By Tirthankar Mitra
Feeling the heat from a slew of corruption charges and more than 10 of its leaders behind the bars, a brainstorming session is on within the Trinamool Congress to reboot it’s election game plan for next year’s Lok Sabha polls. The strategy will be two pronged namely to whip up an agitation demanding the Centre pay the state government its share of development funds together with alleging biased investigation against central probe agencies by highlighting instances of several senior BJP leaders whose assets have increased disproportionately not being brought under the sleuths’ scanner.
The BJP-led NDA government at the Centre owes around Rs 7000 crores to the TMC state government for MNREGA, according to state government officials. Chief Minister, Mamata Banerjee has given the Centre time up to 16 November to release this fund.
It is almost a knee jerk reaction on the part of the ruling dispensation of West Bengal. Having registered a sweeping victory in 2021 Assembly elections, governance in the coming period appeared to be a cakewalk to Trinamool Congress.
But minefields for the ruling party seem to have been laid almost unwittingly by its own leaders. Ever since state education minister Partha Chatterjee has been arrested on cash for teaching jobs allegation and huge amount of unaccounted cash recovered from his close associate Arpita Mukherjee’s residence, things started going downhill for the Trinamool Congress.
The probe agency unearthing the existence of high priced real estate in Mukherjee’s name made things turn from bad to worse for both the former minister and the political outfit he belonged to. Dissociating itself from Chatterjee, the Trinamool leadership has not yet been able to shake off the corruption charges against itself.
Even as repeated bail pleas of Chatterjee were rejected at successive judicial fora, a long line of TMC leaders were taken into custody on a raft of corruption charges. Even the party’s national general secretary and chief minister Mamata Banerjee’s nephew Abhishek Banerjee was interrogated by a team of Enforcement Directorate in the cash for teaching jobs case.
But the ruling dispensation seems to have received a body blow from the ED’s arrest of state forest department minister, Jyotipriya Mallick. A former food and rationing department minister in Banerjee’s Cabinet, he was a trusted lieutenant to the TMC supremo since she floated Trinamool Congress in 1998..
It is alleged grains mainly wheat meant for public distribution were diverted to some private firms and sold at a high price in the open market. Accused of getting returns from these transactions, Mallick as the food minister cannot absolve himself from the blame and responsibility.
The effort to whitewash the tarnished image of the party has been kickstarted by Abhishek Banerjee a few months ago. The Diamond Harbour MP had floated the idea of a new Trinamool Congress.
Being considered second in command in the party as well his aunt’s political heir apparent, no dissenting voices were raised against his endeavour indicating Trinamool is turning a new leaf. As if on cue from Banerjee, state irrigation minister Partha Bhoumik said no corruption charges can be levelled against the state Cabinet that was sworn in afterb2021 assembly elections.
Party spokesman though he is, Bhoumik seems to have looked no further than his nose. In so many words, his words nail the two dispensations of his party presided over by Mamata Banerjee since 2011.
Be that as it may, a Trinamool counter offensive has been launched by minister of state for health and family welfare, Dr Sashi Panja. Pulling no punches, she went on the offensive accusing the central probe agencies of bias towards a number of senior BJP leaders from West Bengal and beyond.
If some of the TMC leaders are under the scanner, Dr Panja wondered the rationale behind leaving out Bishnupur BJP MP, Soumitra Khan and leader of the Opposition Subhendu Adhikari and his family, both of whose assets have increased manifold over the years. Subhendu who had defeated Mamata Banerjee in 2021 Assembly polls by a wafer thin margin is the bete noire of his former party and its supremo.
Incidentally, Subhendu and his father SisirAdhikari had been the mainstay of TMC in Midnapur district prior to the son defecting to BJP before the 2021 Assembly elections. Several TMC leaders have accused Adhikari of deserting the party in its hour of need lest he is hauled up by central probe agencies in a case alleging assets disproportionate to income.
It was party spokesperson Kunal Ghosh who first raised the pitch against Subhendu, his former colleague in the Trinamool. Of late, he had aimed his barbs at Sisir Adhikari zeroing in on the fluctuating valuation of his assets.
Even as she was training her guns on several BJP leaders, Dr Panja had her Cabinet colleague Bhoumik backing her up. Apart from the Adhikaris and Khan, senior BJP leaders like Rameshwar Teli, Ajit Pawar, Jyotiraditya Scindia and Jagadambika Pal were in the Trinamool crosshairs.
The TMC leaders are accusing some of their principal political opponents of corruption with an eye on the next year’s. Lok Sabha elections. Trinamool election strategists are looking upon it as an effective pep talk to the party rank and file.
There is no open admission that morale of many TMC activists have sagged seeing and hearing the barrage of criticism and television news channel talk shows where CPI(M), Congress and BJP leaders went hammer and tongs at the Trinamool government. But not adopting an ostrich like attitude, the party leadership is only too aware in its heart of hearts that the spirit which ensured three Assembly elections victories and two Lok Sabha ones needs to be revved up.
A dejected cadre force in next year’s election is the last thing Trinamool needs. Much of the benefits of chief minister’s dream projects like Kanyasree, Lakshmisree, Sabuj Sathi to name a few would go waste unless charged up groups of TMC activists go vigorously campaigning all over the state especially in the backdrop of ruling dispensation not losing a single by-poll post 2021 elections.
The TMC leadership is interpreting this unwavering support as the voters reluctance to support Opposition nominees. Defection to Trinamool of Bairon Biswas, the Congress legislator who emerged victorious at Sagardighi by-poll with CPI(M) support has reinforced the belief. . Even during the heat on TMC over the latest ration dealers corruption, another BJP MLA left the party and joined TMC. Trinamool leaders point out that despite all these corruption cases being probed by the central agencies, the people’s mood is in favour of the TMC otherwise, the latest defection from BJP could not have taken place.
TMC leadership has gone ahead in preparing its own list of candidates for 42 seats in Lok Sabha from West Bengal. Mamata Banerjee is waiting from the final signal from the Congress about alliance but if the Congress and the TMC do not align and the Congress goes with the CPI(M), that does not bother the leadership of TMC. An internal analysis of the party has shown that TMC on its own has the potential to get 34 /35 seats out of 42 in Lok Sabha polls. In 2019 elections, the TMC got 22 seats as against 18 received by the BJP. In 214 Lok Sabha polls, TMC got 34 seats.
But if there is an alliance between the TMC and the Congress, the alliance has the potential to get 37 to 38 seats with BJP seats coming down to only 4 to 5. So the TMC leadership is ready with both options- fighting independently and also fighting in alliance with the Congress if the party agrees. Overall, the TMC leadership believes that the TMC candidates will represent as the real INDIA bloc ones as against the other INDIA partners like the Congress and the CPI(M).
Faced with a slew of alleged scams which are likely to be Opposition’s campaign ammunition, a confident TMC leadership seeks to carry the battle into the enemy’s camp. Hence a pro-active attitude to push the adrenaline level of the activists to ensure they are charged up during the coming poll campaign.
A ministerial duo may have fired the opening shots in the poll strategy rejig of Trinamool, but more heavy weight leaders will reinforce the endeavour. Come 16 November, party supremo Mamata Banerjee is to unfold a detailed “fightback” game plan at Netaji Indoor Stadium before an audience comprising MPs, MLAs, councillors, different levels of panchayat functionaries, block presidents.
Leaders with clean images will be given more responsibilities, according to party sources. Harsh measures are unlikely against Mallick but the supremo may crack the whip against other errant leaders to set an example lest some members of her flock embroil himself/herself into any fresh mischief dashing the party’s electoral prospects. (IPA Service)