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What will Mamata Banerjee do next?

By T V R Shenoy
June 07, 2010 10:28 IST
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The Congress is reaping in Kolkata what it sowed in Siliguri. And anyone that believes Mamata Banerjee won't shove the fact in Congress faces obviously doesn't know the lady.

Just to refresh everyone's memories, in September 2009 polls were held for the Siliguri local body. The Trinamool Congress and the Congress together won 30 of the 47 seats in the Siliguri Municipal Corporation. The Congress won 15 seats and the Trinamool Congress bagged 14 -- but the latter then claimed the support of an Independent, Ranjan Sil Sharma.

The Congress, however, insisted on the mayor's seat -- and went to the extent of forming a coalition with the Left Front to get its way. Mamata Banerjee was predictably -- understandably -- furious.

This lunacy on the part of the Congress was the genesis of the Trinamool Congress's disenchantment with its ally. But the repercussions would go well beyond rousing Mamata Banerjee's wrath.

Here is what I wrote back in October last year: "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?"

This is exactly what the voters of West Bengal thought when they went to the polls to elect municipalities across the state eight months later.

1,792 wards were up for grabs, spread across 81 civic bodies. The results are still trickling in as I write but the Trinamool Congress seems set to win 825 or so. That may be less than a majority but it shall be more than the CPI-M and the Congress put together if the trends hold.

The biggest feather in the Trinamool cap is undoubtedly the Kolkata Municipal Corporation, where the party astounded even itself by Mamata Banerjee's own admission -- winning 95 of the 141 wards. (In neighbouring Bidhannagar the party won 16 of the 25 wards.) The icing on the cake was that West Bengal Chief Minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee lost votes in his own assembly seat of Jadavpur. (Bhattacharjee won the seat by a massive margin of 58,130 in 2006; in 2010 the tide turned and the Marxists are now in the red by over a thousand votes -- minor but significant.)

But the biggest loser is not so much the CPI-M as it is the Congress. On May 27, Pranab Mukherjee tried to read Mamata Banerjee the riot act in Ranaghat. Without naming his Cabinet colleague, the Union finance minister warned her against repeating 'Karat's mistake', namely breaking ranks with the United Progressive Alliance. 'We ran an alliance with 147 MPs and we can run an alliance now that we have 207 MPs.'

Ranaghat is home to Shankar Singh, a Congress leader noted for his opposition to Mamata Banerjee. (He was supposed to be one of those who backed the infamous deal with the CPI-M in Siliguri.) Let us just say that neither Pranab Mukherjee's words nor the Congressmen that cheered him on sweetened the peppery Trinamool Congress boss.

So how did the Congress fare in Ranaghat? Suffice it to say that the Trinamool Congress won 16 of the 19 seats and Pranab Mukherjee was reduced to congratulating Mamata Banerjee.

The finance minister also shared Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee's humiliating fate; deprived of Trinamool Congress support, the Congress was beaten by the CPI-M in Jangipur municipality. (Mukherjee's Lok Sabha seat is Jangipur.) And as in Ranaghat so in the rest of the state, with the Congress losing, for instance, even the little ground that it held in Kolkata.

If Jangipur was a lesson in humiliation for the Congress it was also a lesson in caution for the Trinamool Congress. The CPI-M certainly would not have won had the 'Mahajot' (grand alliance) between the UPA 'allies' held together.

Mamata Banerjee, operating on the sound principle that 'the best form of defence is offence', has placed the onus of rebuilding trust on the Congress. In other words, the Congress must grovel a little and then accept its role as a junior partner in West Bengal.

If I might again quote myself from eight months ago: "The West Bengal assembly elections are 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?"

Those terms certainly won't be any sweeter now that Mamata Banerjee has proved her hold over West Bengal so convincingly.

Looking beyond, however, there are a couple of questions that arise from the Trinamool Congress's latest victory in West Bengal.

First, how exactly will the Trinamool Congress keep its promise of 'parivartan' (change) in the state? The party campaigned against raising rates on water and road usage; without tapping into these and such other where will it find the money to do what it wants? Essentially, is the Trinamool Congress ready to be responsible if it comes to power?

Secondly, what lesson will the other allies in the United Progressive Alliance draw? Mamata Banerjee has been strident -- even defiant -- when it comes to protecting her turf, even risking outright rupture with the Congress. She has been repaid by the voters. Will other parties too draw the same lesson?

They say a week is a long time in politics. The assembly elections in West Bengal are almost twelve months away. It promises to be an interesting time indeed.

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T V R Shenoy