THE political situation in West Bengal is in a state of flux, with twists and turns taking place almost every day as the 2021 Assembly election in the State draws near. The ruling Trinamool Congress, which is expecting a stiff challenge from the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), has been on tenterhooks over the past few months with important leaders openly expressing their dissatisfaction with the goings-on in the party and several of them apparently poised to leave. For Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee, whose government has been on the ropes over allegations of corruption at the grassroots and mishandling of the COVID crisis, the state of disarray within her party is a major cause for concern, particularly with the BJP waiting with open arms to welcome dissident Trinamool leaders into its fold.
One of the biggest political developments in recent times has been Trinamool heavyweight Suvendu Adhikari’s increasing estrangement from the party. He is not just one of the pillars of the Trinamool, but also arguably the biggest mass leader in south Bengal after Mamata Banerjee. His departure from the party, which is now imminent, would not only be a major setback to Mamata Banerjee in her bid to return to power in 2021, but also give the BJP a shot in the arm.
Suvendu Adhikari first triggered speculation when he started holding public meetings and rallies without the banner of his party or of Mamata Banerjee. To add fuel to the simmering fire, posters, apparently put up by his supporters, with the message “We are Dada’s [big brother] supporters” began to surface not just in his stronghold of Purba Medinipur, but all over south Bengal, including Kolkata. But when on November 27 Suvendu Adhikari resigned as Minister in charge of Transport, Irrigation, and Water Resources Investigation and Development, the matter reached a flashpoint. Although he had not yet resigned either from the party or from his MLA seat, absolute severance of ties was now only a matter of time.
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Almost immediately, the Trinamool started removing district leaders known to be close to him from their posts. On December 6, a new office was opened in Purulia called “Dada r Augami (Dada’s Followers) Party Office”. Though Suvendu Adhikari did not divulge his next course of action (as of December 7), his close aides have gone on record that he will remain with the Trinamool until he is expelled.
With little hope of any reconciliation, the Trinamool leadership has resigned itself to the exit of one of its most powerful leaders and has started making adjustments and strategies accordingly. On December 7, Mamata Banerjee addressed a massive public rally in Purba Medinipur in support of the agitating farmers in Delhi. “If someone thinks that he can blackmail the Trinamool Congress or bargain with it or make it weak ahead of the elections, I will tell this to the BJP and the BJP’s friends, do not play with fire,” she said at the rally. She did not name anyone, but the object of her attack was clear. The powerful Adhikari family, including Suvendu Adhikari’s father, Sisir Adhikari, and younger brother Dibyendu — both Trinamool Lok Sabha MPs — was conspicuous by its absence.
The rift with Suvendu Adhikari seemed to open the floodgates of grievances and recriminations within the party. On the day he quit the Cabinet, Mihir Goswami, influential Trinamool MLA from Cooch Behar Dakshin constituency, joined the BJP. Around the same time, Silbhadra Dutta, veteran leader and popular legislator from Barrackpore, announced that he would not contest the upcoming election. The Indian Political Action Committee (I-PAC), election strategist Prashat Kishor’s company which Trinamool hired for the Assembly election, failed to dissuade him. However, Silbhadra Dutta said that he had no plan of leaving the party. But Rabindranath Bhattacharya, one of the most respected leaders of the Trinamool, has threatened to leave: “My effort to work with honesty is perhaps what is causing the biggest hurdle for me.”
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State Forest Minister Rajib Banerjee also seems to be heading down the path of Suvendu Adhikari. Days after Suvendu Adhikari resigned from the Cabinet, Rajib Banerjee said: “Every time I have tried to do anything constructive, I have been pulled back and sidelined; and those whom the people cannot tolerate, those who are corrupt and who lie, they are placed at the forefront because they can flatter.”
Rajib Banerjee had embarrassed the party once before in July this year. Amid allegations of rampant corruption in relief distribution in the aftermath of cyclone Amphan, he said some top-level Trinamool leaders were using the party to pursue corrupt practices. “Corruption is corruption. If action is taken only against the small fries, and the bigger leaders are allowed to go scot-free, then it will send the wrong signal to the people,” he said. Soon after his latest outburst, his posters began to mushroom in Kolkata and Howrah, with no reference either to the Trinamool or Mamata Banerjee.
It suits the BJP
The BJP is not only watching its main political opponent desperately trying to keep its house in order but is also extending an open invitation to all disgruntled leaders and workers from the Trinamool to join the saffron party. Joyprakash Majumdar, vice president of the BJP’s Bengal outfit and head of its political analysis department, told Frontline: “Suvendu is the only other mass leader in the Trinamool. His leaving is expected to trigger a large-scale exodus from the Trinamool leadership.”
The BJP’s doors are also open for Rajib Banerjee. Dilip Ghosh, the BJP State president and Lok Sabha MP, said: “He has done good work as a Minister, and if he wants to work with dignity, he should come out of the party.” Dilip Ghosh also commented that the Trinamool’s “death certificate” would be written in December.
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The Trinamool struck back by highlighting a letter apparently written by Sudipta Sen, accused in the multi-crore Saradha scam in connection with which several important Trinamool leaders went to prison. In the letter, dated December 1 and addressed to Prime Minister Narendra Modi and to the Chief Minister, Sudipta Sen alleged that Suvendu Adhikari and several top leaders of the Congress and the Communist Party of India (Marxist) had taken “financial advantage” from him. The leaders were mentioned by name. They include Adhir Ranjan Chowdhuri, who allegedly took Rs.6 crore, Sujan Chakraborty (Rs.9 crore), Mukul Roy (“huge amount of money I cannot remember”, wrote Sudipta), Suvendu Adhikari (Rs.6 crore), Biman Bose (Rs.2 crore), “and some other political leaders of CPI(M), BJP, Congress and TMC (Trinamool)”. Sudipta Sen has been in prison for the last seven years. Sujan Chakraborty, leader of the CPI(M) Legislature Party in the State Assembly, said the accusation was “ridiculous” and “leaders of the Congress and the CPI(M) are the ones who have been fighting for the cause of the people who suffered losses due to the Saradha scam”.
Mamata Banerjee is also worried about the electoral understanding between the Left and the Congress, which will result in a division of votes that may benefit the BJP. In her attacks against them, she has been clubbing all three together. “The BJP, the Congress and the CPI(M) — these three brothers have now become one,” she says. The Trinamool has also tried to counter the adversities with a slew of announcements of government schemes and outreach programmes, most notably “Duarey Sarkar” (government at the doorstep), “Swastha Sathi” (a basic health cover of Rs.5 lakh per family), and a promise to provide electronic tablets for 9.5 lakh higher secondary students, including those in madrasas. However, the vicious factional feuds that have plagued the party for a long time have interfered with the implementation of these projects as well, which is further damaging the ruling party’s image.
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At this crucial juncture, Mamata Banerjee can ill-afford a perception that her party is falling apart. The party may be putting up a brave face in the face of Suvendu Adhikari’s imminent departure, but it is seriously worried. A source in the Trinamool admitted that while Suvendu Adhikari’s exit will be a “big blow” for the party, it is also important to close the issue. Said the source: “This state of uncertainty is demoralising for our workers; and I am sure it is the same for Suvendu’s followers as well.”