By Ashis Biswas
Ironically, opposition parties in India were further divided by the outcome of Assembly elections in three Northeastern states, not to mention the Sagardighi seat by- election in West Bengal. In broad terms, the Left parties and the Indian National Congress (INC) fared much better than their strong regional challengers like the Trinamool Congress (TMC).
The day’s (March 2) major successes undoubtedly went to the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), especially in the Northeast. The party’s loss and third place finish at Sagardighi assembly in Bengal did not hurt much, although the major erosion of its popular support from the earlier polls caused concern to its leadership.
The TMC’s unravelling was nothing short of spectacular. Months before the elections were announced the party, helped by the formidable expertise of the well known IPAC team led by redoubtable poll expert Mr Prashant Kishor, had set up camps at expensive locations in Tripura and Meghalaya. Mr Rajib Banerjee, former Bengal Minister was made a party leader-in-residence in Tripura. Such early preparations surprised most observers at Agartala and Shillong, as most parties usually carried out a more relaxed pre-poll campaign compared to the more energetic efforts seen in other regions/states.
For several months, with TMC General Secretary Mr Abhishak Banerjee MP making frequent visits to oversee pre-poll preparations and hone up the party’s aggressive anti-BJP campaign, the TMC made all the running in both states. Lesser Bengal leaders and Ministers also assisted their spectacular (and expensive) efforts.
The Meghalaya-based media commented widely about the massive scale of the TMC’s campaign, whether in terms of the outstation party using the record number of colourful flags, posters and festoons, or the scale of its meetings and mass mobilisation. No wonder the TMC’s final anti climactic finish in both states was a major subject of post poll analysis in the NE-based media and among the resident commentariat.
The TMC failed to win a single seat in Tripura , while it won only five in Meghalaya out of 60 ! In some areas, the votes it won in Tripura were actually lower than the NOTA figures ! There was no question of its coming to power in either state, contrary to the thundering promises made by Mr Banerjee or the Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee.
In Tripura, the TMC failed to work out an alliance with other parties and contested only 28 seats. In Meghalaya it was on a better wicket, as its campaign was headed by former Chief Minister Mr Mukul Sangma.
Too late, Mr. Sangma realized that his association with the TMC, a party he had joined quitting his parent organisation, had cost him dear in 2023.. Under Mr Sangma, the INC had honourably emerged as the second largest party to the ruling NPP led by Mr Conrad Sangma in 2018.polls by getting 21 sats
While it is too early for a detailed analysis of the TMC’s debacle, one point needs to be made about is its contradictory and confusing pre-poll campaigning. The party countered its own political message in Tripura and Meghalaya.
Prime example: Bengal chief Minister Ms Banerjee treated Tripura as an extension of West Bengal in terms of its linguistic, cultural and other similarity with the larger state. ‘We feel at home here—our language, food and culture are the same’ said the beaming Chief Minister. Saying this, she totally ignored to rise of the Tipra Motha party, representing 30/35% native tribal population of Tripura, with its own distinct language, culture, customs and history!
In contrast, she and nephew Abhishek assured large rallies in neighbouring Meghalaya where they assured mainly Khasis and Garo tribes peoples, that the’ TMC was NOT a Bengali party, nor a party that would be run by Bengalis out of Kolkata ‘!!! Such glaring contradictions left most people confused and far from impressed!
It was odd to reflect that for all its reputed expertise, the team of IPAC experts had apparently failed to advice the TMC leaders about the potentially disastrous outcome of such lapses of sensitivity in the pre-poll campaign conducted in a region known for its sensitivity about ethnicity-related issues and the recurrence of ethnic violence !
No wonder, more seasoned local politicians in the BJP camp led by the wily Assam Chief Minister Himanta Biswas Sarma and others, eagerly pounced on such TMC howlers, and made merry. There was more talk in NE’s political circles about the high expenditure campaign carried out by the TMC, as the party virtually camped for weeks at top hotels at Agartala and Shillong, than upon its so-called manifesto and ‘political programmes ‘
As the dreary commentary about the TMC’s losses continued on the electronic media, most analysts wondered why Mamata Banerjee’s party had not learned anything out of its earlier farcical forays into the Goa Assembly elections and the Tripura civic polls before that. On both occasions the party had drawn a blank, but had notched up a total expenditure of around Rs 80 crore, according to expert estimates the TMC never publicly disputed.
Going into 2024 Lok Sabha polls, the INC improved its position in the Northeast by putting up a reasonable performance along with the Left in Tripura, effectively protecting its vote share if not doing very well in terms of winning seats.
However, its impressive victory in the Sagardighi by-election over the TMC by a thumping margin of nearly 23,000 votes over the TMC was a major shot in the arm for the INC. Far more than a personal win for the battling Congress MP Adhir Choudhury, it meant that the INC had now one member in the Bengal Assembly.
Also, the margin of its win at Sagardighi provided India’s grand old party with many debating points against its louder TMC opponents whether in the Lok Sabha or elsewhere. And its loss also left the TMC well behind the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) in their competition to emerge as the top regional party in India. The AAP has two governments in its fold. TMC tried desperately to be a partner of ruling coalition in another state but failed.
The danger signal for the TMC was that whether Christians in the Northeast, Hindus in the East or Northeast and Muslims in Bengal — the party was losing its self-declared position as a champion of minority interests. At Sagardhigi for example, 68% of the electorate is Muslim! (IPA Service)