Olive Branches in Hand, Mamata Banerjee Prepares For 2016 Elections

The West Bengal chief minister’s strategy is to keep anti-BJP forces with her and away from the CPI(M)

File photo of Mamata Bannerjee. Credit: Biswarup Ganguly

File photo of Mamata Banerjee. Credit: Biswarup Ganguly

Mamata Banerjee’s freedom to form and discard political associations gives her matchless flexibility to stitch together electoral strategies. In her defence of Sonia Gandhi in the National Herald case and indeed in her meeting with the Congress president recently in New Delhi, Banerjee displayed her chameleon-like capacity to adapt to the emerging political climate.

The possible overture to the Congress is based on the need to find friends for the 2016 West Bengal state assembly elections, when Banerjee will need to defend her first term as chief minister which carries the associated baggage of anti-incumbency. The rainbow political, social and cultural alliance that Banerjee forged starting with the Singur and Nandigram land acquisition movement has faded, if not evaporated. Unlike 2011, the forthcoming elections will not be a straight fight with a foregone conclusion: the inevitability of defeat for the ruling Left Front led by the Communist Party of India (Marxist) for an unbroken 34 years.

For Banerjee, renewing the bond with the Congress is like buying an assurance policy; the return on investment will be a guaranteed multiplier effect in the number of seats that the Trinamool Congress wins in 2016. In alliance with the Congress and the Socialist Unity Centre of India with support from a rag tag bundle of political formations, the Trinamool Congress won 227 seats in 2011. The associations and partnerships helped to consolidate the anti-CPI (M) sentiment and swing the vote in the Trinamool Congress’s favour, helping it capture a vote share of just under 40%. Its vote share has touched 49% in the Kolkata civic elections, but that was a one-off high.

The Trinamool Congress needs one or more partners for the 2016 elections to give it the numerical edge that will confirm its dominance in West Bengal politics. For that it needs to win a convincing two-thirds of the votes in the 294 seat state assembly. If the Trinamool fights on its own, it will be up against three politically prominent rivals, namely the Congress, however debilitated, the CPI (M)-Left Front, however anaemic and the Bharatiya Janata Party, however energetic. Unlike in 2011, the Trinamool Congress has lost the social and cultural capital it had attracted in its furious assault on the CPI (M). As the ruling party, it has lost the biggest advantage it had in 2011, when it netted the political capital of anti-incumbency by giving leadership to the accumulated discontents of the overlong Left regime of 34 years.

Wooing the Congress

The olive branch to the Congress is only one of the many that Banerjee has recently offered to a host of political parties. She has made overtures to the Aam Admi Party, to the Janata Dal (United), to the Rashtriya Janata Dal and keeps sending feelers to the Samajwadi Party as well as any other hopefuls with pockets of voters in constituencies across West Bengal. The strategy is simple; Banerjee wants to attach every possible regional political party to the Trinamool Congress to cut out the CPI (M) as well as to harvest the votes that such partnerships can yield. In this, Banerjee knows that the CPI (M) is hoping to make common cause with parties that are anti-BJP, which includes the Congress.

In wooing the Congress high command as openly as Banerjee has done, it is evident that she hopes to gain the first mover advantage over the local Congress leadership, which is openly hostile to the possibility of a deal being made by the national level leadership of the Grand Old Party. For the state-level Congress leaders, the Trinamool Congress may be a toxic partnership that will only further debilitate the party. If Banerjee can finesse the local Congress leaders out of the deal making process then she is reasonably certain that Sonia Gandhi and the central leadership of the party will seriously explore the possibility of an alliance with the Trinamool in order to protect the seats that it considers its own, mostly in North Bengal.     

The Trinamool Congress’s reasons for racing to cut in with the Congress is the fear that the CPI (M) may work out an arrangement with the party, which would work to its advantage in 2016. The strategy of consolidating the anti-Trinamool vote has paid dividends in the recent Siliguri municipal and district elections, which makes the threat real for Banerjee. Even though within the CPI (M) there are more people who find the idea of any arrangement with Congress repulsive, there is an undercurrent of fantastical thinking within the Left that it can regain some of its lost power by adopting a flexible political strategy.

As the one and virtually only decision maker in the Trinamool Congress, Banerjee enjoys the freedom to send out feelers, chat up possible allies and bargain for deals without any squeamish concerns about her past alliances and future consequences. This is a freedom that is denied to the CPI (M), because of its structural rigidity and to the Congress and the BJP, because of larger considerations. As a regional party, the Trinamool Congress needs to have a secure base from which it can exert influence at the national level. This is an ambition that Banerjee has nursed for some years now and the cosying up to the Congress is one step in reaching that particular position of being a regional party with a national presence. It is a role that the Trinamool Congress has played many times, most recently in 2009 and the appetite to repeat the act has only grown keener for having been deprived of national power since 2012.

Shikha Mukherjee is a Kolkata-based political commentator