Former Mahila Congress president Sushmita Dev’s entry could give a boost to the national ambitions of the Trinamool Congress (TMC) via some north-eastern States, specifically Assam and Tripura that have a sizeable Bengali population.
Ms. Dev, a former MP from southern Assam’s Silchar constituency, quit the Congress on Sunday night and joined the TMC in Kolkata on Monday.
She later met West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee. “I had a fruitful discussion with the CM. She clearly has an excellent vision for the party and I hope to be helpful in that regard,” Ms. Dev said in a video sent via WhatsApp, indicating the role the TMC expects her to play in strengthening the party in Assam.
The TMC had in the past 30 days made it clear that it had set its sights on the northeast, by befriending Assam’s firebrand activist-turned-MLA Akhil Gogoi, and sending senior party leaders to Tripura, to the visible annoyance of the ruling BJP there.
Mr. Gogoi said he made two trips to Kolkata to meet Ms. Banerjee after his release from jail on July 1. “She has proposed a merger of her party with mine [Raijor Dal], but we are more interested in a political alliance,” he said.
Mr. Gogoi wields influence in some pockets of the Assamese-dominated Brahmaputra Valley that is geographically and psychologically separated from the Bengali-dominated Barak Valley comprising three southern Assam districts and 15 of Assam’s 126 Assembly seats.
One of the factors that brought Mr. Gogoi close to Ms. Banerjee was the TMC’s opposition to the Citizenship (Amendment) Act. Ms. Dev, wary of Bengali sentiments in Barak Valley, was allegedly ambiguous about this Act and was often at variance with the Assam unit of the Congress.
Ms. Dev was considered the tallest Congress leader of Barak Valley, having taken over from her father and former Union Minister Santosh Mohan Dev.
A senior TMC leader in Kolkata said the party was looking for a credible face to extend its influence in the northeast, and there “cannot be anyone better than Ms. Dev who brings the legacy of her father with her”.
TMC MP Kakoli Ghosh Dastigar, who returned to Kolkata from Tripura on Monday, described Ms. Dev as an “able and hard working leader who has experience of working at the grassroots level”.
“Her departure is definitely a jolt for the Congress in Barak Valley. But the TMC must be clear on its policies for the issues of both Barak and Brahmaputra Valleys to ensure its future in Assam,” Jayanta Krishna Sarmah of Gauhati University’s Political Science department said.
“The party never expected this [joining TMC] from her after having given her a lot of opportunities to grow as a leader,” Assam Congress spokesperson Bobbeeta Sharma said.
Barak Valley Congress leaders said the party will become stronger without her. “She was working as a BJP agent and had distanced the minorities from Congress. She never allowed any other leader, whether Hindu or Muslim, to come up. Many who left because of her are returning to the Congress,” said former Cachar district Youth Congress vice-president Anwar Laskar.
But there is an air of hope in Tripura, primarily because of her father’s role in installing a Congress government in 1988 and winning the Tripura West parliamentary constituency in 1999.
“Tripura has a long association with the Dev family, and there is no reason why Sushmita cannot replicate her father’s success for TMC. Disgruntlement with the BJP-led government has already seen many people joining our party,” Subal Bhowmik, a former Congress veteran who joined the TMC a fortnight ago told The Hindu .
TMC did show promise in the northeast by winning one Assembly seat out of 23 it contested in the 2001 Assam polls. The party also made a mark in Manipur, winning seven Assembly seats in 2013 and one in 2017. Most of the Manipur MLAs, however, defected to other parties.