The new allegations could hurt the Trinamool even as the party faces the possibility of the CPI(M) and the Congress joining hands.
Five years ago, her election slogan was poriborton (change). This month, as Mamata Banerjee kicked off her campaign to retain power in West Bengal, the slogan has become much more dramatic: Thanda, thanda cool, cool... abar asbe Trinamool (Be cool, the Trinamool Congress will come back to power). As fate would have it, a few days after Mamata launched the new slogan, her party is facing the heat of corruption following a sting operation conducted by a Delhi-based news portal.
The portal, Narada News, released a video footage on March 14 showing eleven senior Trinamool leaders and a serving police officer from West Bengal taking bribes. These politicians—former Union minister Mukul Roy, former state transport minister Madan Mitra, senior ministers Subrata Mukherjee and Firhad Hakim, MPs Saugata Roy, Sultan Ahmad, Suvendu Adhikari, Kakoli Ghosh Dastidar and Prasoon Banerjee, MLA Iqbal Ahmad and Kolkata Mayor Sovan Chatterjee—and IPS officer M.H.A. Mirza were shown as accepting or demanding money for favours including lobbying for Impex Consultancy, a company set up for the sting operation. Over $70 lakh was allegedly paid to the politicians and the officer. Although the sting operation was carried out during the 2014 Lok Sabha elections, the timing of its release could not have been more damaging for Mamata.
Surya Kanta Mishra, state secretary of the CPI(M), said what was revealed in the sting operation was unprecedented in the political history of West Bengal. “I had some respect for Saugata Roy and Subrata Mukherjee, which I have just lost. The entire Trinamool Congress is run by the corrupt and hooligans. We demand immediate action by the Election Commission,” said Mishra.
Roy, who refuted the allegations, said the video was doctored and that he would contest it. When asked whether the Trinamool was planning to mount a legal challenge, he said, “We are open to all necessary action.” Trinamool Congress secretary-general Partha Chatterjee said the party would discuss the issue in detail after Mamata returned from her north Bengal trip. Trinamool spokesperson Derek O'Brien issued a statement criticising the sting operation. “All I can say to my political opponents is, come and fight us politically. Do not take recourse to your dirty tricks department,” he said.
The Lok Sabha on March 15 witnessed a ruckus over the allegations. While the BJP, Congress and left MPs demanded action against the alleged culprits, the Trinamool members defended their colleagues saying the video was part of a conspiracy against the Mamata government.
The new allegations could hurt the Trinamool's prospects in the elections even as the party faces the possibility of the CPI(M) and the Congress joining hands. A Congress leader said there was a belief that Mamata could be defeated in Bhabanipur this time. “But a strong BJP candidate has crushed our hope.” In the 2014 Lok Sabha elections, the Trinamool had trailed in the Bhabanipur assembly segment of the Kolkata Dakshin Lok Sabha constituency by around 5,000 votes. The CPI(M) has left the assembly seat to the Congress this time, but the BJP is fielding Chandra Bose, grandnephew of Subhas Chandra Bose. “If Chandra Bose could take away Mamata’s votes like the BJP candidate did during the last Lok Sabha elections, we can think of winning the seat. But the Modi wave in 2014 is missing this time,” said the Congress leader.
Mamata and her party can draw comfort from the fact that the bickering within the Left Front over seat sharing with the Congress has come out in the open. The CPI(M) is unwilling to cede much space in places like south Bengal, where the Congress has little presence. The Congress, too, is not prepared to give up seats, a sentiment which has hardened considerably following party vice president Rahul Gandhi's directive that the party’s interests should not be sacrificed. “Rahul has told us that under no circumstances should we give away our winning seats to alliance partners,” said a senior Congress leader, who was part of a delegation that met Rahul last month. State Congress president Adhir Chowdhury, who once talked about bigger sacrifices for the alliance, has now confirmed that the Congress and the left would enter into a “friendly fight” in at least a dozen seats.
The alliance with the Congress has divided the CPI(M). While Left Front secretary and Polit Bureau member Biman Bose said the CPI(M) would never share a platform with the Congress and that the alliance would be based only on seat sharing, the faction led by Mishra chose to launch his campaign in his constituency Narayangarh in the company of Congress leaders. He also asked his supporters to be in touch with the local Congress leadership. Mishra is seen as the CPI(M)'s chief ministerial candidate.
Division is evident among the CPI(M)'s traditional allies, too. The RSP, CPI and Forward Bloc are still controlled by veterans, who are not comfortable with forging ties with the Congress. RSP state secretary Kshitij Goswami said the Congress could well ally with the Trinamool after the elections. “If needed, the Congress high command might force its Bengal leaders to join hands with the Trinamool Congress. If that happens, what would we tell our workers?” asked Goswami.
After realising that seat adjustment with the Congress would not be approved by its left allies, the CPI(M) launched direct talks with the Congress. But it spoiled the Left Front’s negotiations with parties such as the Socialist Unity Centre of India. The SUCI, which had allied with the Trinamool in 2011, has decided to go it alone this time. “It is a serious issue for us. We could have won many seats in South 24 Parganas district had the SUCI been with us,” said a CPI(M) leader from the district, which is an SUCI stronghold.
A CPI(M) state committee member said his party had reached an adjustment with the Congress in more than 250 seats. “That itself is a big achievement although a grand alliance involving all parties like in Bihar could not be a possibility,” he said. But he warned that when the final list of candidates was out, many disgruntled leaders could contest as independents, which could help the Trinamool.
Apart from the Congress, the CPI(M) is also working with the Gorkha Janamukti Morcha, which is, in fact, a constituent of the National Democratic Alliance. It has already announced support for three GJM candidates in the Darjeeling hills. The GJM has made it clear that it is working to defeat the Trinamool Congress in this elections.
However, for those who are hoping for a change of guard in Kolkata, the left alliance’s list of candidates has been a disappointment. “I am not at all happy seeing the list of candidates. The CPI(M) is still living in the age when their cadres used to manipulate the election and when candidates did not matter. They had earlier promised that their candidates would be from different walks of life and include well-known faces. But this is nothing but old wine in new bottle,” said academician Sunando Sanyal, who worked to set up the Save Democracy Forum to oppose “Mamata’s misrule”. Sanyal quit the organisation after a large number of CPI(M) workers joined it. He said the sanctity of such a forum, which was set up as a watchdog of political forces in West Bengal, was lost after it started accepting CPI(M) workers and leaders. “Seeing its candidates, I don’t think the CPI(M) has reformed completely. Then how could one allow its leaders to be part of the forum?” asked Sanyal.
Although the left alliance wooed many of its members to participate in the election, the forum made a unanimous decision to keep away from electoral politics. However, two of its members, Jadavpur University professor Ambikesh Mahapatra, who was arrested for sharing a Mamata cartoon on Facebook, and Pratima Dutta, the wife of a Trinamool Congress leader who was killed in intra party violence, are fighting as independent candidates.
“The Mamata government is very unpopular,” said Sanyal. “So, a tie-up [between the left and the Congress] will make the elections 50:50. However, had they been dynamic in choosing their candidates, the combine could have won easily.”