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Watch out for Bengal polls next!

Last updated on: October 14, 2009 08:38 IST
Voting -- and shooting -- are both underway in Maharashtra and in Haryana as I write. (The violence provides a bloodstained footnote to what were, thus far, remarkably tepid campaigns.) Almost forgotten in the hurly-burly is the third state that is electing an assembly -- Arunachal Pradesh.

This strategically located state in the north-east presents some interesting aspects that set it apart from the other two. In three of the sixty seats -- Lumla, Tawang, and Mukto -- only the Congress has put up candidates, without even an Independent candidate in the fray. For another, Arunachal Pradesh is offering us the curious phenomenon of the United Progressive Alliance partners fighting each other in the state.

It is true, if never openly acknowledged, that the Congress and the Nationalist Congress Party do not see eye to eye in Maharashtra but at least they are not openly at odds in that state. In Arunachal Pradesh, however, it is not just the Nationalist Congress Party but even the Trinamool Congress that has put up candidates against the senior ally.

The Trinamool Congress has never been regarded as anything but a party firmly rooted in the soil of West Bengal. So what led Mamata Banerjee to put up twenty-six candidates in Arunachal Pradesh this time?

(Ten of the Trinamool Congress candidates are Congress MLAs who were denied a ticket this time around. There is a likelihood that some of them shall cut into the parent party's votes.)

The Trinamool Congress does not, I think, entertain any grand illusions of becoming a major power in Arunachal Pradesh. It seems to be more of revenge for the Congress's 'betrayal' in the Siliguri local body elections.

Those polls, held in September, saw the end of the Left Front domination of this commercial hub of northern Bengal. The Trinamool Congress and the Congress won thirty of the forty-seven seats in the Siliguri Municipal Corporation. The Congress won fifteen seats and the Trinamool Congress bagged fourteen -- but the latter then claimed the support of an Independent, Ranjan Sil Sharma. (He, by the way, achieved a measure of local fame as the teacher who spat on an education department official.)

Both the Congress and the Trinamool Congress insisted on taking the mayor's chair. The Congress then astounded everyone by approaching the Left Front. The Left leapt at the opportunity, throwing in seventeen councillors behind the Congress. Gayatri Dutta now reigns as mayor of Siliguri with the support of the Left Front, while her election ally, the Trinamool Congress, sits on the Opposition benches.

With marvellously misguided timing, the Congress cut the deal on the first of October -- thus ensuring that Gandhi Jayanti was celebrated in Siliguri with Trinamool Congress protesting against 'dishonesty' and 'betrayal.'

Whatever the Congress calculations, it was never a good idea to try these tricks on the fiery Mamata Banerjee. Ten days after the shenanigans in Siliguri the Trinamool Congress persuaded sixteen of the nineteen Congress councillors in the Ranaghat Municipal Corporation (Nadia district) to defect. They argued that the Siliguri experience proved the Congress was unwilling to take on the Left Front.

Parthosarathi Chattopadhyay and his fifteen colleagues are correct. If the Congress and the CPI-M can join hands in Siliguri, why should they not do so elsewhere in West Bengal? And where does that leave all those who want an alternative to the Left Front except with Mamata Banerjee?

It was against the backdrop of the events in West Bengal that the Trinamool Congress decided to put up candidates in Arunachal Pradesh. The Congress high command in Delhi is now wondering where the matter will end.

The West Bengal assembly election is due in 2011. Will Mamata Banerjee be amenable to continuing the alliance that proved so successful in the Lok Sabha polls? Even if the Trinamool Congress agrees to continue its partnership with the Congress on what terms shall it do so?

Students of electoral history may find a precedent in neighbouring Bihar. The Bharatiya Janata Party and the Janata Dal-United swept the state in the 1999 Lok Sabha polls, winning forty-one of Bihar's fifty-four seats. (This was before the creation of Jharkhand.)

Within months Ram Vilas Paswan had walked out of the Janata Dal-United, the BJP and the Janata Dal-United were squabbling, and they fought each other in the Vidhan Sabha polls of 2000. The only victor was a delighted Laloo Prasad Yadav, whose Rashtriya Janata Dal proceeded to rule Bihar for five more years.

The Left Front was on its knees after electoral reverses in the Lok Sabha and local body elections. Now, much to its own surprise, the CPI-M has been thrown a lifeline by the Congress.

The Marxists have seized the opportunity with both hands. Eleven days after the accord in Siliguri Chief Minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee came to Delhi to discuss the Naxalite menace. At a televised press conference, he took care to praise the 'wisdom' of the Congress prime minister while running down what he called the 'juvenile' behaviour of the railway minister.

Polling on the west coast will be over in a few hours as I write. The manoeuvring for position on the east coast has already started -- all thanks to the Congress's lust for power in a single municipal corporation.

Gayatri Dutta may be the mayor of Siliguri today, but will the price be a Left Front chief minister after the 2010 assembly election? You could say that the Left Front has seized victory from the jaws of defeat by chanting the Gayatri-mantra!

T V R Shenoy