Wednesday, February 21, 2024

Mamata wins this battle of wits

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TMC-Gorkha standoff continues
By Ashis Biswas

Has the Gorkha Janmukti Morcha leader Bimal Gurung bitten off more than he can chew, with his latest indefinite bandh against the West Bengal Government in Darjeeling?

By the middle of next week, an answer should be available. Present indications are not at all encouraging either for Gurung or the permanently angry GJM leadership. Apparently, the strident GJM leadership overlooked certain basic realities of the present situation in Darjeeling, which does not augur well for their political cause.

Take the simple question of timing. As soon as the Congress(I) announced its green signal for the new state of Telangana, partitioning Andhra Pradesh, Gurung and his hordes went on a frenzied campaign over their demand for Gorkhaland. Except in Assam, there was no such agitation anywhere else in India, in areas where separate states have been demanded.

Only months ago, the centre, the state and the GJM concluded a tripartite agreement to constitute the Gorkha Territorial Administration (GTA), which was promised Rs 600 crore to be spent on developing the three hill sub divisions in north Bengal – Darjeeling, Kurseong and Kalimpong. Gurung was the first chairman of the GTA, which was composed entirely of GJM elected representatives. Despite local pressures from Trinamool Congress supporters among the hill people – the GJM is not quite as popular in the hills as its leaders claim – Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee kept her party away from the polls, giving Gurung and company a free run.

Yet, even before all the GTA offices were functioning, GJM leaders claimed that the autonomy experiment had ‘failed.’ They were looking at only statehood, nothing short of it. The logic was, they had kept their Gorkhaland demand option open even in the final agreement regarding the constitution of the GTA. They insist that if the centre had allowed Telangana to take its place on the map, it must also do the same for Gorkhaland – a stand which did not find acceptance at any level in Delhi! During the past two weeks, Gurung apart, the entire GJM leadership is in the national capital to drum up support for their cause. They have had not much success. Top Congress(I) leaders did not meet them. Except Union Ministers Shinde and Chidambaram, nobody met them. They did not win any commitment from the BJP in their meetings with Sushma Swaraj and LK Advani. After much reluctance, BJP MP Jaswant, whose own position within the BJP is more equivocal than before, deigned to address a press conference for them.

The GJM pointedly ignored the West Bengal government publicly, saying it would talk ‘only to the centre.’ The only problem was, nobody at the centre seemed to be particularly keen to engage with the GJM in any kind of dialogue at any level! This is where the question of timing arises. The GJM in its feverish, almost maniacal, excitement over the formation of Telengana, failed to appreciate the new clout that west Bengal Chief Minister had acquired through the impressive sweep of her Trinamool Congress party in the state Panchayat elections. The TMC won 13 out of 17 zilla parishad (district council), while the Congress(I) and the Left could win only one each, leaving two others undecided. The TMC in 2008 has won only two such councils, while the Left had won 13. The TMC earned its victory routing the combined strength of the formidable CPI(M), the Cong(I) and the BJP. The opposition was decimated. True, the elections were violent all through, but that has been the norm in the state in any case. Earlier the Left had won such polls, now the TMC was in the driving seat. ‘It means that for all the opposition allegations regarding the TMC’s misrule, its corruption, its terror tactics, the multi-crore Saradha financial scam, the rising crimes and farmers’ suicides, the combined opposition simply stood no chance against Mamata’s personal image and popularity,’ says an observer.

More importantly, the difference between the ruling TMC and the opposition parties (as of now) made it clear that if the Lok Sabha polls were to be held any time soon, the TMC could well end up bagging between 30 to 34 seats out of 42, as suggested in several recent surveys. ‘If that were to happen, opposition parties, especially the CPI(M) would be reduced to the level of the CPI – they might as well close their shops,’ said an analyst.

In other words, come Lok Sabha polls, the country was looking at a very strong, powerful Mamata Banerjee leading her team, never mind her queen size defects, shortcomings, mismanagement and misrule. No other state leader anywhere in the country looks remotely capable of doing so well in the electoral battle ahead.

Given this backdrop, neither the Congress(I), nor the BJP is in a position to ignore her, let alone think of offending her! No wonder BJP’s new young national face Varun Gandhi, scheduled to visit West Bengal shortly, has been instructed by his party leaders not to attack Banerjee in any manner in his speeches. Varun Gandhi has is known for getting carried away while speaking publicly. This time, his leaders want to ensure that his tongue does not run away with him. Similarly within days of the TMC’s sweep in the panchayat polls, Union Minister Jairam Ramesh made a point of clearing nearly Rs 1,000 crore for various rural development projects in Bengal, clarifying for good measure that the bigger party did not mix development with politics.

In Mumbai, Banerjee’s efforts to woo top industrialists to take a re-look at Bengal after the fiasco of the Tata Nano car project, also paid off. Top honchos, including Mukesh Ambani, attended, indicating that her pariah status among top corporates had ended. ‘After all West Bengal’s middle class is currently over 10 million strong, which industrialist will not look at such a large market segment with adequate purchasing power?’ says a Chamber of Commerce spokesman. In retrospect, where angels feared to tread, Gurung and his cohorts, bless their political naiveté, rushed in headlong, regardless of consequences. It is no surprise therefore that with Banerjee’s stars in the ascendant, GJM leaders did not win much from the people they met (or are still trying to meet!) in Delhi. There are bigger decisions coming up to be decided at the national level, the stakes are too big. No one can now afford to put a foot wrong, politically speaking. The problem with Gorkhaland is that it can return only one MP to the Lok Sabha, not 10 or more. The Darjeeling parliamentary seat again, has a considerable segment of north Bengal plains areas where non-Gorkhas and the tribals do not accept the GJM’s dictates. For the moment, Gorkhland cannot be a top priority for any major party in India.

The sooner the GJM appreciates this and waits for a better time to agitate, the better for North Bengal and surrounding areas. (IPA Service)

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