West Bengal’s ruling party, Mamata Banerjee’s Trinamool Congress (TMC), on Sunday, named four Rajya Sabha nominees of the party for the coming February 27 election, a list that reflected the party’s national, regional and local interests.
Five Rajya Sabha seats from West Bengal are falling vacant and the victory of the TMC is certain in four while the other is set to go to the BJP.
The BJP on the same day named state unit veteran Samik Bhattacharya, a former MLA and the state unit’s chief spokesperson, as its nominee. This is being seen as a gesture to BJP ‘old-timers’, many of whom have recently been offended or upset by the growing influence of ‘newcomers’ in the state unit.
The surprise inclusion in the TMC list was senior Delhi-based journalist Sagarika Ghose, while senior Assam leader Sushmita Dev is being sent to the Upper House again, after a brief break of six months.
The two other TMC nominees are Mamata Thakur, a former Lok Sabha MP and prominent leader of the refugee Matua community, and Mohammed Nadimul Haque, the owner and editor of Akhbar-e-Mashriq, one of West Bengal’s most influential Urdu dailies. Haque, who was first sent to the Rajya Sabha in 2012, got a straight third term.
“Today’s list of candidates has two very important messages. Three out of the four are women. Mamata Banerjee is sending more women to the parliament. We do not know when the women’s reservation law passed by the Modi government will be implemented but Mamata Banerjee is walking the talk,” Dev told The Wire after the announcement a day ago.
The TMC currently has Dola Sen and Mausam Noor in the Rajya Sabha and the inclusion of three more would mean five out of 13 TMC Rajya Sabha MPs are women.
The other message was, Dev said regarding her nomination, that this was the first time that a politician from the northeast has been twice sent to the Rajya Sabha from outside the northeast.
According to TMC veterans, the nomination of Ghose reflects the party’s ambition to have prominent ‘liberal faces’ addressing the national audience.
The TMC’s Rajya Sabha team already includes Jawhar Sircar, former Prasar Bharati CEO and India culture secretary, and Delhi-based journalist-turned-Right to Information (RTI) activist Saket Gokhale.
Ghose, who has played leading roles both in India’s print and broadcast media, has authored, among other books, Why I Am A Liberal. A Manifesto for Indians Who Believe In Individual Freedom. She is married to prominent TV anchor Rajdeep Sardesai.
Her foray into politics has come as a surprise to many. Following the TMC’s announcement, two of her tweets from March 13, 2018, went viral, thanks mainly to her detractors.
One of the tweets said, “I will never accept any RS ticket or PS ticket or CS ticket from any political party, sir. That I can give you in writing and you can save this tweet.”
In the other tweet, she wrote, “Journalists, IMHO, shd stay away from politics & loyalty to any political party. Compromising independence is worst thing scribes can do to themselves. Lets strengthen India’s civil society, strengthen liberal democracy, work for justice. Let the netas be naked in their hamaam!”
IMHO is an abbreviation of ‘in my honest opinion.’
When The Wire reached her over the phone on Sunday after her name was announced, Ghose refused to comment. “I will comment only after all the process related to filing of nomination is complete,” she said.
According to a Kolkata-based TMC leader, Dev’s renomination shows the TMC has not lost its focus on expanding in Assam, despite grand failures in Goa and Tripura.
She was first sent to the Rajya Sabha in 2021 within a month of her switchover from the Congress in the RS seat vacated by the TMC’s Manas Ranjan Bhuniya, who became a minister in the state government. The term of the seat ended in August 2023 but the party did not renominate her at that time.
Former Assam Congress president Ripun Bora heads the TMC’s Assam unit, while Dev is another prominent leader. The party had asked from the Congress four of the state’s 14 Lok Sabha seats – Karimganj, Kokrajhar, Lakhimpur, and Dhubri – for an alliance.
Now that the seat-sharing talks have failed, the TMC may contest in one or two more seats, like Naogaon, which has a sitting Congress MP but the TMC claims to have good organisational strength. The TMC has never won any assembly or Lok Sabha seat in Assam.
“We’ll sit with national general secretary Abhishek Banerjee in a few days and decide on the number of seats we are going to contest in Assam,” Dev said.
Mamata Thakur’s nomination assumes significance, coming, coincidentally or not, exactly a day after Union Home Minister Amit Shah said that the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) would be implemented across the country before the 2024 Lok Sabha election. Notably, the current extension on framing Rules for the CAA ends on March 30.
Thakur heads one section of Matua Mahasangha, the most influential religious body of the Matua-Namasudra community that has emerged as the strongest votaries of the CAA, which grants citizenship to non-Muslims who have migrated from Muslim-majority neighbouring countries. The Matua-Namasudra community members have migrated from Bangladesh over the past several decades, many of them in the face of persecution.
The TMC has vowed to prevent the implementation of the CAA and Thakur has the herculean task of convicting the Matua-Namashudra community that the CAA would not be beneficial for them. The community plays the determining factor in at least two Lok Sabha seats, Bongaon and Ranaghat.
Thakur was earlier a Lok Sabha MP from Bongaon but lost the 2019 election to her nephew, the BJP’s Shantanu Thakur, who heads the other faction of the Matua Mahasangha and is currently the junior shipping minister. Santanu Thakur had promised the implementation of the CAA before the Lok Sabha election.
The other TMC Rajya Sabha members are party veterans Subrata Bakshi, Derek O’Brien, and Sukhendu Sekhar Roy, north Bengal’s tribal leader Prakash Chik Baraik and social activist Samirul Islam.
The BJP’s Rajya Sabha choice, Bhattacharya, has been a prominent face of the party since the 1990s. In 2014, he became the first BJP MLA in the state winning on the party’s own strength. However, he lost in the 2016 assembly election.
“Sending him to Rajya Sabha is a message to all veterans to have patience and faith on Modi-Shah’s leadership. Those who remain dedicated and disciplined will be rewarded on time. Bhattacharya remained quite cornered for much of the past few years but he never breached party discipline or became aloof,” said a BJP state unit leader who did not want to be named.
BJP currently has one Rajya Sabha member from West Bengal, Ananta Rai, who represents the Rajbanshi community of Cooch Behar and neighbouring districts in northern West Bengal but currently lives in Assam.