the Left, it has slipped away also from the Congress. It is clear that in many places, such as in the KMC itself, its vote base has shifted to the TC. In the run-up to the polls, the TC had agreed to give the Congress 25 wards in the 141-ward KMC. But the Congress turned down the offer and the alliance broke. Finally, it was able to win just 10 wards against the 15 it held. In sharp contrast, the TC, which held 42 wards, has more than doubled its strength, winning 95.
It was the Congress, therefore, which made the first overtures; on Wednesday, even as the first results were just trickling in, Union Finance Minister and Pradesh Congress chief Pranab Mukherjee told journalists in New Delhi that he would “like to congratulate Mamata Banerjee on her excellent performance in Kolkata and all over Bengal” and that he accepted the verdict of the people “with all humility.”
Interestingly, it has been less than a week since Ms. Banerjee and Mr. Mukherjee engaged in a public spat. On May 26, the TC leader accused the Congress of being in cahoots with the CPI (M). A day later, Mr. Mukherjee threw down the gauntlet, saying the civic polls would decide whether the TC could win on its own or whether it needed Congress support to defeat the CPI (M).
On Wednesday, the acrimony vanished. And Ms. Banerjee, in her hour of triumph, was conciliatory. “I have faith in the Congress leadership,” she said in Kolkata, adding, “I want to keep up relations with the UPA government.” Asked whether the TC and the Congress would contest the Assembly elections together, she said: “I am always open for an alliance. I am in favour of a mahajot [grand alliance].”
But clearly before that mahajot becomes possible, the TC and the Congress need to work together in the 25 municipal corporations, which have returned fractured verdicts. They cannot afford to quarrel as they did last October over mayorship of Siliguri: in the end, the CPI (M) stepped in and backed a Congress Mayor. Sources in Kolkata indicated that the TC and the Congress decided that with just one year left for the Assembly elections, it would be foolish to fight again. The Congress leadership has sent a stern warning down the line to those opposed to the TC, and told them to cooperate with the TC so that they can take dual control of the 25 corporations.
Grim news for Left
Ms. Banerjee is clearly on a high and has asked that the Assembly elections be advanced, a demand that has been turned down by the Left Front leaders. For now, the news continues to be grim for the ruling Left Front, with Wednesday's results confirming the trend that first became visible after the panchayat elections in 2008 and gained strength after the Lok Sabha polls last year.
After the panchayat elections in 2008, the Left parties lost South 24 Parganas and Purba Midnapur districts and found themselves being challenged in North 24 Parganas, Howrah and Nadia districts. So though those results did not look that bad as they still controlled 13 of 17 zilla panchayats, having lost just two, the Left parties fared far worse in the two lower tiers — in panchayat samitis and gram panchayats. But the real message that emerged from those polls was that the Left citadel could be breached. The Congress and the TC fought the Lok Sabha polls together in 2009 and the results were astounding: the Left Front slipped from 35 to 15, an all-time low in its unbroken 32 years of rule, while the TC clawed its way up from 1 to 19 and the Congress won 6.
So, while the Left Parties wait for a miracle in West Bengal, the Congress will have to continue to deal with Ms. Banerjee, who will continue to demand her pound of flesh.