Panskura by-election evokes interest in West Bengal politics

Assembly elections in West Bengal are still many months away. But a great deal is at stake for the CPI(M), and therefore for the BJP, as Mr. Jyoti Basu prepares to retire. It is therefore not surprising that the show of strength has already begun. Its outcome will later determine the posture of various parties in regard to adjustment of seats.

The Panskura Lok Sabha seat has fallen vacant, following the death of the CPI's Gita Mukherjee. The by-election is due to be held soon. At a high-level meeting in New Delhi this Sunday, the Congress(I) decided to field its own candidate instead of 'supporting the Trinamool candidate to ensure the defeat of the Left', as is being advocated by influential sections of the State organisation of the Congress. The state president of the National Students Union of India (NSUI), Mr. Subhankar Sarkar, is to be the Congress candidate. The meeting was presided over by Mrs. Sonia Gandhi. Others present were the State unit president, Mr. A.B.A. Ghani Khan Chowdhury, the State working president, Mr. Priya Ranjan Das Munshi, the AICC general secretary, Mr. Ghulam Nabi Azad, and the senior Congress(I) leader Mr. Pranab Mukherjee.

Gita Mukherjee walked away with the Panskura seat in the 1999 elections, with 4.01 lakh votes. Mr. Gouri Ghosh of the Trinamool Congress was the runner up, with 3.54 lakh votes. The Congress was a distant third with 59,000 votes. Under these circumstances, it is not easy to understand why the party has chosen to go it on its own in this constituency, at the risk of further alienating dissidents at the state level, who only the other day voted against the wishes of the high command in the Rajya Sabha elections.

Given the extremely poor showing by the party in Panskura in 1999, it would seem that Mrs. Gandhi has been given some assurance of outside support. Perhaps she has been assured CPI(M) support for the by-election in exchange for keeping her distance from the Trinamool Congress, `tainted' as the latter is by its alliance with the BJP. No doubt, the seat was won in 1999 by the CPI, not by the CPI(M). But, according to the recent assessment of a former Finance Minister of the CPI(M), it is only with the CPI(M)'s backing that its allies in West Bengal are able to win seats.

If true, this would mean that if the CPI(M) has, for tactical reasons, decided to support the Congress(I), there is little the CPI would be able to do about it; particularly now that it can no longer draw on the local popularity and charisma of Gita Mukherjee.

The CPI, however, has in the meantime announced that it will field Mr. Gurudas Dasgupta, who, after a long and distinguished stint in the Rajya Sabha, was unable to win back his seat during the recent elections because of the CPI(M)'s inability to back his candidature. The CPI had at one stage threatened to walk out of Mr. Jyoti Basu's Government on this issue.

Under these circumstances, the by-election is sure to be watched with a great deal of interest.