Kolkata is often described as a city of protests. Street marches against the amended citizenship law and proposed NRC almost every day for the last month have helped burnish that image of Kolkata.
One of those protests on the night of January 11 at Esplanade East generated enough political heat to potentially alter the template of the political standoff in West Bengal, which faces two crucial electoral battles in the coming months—the Kolkata civic body poll in March or April this year and fresh assembly elections that are due in 2021. It is a template that could be a little different from the one seen in the run-up to the Lok Sabha poll in April-May of last year, when it was a straight fight between the Mamata Banerjee-led Trinamool Congress and the Bharatiya Janata Party. It also provides a clue towards Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee’s strategy for the two separate upcoming polls.
The cold night of January 11 brought Mamata face to face—in what was possibly her closest encounter—with activists of an assorted group of leftist student unions of Kolkata, barely 100 metres from the Raj Bhavan. The students were protesting her meeting with Prime Minister Narendra Modi at Raj Bhavan half an hour earlier which, they claimed, diluted her fight against the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) and NRC. They broke through police cordons and engaged in a war of words with Mamata, who was on the dais of an anti-CAA/NRC protest led by the student front of her party. Nothing could be more telling than Leftist students questioning Mamata’s meeting with Modi, especially if we recall how many times Marxist Chief Ministers of West Bengal, Kerala and Tripura have met Congress and BJP Prime Ministers in the past without drawing even a whisper of protests. It only shows how political divides are deepening in India today.
When the pro-Left students questioned Mamata on why she met Modi, she explained it as part of her ‘constitutional obligation’ and said that she had raised with the PM certain financial issues relating to West Bengal. It appears that what began as a collective fight by the Trinamool Congress, the Left and Congress against the CAA and NRC has veered off to some extent into a tussle between the Left, Congress and Trinamool Congress.
A meeting between an Indian Chief Minister and the PM is usually treated as a normal matter. However, given the highly politically polarised and surcharged atmosphere since the CAA was passed by parliament in December, the Modi-Mamata meeting on January 11 led to a lot of speculation in political circles. Mamata’s critics were not willing to buy her “constitutional obligation” argument because she has in the past chosen to skip a number of meetings of Chief Ministers convened by Modi, as well as NITI Aayog (formerly Planning Commission) meetings presided over by the PM. Such actions by Mamata have given rise to a perception of adversarial, if not inimical, political relations.
The challenge for Mamata was to strike a balance between meeting the Prime Minister as Chief Minister and the image of herself as an indefatigable street fighter who opposes tooth and nail the Modi government’s CAA/NRC agenda. She must have known that she is walking on thin ice in her two different roles.
The question doing the rounds in political circles is: why did Mamata interact with the pro-Left students on January 11 and was unusually conciliatory towards them, knowing full well that they belong to the frontal wings of the Left parties that she single-handedly fought for several years before 34 years of Left rule ended in Bengal in May, 2011?
It has been suggested by some analysts that Mamata is seeking to create a greater space for opposition in West Bengal, where the Left and Congress have become increasingly marginalised in the last eight years, particularly during last year’s national elections which allowed the Bharatiya Janata Party to outgrow the Left-Congress duo in terms of Lok Sabha seats. Mamata is aware that the BJP’s remarkable advance in the last Lok Sabha polls was to a large extent due to the decline of the Left and the Congress and the shift of anti-Trinamool Congress votes to the saffron vote bank.
There is a view in the Trinamool Congress that the BJP’s surge could be checked if the anti-establishment vote base is not allowed to be consolidated and divided among the rivals of the Trinamool Congress. At a time when the battle in Bengal was shaping up to be a two-horse race involving the Trinamool Congress and the BJP, especially after the last Lok Sabha elections which saw the saffron party gaining an unprecedented 18 seats in the state, the anti-CAA/NRC protests have come handy for the Left and the Congress to try and bounce back after getting mauled in two successive national elections in 2014 and 2019. Observers see Mamata’s conversations with the Leftist students as a bid to also expand that race by including the Left parties and Congress.
Mamata’s boycott of the opposition parties’ meeting called by Sonia Gandhi in New Delhi on January 13 and her refusal to accept the demand of the Left and the Congress to get a resolution passed in the state assembly against CAA have, therefore, elicited a sharp push-back from the Left and the Congress in Bengal, but this is not enough to cause a resurgence of the Left-Congress in the state.
Political strategies do not always work according to script. The move to pit the Left-Congress against BJP to hurt the saffron party may not have the intended effect for two reasons. First, if the Left and the Congress succeed in securing greater traction to their allegations made previously about a tacit Trinamool Congress-BJP understanding, it may shift anti-BJP votes, even if partially, away from Trinamool. Can the ruling party risk that? In any case, the allegation has so far made little impact in West Bengal.
Secondly, for the BJP, the primary target of attack remains the Trinamool Congress; and the saffron party in no way will cede its space to the Left or Congress. This was evident in Modi’s speech at an event in Kolkata, a day after the January 11 meeting. With Mamata not present on January 12, Modi made a dig at her government for not implementing the federal government’s ambitious health insurance scheme and wondered if this was due to money being cut from the project. This was Modi’s reference to widespread graft charges against several Trinamool local level leaders in launching social welfare schemes in various districts.
Pallab Bhattacharya is a special correspondent for The Daily Star. He writes from India.