The proposition by Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee that all the political parties in West Bengal that are anti-BJP should come together signals the transformation that is under way in the state.
The BJP is the government in waiting. The Congress, the CPM-led Left Front (which governed the state for over 33 years) and the Trinamul are spent forces, having served for varying lengths as ruling parties.
As and when the next election for the state Assembly happens, which is in 2021, the probability of the BJP winning enough seats to form the government has reached a point of near certainty. It would be a historic change for West Bengal, which has not voted for a ruling party at the Centre in over 40 years. The last time that the ruling party in the state and at the Centre were the same was in 1977, when Siddhartha Shankar Ray was the chief minister and Indira Gandhi was the Prime Minister, and between them they imposed the Emergency in 1975.
For Mamata Banerjee to try and turn the tide against the BJP’s occupation of West Bengal by appealing for a collective effort by historically hostile parties is a gesture that signals her awareness of exactly how unpopular the Trinamul has become after its spectacularly triumphant victory of 2011, when it ousted the CPM- led Left Front. It is also a face-saver; for when she loses, she can blame it on the others.
Assuming that Mamata Banerjee has remembered that “politics is the art of the possible, the attainable — the art of the next best”, her first move has been a disaster. The CPM has rejected it; so has the Congress; and, so have many within her own party, though no one has obviously dared to openly say so. What prevents such an opportunistic alliance is the history of hostility, compounded by the deep distrust in which these parties hold Mamata Banerjee.
The distrust is the summation of all the things that the Trinamul has done to reduce the Congress and the CPM to relics, or in Mamata Banerjee’s words, “signboards”. Violence is just one of the ingredients that has gone into turning these parties into rubble.
The violence has been used to shut down Opposition party offices, deny the Opposition political space to hold meetings, put up flags and retain the various mass organisations that are part of the structures through which political parties mobilise support. The violence has been used to intimidate party workers of the Congress and the CPM and the other Left Front parties; families have been ejected from their homes and voters have been compelled to profess support for the Trinamul.
Total control is the strategy that Ms Banerjee chose when she came to power in 2011, and that is what the Trinamul implemented to fulfil its promise to erase the Opposition from West Bengal.
It was not choosy about how it took control; it did so by inducing leaders, cadres, workers and above all, retainers, from other parties to switch sides. The Congress bled and so did the CPM. The Trinamul grew and grew, with people who joined in droves.
West Bengal under the Trinamul changed into a fluid state, where former loyalties mattered little, political allegiances were meaningless.
The BJP in West Bengal is a beneficiary of this fluidity; it is not squeamish about taking in groups, large and small, of politically active people and the retainers, who are a mobile force of political enforcers, from the Trinamul, the CPM and the Congress. The voteshare in the 2019 elections confirms this openness of the BJP; where the CPM’s loss of about 22 per cent of the votes was the BJP’s gain.
And the BJP is now on a mission to induce mass desertions from the Trinamul in time for the 2021 Assembly elections.
However hard the BJP may try to sell the idea that the desertions and its welcome of the deserters is a fallout of the Trinamul’s failures and Ms Banerjee’s autocratic management of her party, the exodus is not out of any ideological conviction.
The justifications for switching allegiance include long-held grudges of the Hindu population of West Bengal about the imminent danger of being swamped by the Muslim minority, but that is not why the bottomline of the Trinamul has begun breaking away from the party.
The BJP’s acquisition of the capability to unleash violence and hold the Trinamul at bay is based on the shrewd assessment by the retainer-enforcer legions who are professionals in managing illegalities, including violence, that the saffron tide has the capacity to protect the troublemaker.
It is also a measure of the shift underway within the administration that has read signs of the Trinamul’s vulnerability and the BJP’s growing strength.
Having been vengeful during her ascendance, Ms Banerjee has no friends left in West Bengal now that she is on the decline.
Neither the Congress nor the CPM can trust the Trinamul; for that matter, the Congress and the CPM cannot trust each other either. The last-ditch effort of the chief minister to share power and political space with her rivals, inviting the Opposition to evaluate the performance of her government on Scheduled Caste/ Scheduled Tribe programme implementation, support a resolution to contain communal forces in the legislature is not convincing anyone about her good faith.
In 2018, if the Trinamul had allowed free and fair panchayat elections, her appeal for joint resistance would have probably worked. Having bulldozed its way to victory, the distrust against it has deepened and paved the way for the BJP to put itself up as the only alternative.
The trust deficit of all three parties among voters has reached a point where the BJP is the default choice. Not every voter is an ideological convert to the BJP.
Many who want Mamata Banerjee to lose are prepared to believe that even if the BJP collects the entire exodus of retainer-enforcers and dubious leaders from the Trinamul, the organisational efficiency of the Sangh Parivar will prevent the BJP from becoming a clone of the present regime. It is not the next best; but it is not the worst possible option.