The Congress has initiated informal talks with senior Trinamool Congress leaders to explore the possibility of a pact for the 2021 West Bengal Assembly elections to halt the march of the Bharatiya Janata Party in the state.
In the last week of the budget session of Parliament, former Congress president Rahul Gandhi spoke to Trinamool’s Lok Sabha chief whip Kalyan Banerjee for almost half an hour. In the course of the discussion, he asked Banerjee whom the TMC saw as its main enemy in the state, HT learns. Gandhi also spoke about enhancing the coordination between Congress and Trinamool.
To be sure, a final call will have to be taken by the top leadership of the party, TMC chief and West Bengal CM Mamata Banerjee and Congress President Sonia Gandhi.
The conversation between Rahul Gandhi and Kalyan Banerjee came close on the heels of another informal talk between Trinamool’s Lok Sabha leader Sudip Bandopadhyay and former union minister P Chidambaram on the same issue, people familiar with the matter said on condition of anonymity.
The Congress and the Trinamool Congress entered into an alliance in 2009 for the Lok Sabha polls after the CPIM-led Left parties withdrew their support to the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government over the Indo-US nuclear deal. The parties also fought the 2011 assembly polls together but parted ways in 2013 over various issues.
One of the people cited above. A senior Congress leader maintained that the Congress has to rethink its poll strategy in Bengal, the third-largest electoral state in the country, which sends 42 representatives to the Lok Sabha. “In the last state assembly polls in 2016, we partnered with the Left, but the communists are a spent force. We also have to admit the Congress alone is not powerful enough to take on the BJP in the state.”
In the last Lok Sabha polls, the Trinamool bagged 43.3% of the popular vote in the state while the BJP came a close second with 40.3 %. The CPIM’s share slumped to 6.3% while Congress got 5.6% votes. In terms of seats, the Trinamool’s tally reduced to 22 in 2019 from 34 in 2014 even as the BJP’s rose to 18 MPs as against just two in 2014. The Left couldn’t open its account and the Congress won two seats.
The people familiar with the matter told that Gandhi’s talks with Banerjee, a trusted lieutenant of the West Bengal chief minister, took place after both sides expressed interest. According to two leaders close to Mamata Banerjee, she has kept her communications channel open with Congress president Sonia Gandhi (with whom she shares a warm personal relationship) and senior Congress leaders such as Ahmed Patel and Anand Sharma.
Describing the meeting with Gandhi, Kalyan Banerjee said, “I told him that just like the Congress, we too see the BJP as the main enemy. But I also told him that while he is keen to enhance cooperation, many other leaders including their Lok Sabha floor leader Adhir Chowdhury and state president Somen Mitra are vehemently opposed to the Trinamool.”
According to the senior Congress leader cited in the first instance, Chowdhury has already been told by senior party colleagues to “go soft” on Mamata and the Trinamool.
Economist Prasenjit Bose says that a pact is likely to happen for the sake of survival for both sides but that the alliance might not be sufficient to stall the BJP’s march in the largest eastern state. “A pact is most likely, but whether they can thwart the BJP or not would depend on several factors. With 40% votes in favour of the BJP in the Lok Sabha, it looked like the Bengal voters have made up their mind to oust the Trinamool government. So, if the Trinamool doesn’t do a course correction, nothing can save it from defeat.”