Is Mamata Nervous?

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She remains Bengal’s unchallenged leader. Her supremacy is unquestioned; her wishes are dictates; her wisdom is biblical truth. Yet Mamata Banerjee is nervous of facing the electorate next year.BY ARCHISMAN DINDA

With eight months to go for Assembly elections in Bengal is Mamata Bannerjee unsure of her party’s chances given vicious infighting? It would seem so. Recall the “reign of terror” she was accused of unleashing during the municipal elections in April to ensure her continued grip.

But credit for that goes not so much to her as to her political opponents. The once invincible Left Front (read CPI-M) is a shadow of its past. A party that could rally millions at an hour’s notice, now has difficulty organizing a rally of a few lakhs even after months of preparation.

CPI(M) leader Sitaram Yechuri seemed to have got the pulse of the people when he said his main task is to win over the youth. “The primary objective is to get back the youth within the party fold. Without their support there is little that we will be able to achieve,” he said on board an Air India flight from Kolkata to New Delhi.

Yechury, however, failed to explain what the party has to offer this large section that puts ideas over ideology. The party’s well-known anti-American stand still remains strong and some weeks ago it had organized a rally protesting against the Indian Navy’s war games with the US Navy. Will that sell with the youth?

“This is the main problem with our party where local is ignored for global ideas and this happens when the whole ideology is borrowed from foreign lands. This is like opening an umbrella in Kolkata when it rains in Vietnam,” said a party veteran unwilling to be named.

Until now, the party has also steadfastly adhered to its view on capital as the ‘untouchable’, this when the country is moving to become the start-up capital of the world. Clearly, there’s little solace for the leadership.

The party routed at the hustings in 2009 continues to bleed. However, much to the surprise of its leadership, it holds 27 per cent of the popular vote. “Sparks” were noticed recently when 75-year-old party veteran Biman Bose led a rally that resulted in a mob attack and injuries to him. Party supporters clutch at these straws and derive hope from it.

But party member Ramla Chakraborty, wife of the late Subhas Chakraborty, is not impressed. She says: “We do not have leadership to hold on to these sparks. There is lot of public grievance against Mamata’s government but we have failed to capture the public imagination due to lack of leadership. The TMC is accused of the largest financial scandal but we failed to capture the public imagination.”

The recently concluded municipal polls were an eye opener: The BJP which showed much promise post the general election went bust and TMC secured a vote share of close to 80 per cent in certain areas. The Opposition called it rigging but the truth is the TMC underscored its supremacy by holding onto every booth. The Congress was non-existent leaving the field open for the ruling party.

THE PARTY CRUMBLES

But all this is of little comfort for Mamata as her party is crumbling from within. In every district, the party is at war with itself. Factions are battling each other over everything, from politics to business, leading often to violence and bloodshed. The fight within is for control of syndicates - that control supply of building material - to numerous little mines that dot the landscape.

“Control of the party is a big issue as there are too many groups within the party all eyeing the same prize,” said a state minister unwilling to be named. “The internal structure is lucid and internal hierarchy is being challenged,” he added.

A case in point is the fight between all TMC MPs and the district chiefs over the use of MPLAD funds. Many say that the funds are often misused by party leaders in the state along with a few ministers.

Names like Firhad Hakim, state minister for urban affairs and Subrata Mukherjee, panchayati raj minister, often come up in private conversation of MP’s, ruing them over their lack of control over their constituencies. Add to that the bevy of actors and singers whom Mamata fielded in 2014, people seen as having little idea about administration.

“They are puppets,” said a district president of TMC boasting of the control he has over his MP, a former actress. “Didi (Banerjee) knows that they cannot win elections it is us who win for them, so we will control the funds as we know what people need.”

For Banerjee, all this could turn into quagmire with party leaders gaining popularity at her expense, making it difficult for her to clip their wings. A good example is Suvendu Adikari, MP from Tamluk, often referred to as the “chief minister of West Midnapore”. Adiari remains supreme in his region despite his known animosity for Mamata’s nephew Abhishek.

“This phenomenon is always true for individual centric parties and many will try to acquire cult status within a region so that the party cannot dump him or her”, said political observer Parikshit Gupta. Also, since the TMC functions according to the whims and fancies of one leader, showing mass popularity within a region is critical for the existence of individuals, he pointed out.

MUKUL ROY EFFECT

However, the biggest challenge for Mamata in 2016 will be Mukul Roy, often described as the Amit Shah of Bengal. Initially it was speculated that Roy would join the BJP along with a few TMC heavy weights including incumbent ministers, but the unwillingness of the BJP state unit to accommodate him forced the party to put Roy on hold. “If he had joined we would have become second fiddle to him. Then why have we devoted so much to the party for years,” asked a BJP leader.

The biggest challenge for Mamata in 2016 will be Mukul Roy, often described as the Amit Shah of Bengal. Initially it was speculated that Roy would join the BJP along with a few TMC heavy weights including incumbent ministers

Now Roy is on the verge of forming the Nationalistic Trinamool Congress, and has started meticulous booth wise planning with his band of followers. His official residence for the last many years, Nizam Palace in the heart of Kolkata, is buzzing with activity with supporters and others trooping in.

Roy on his part though continues to maintain that he is a TMC Rajya Sabha MP. “November is the month of revolts,” Roy told Parliamentarian magazine when asked about his future plans. That could only mean trouble for Mamata as Roy is a fighter till the end.

“He (Roy) is extremely crafty and is planning to hurt us. He had created the organization of the TMC and will certainly dent it if he moves away from the party,” warned a TMC insider.

For Mamata, Roy could turn out to be her most formidable opponent in 2016, one who could easily expose her party’s organizational weakness resulting in catastrophe at the polls.

2016 will also be a challenge for Abhishek now crowned as the number two in the TMC. “He (Abhishek) has won us a few municipal elections including Kolkata but the upcoming assembly elections will be his biggest challenge. You can take centre stage for being Didi’s nephew, but building your own credibility is a big challenge,” said another TMC leader

“When anyone has to leave the party, and he was with her since day one, under such humiliating circumstances revenge will be a normal human psychology and Roy certainly has the tools to claim his pound of flesh,” said Gupta.

2016 will also be a challenge for Abhishek now crowned as the number two in the TMC. “He (Abhishek) has won us a few municipal elections including Kolkata but the upcoming assembly elections will be his biggest challenge. You can take centre stage for being Didi’s nephew, but building your own credibility is a big challenge,” said another TMC leader, not known for his fondness for the crown price of Bengal.

But the biggest loser will be Mamata herself, if she is unable to return to power after having won the state at the age of 29. Roy, it would seem, would try his best to ensure a hung assembly next year, which could compel Mamata to bring him back into the Trinamool fold and eat humble pie. But that will be also her saddest day.

All now depends on the electorate: When she won the 2011 elections Mamata had asked voters to give her 10 years to develop Bengal. Has the state developed? Only time will tell what the electorate thinks of their “tallest leader’s” performance.

  • Mamata Bannerjee doesn’t seem all that confident about her party’s prospects in the Bengal elections due next year
  • The TMC is riven by infighting and booth level leaders enjoy enormous power given their hold over funds and cadres
  • Mukul Roy could turn out to be Mamata’s greatest challenge as he puts a new party together to take on his former boss
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