WHEN WEST BENGAL CHIEF MINISTER Mamata Banerjee announced her party’s support for UPA presidential candidate Pranab Mukherjee last month after much resistance, she did not fail to add she was doing so with a “heavy heart”. Outmanoeuvred by the Congress and clearly short of options, the usually combative Mamata was forced to throw in the towel. After her audacious proposal to field Manmohan Singh as the UPA candidate, which Sonia Gandhi simply laughed off, Mamata had pitched for APJ Abdul Kalam and then Bengal’s disgruntled Leftist, former Speaker Somnath Chatterjee. Perhaps realising that defeat would be inevitable, Kalam backed off from the race, as did Mamata’s first choice for vice-president, former Bengal governor Gopal Krishna Gandhi. Both politely thanked the Bengal tigress for her support but said they would not contest.
UP strongman Mulayam Singh Yadav, who had initially backed Mamata’s presidential choices, abandoned her quickly, and as decisively as he had pulled the rug from under the feet of the Left in the rundown to the 2008 trust vote on the Indo-US nuclear deal. Her bête noire, the CPI (M)-led Left, used the situation to their advantage in Bengal, stirring things up by backing Pranab Mukherjee as well as the UPA’s vice-presidential nominee, Hamid Ansari. If Mamata had intended to further consolidate her support base amongst Bengal’s Muslims by pitching for Kalam as president, surely she should have realised that it was unwise to oppose Hamid Ansari, who, like Pranab Mukherjee, has strong Bengal connections.
As events played out, Mamata found herself in danger of isolating herself both within and outside the UPA—her only two choices, if she pursued the confrontation, would be to quit the UPA and go over to the NDA, or stand her ground alone. Neither appeared attractive enough for a regional party like the Trinamool Congress. Additionally, whichever path she chose, Mamata could also not afford to underestimate the dissent of her own party leaders. After all, a key factor in maintaining her authority has been the loyalty of her cadre. For most of her top lieutenants, who, like her, started off in the Congress, the option of returning to the parent party is a straightforward one, which they can exercise if they find Mamata’s politics unacceptable, or unfavourable for their political fortunes.
Some feel strongly that Mamata’s politics of perpetual protest and continuous confrontation is getting Bengal nowhere—that if Mamata opposes the UPA on everything from FDI retail to the presidential candidate, Bengal would risk being left stranded, without adequate federal support. Many of them are unhappy they haven’t received the kind of recognition within the party they claim they deserve, considering their experience and track record, while several newcomers have risen in the ranks.
Consider a Somen Mitra (former Pradesh Congress president before he joined the Trinamool) or a Subrata Mukherjee (the youngest minister in Siddhartha Shankar Ray’s Congress government between 1972-76), forced to accept the rise of relative upstarts like Mukul Roy (current Union minister of railways) in the Trinamool. Or a seasoned bureaucrat like Manish Gupta (former chief secretary of West Bengal and now the state’s minister for development and planning) or the former FICCI chief Amit Mitra (now the state’s finance minister) forced to accept the diktats of a relatively junior former company executive like Partha Chatterjee on economics, finance and corporate affairs, just because he is the present state minister for commerce and industries. Neither can one discount the humiliated former Union railway minister Dinesh Trivedi sulking in the wings, waiting for a revolt to erupt in the party.
“There is serious resentment against the Didi-worshipping brigade, a group of upstarts whose meteoric rise in the Trinamool Congress can only be explained by their blind loyalty to Mamata, backed by very little ability,” says long-time Bengal watcher and writer Ashis Biswas. Sukhoranjan Dasgupta, another senior scribe, agrees: “Mamata loves cronies and street-fighters. She is uncomfortable with cerebral people because she is not quite up to their levels. The trouble is Bengal desperately needs very cerebral people with capacity for out-of-the-box thinking to pull the state out of the woods.”
Mamata’s anger against Pranab Mukherjee stems from a strong concern for her own state—she holds Mukherjee responsible for the fact that the Centre has not provided the state with the debt relief package she has demanded for the last year, including a three-year moratorium on repayment of funds West Bengal has borrowed from the Centre. This same resentment led her to embarrass Prime Minister Manmohan Singh during his September 2011 visit to Dhaka, when Mamata refused to join his entourage of chief ministers from north-eastern states bordering Bangladesh. Her doing so put the proposed Teesta river water sharing deal with Bangladesh on the backburner, jeopardising the already tense India-Bangladesh relations, which had reached an unprecedented high following Sheikh Hasina’s crackdown on north-eastern militant groups sheltered in Bangladesh.
This certainly didn’t help Mamata’s popularity in Bangladesh. For Sonia Gandhi and her trusted lieutenant Ahmed Patel, meanwhile, her behaviour over the Teesta deal must have been unacceptable. Aware that many of Mamata’s senior party members were unhappy and open to defecting, they allegedly told a small group of state Congress leaders to explore the possibility of splitting the Trinamool. Going by their claims (though they will not go public with the details), they have managed to win over many Trinamool MPs and MLAs who are locked in severe factional feuds and complain of inadequate attention by ‘didi’, as Mamata enjoys being called.
Mamata was in trouble, the full extent of which she began to realise only after being trumped by the veteran Pranab Mukherjee in the run-up to the presidential campaign. As she faced increasing isolation, Mukherjee managed to win friends across the political spectrum, including the Left. The two are contrasts in politics. Mamata, in line with the Bengal Congress’s long history of confronting the high command—a history that includes figures like CR Das, Subhas Chandra Bose and Ajoy Mukherjee—broke away from the parent party. But unlike those leaders, she has managed to marginalise the Congress in the state. Meanwhile, Pranab Mukherjee, after a brief period of angst with Rajiv Gandhi, chose discretion over valour and returned to the Congress fold. And while Mukherjee is often referred to as “the best prime minister India never had”, the quintessential bhadralok is finally ending his political career on a bit of a high. He managed this by the simple tactic of staying loyal to the Gandhi-Nehru clan and avoiding confrontation with the Congress High Command.
For the Congress, embarrassed by a season of faux pas, scams and avoidable scandals, the taming of Mamata is timely. It reconstitutes the UPA into some kind of shape, reminds smaller partners who the boss is, and gives the coalition the appearance of a house that, despite its squabbles, will not fall apart anytime soon. Mamata herself summed up the situation when she attributed her decision to support Mukherjee to the “practical requirements of coalition politics”. The point was driven home—a party based in Bengal with a few lawmakers in Manipur and Arunachal Pradesh, and top lieutenants who would have no qualms returning to their parent party if it suits their interests, cannot do without the Big Brother that runs the Centre.