Kolkata: The hand that once rocked the cradle of Indian politics has weakened over the years. The name that roused respect and confidence in people now evokes pity. From one election to the other it has been the fall and fall of the Congress in West Bengal in particular and the country as a whole.
In the last Lok Sabha election, the party just managed to win two seats – Maldah Dakshin and Baharampur – with a thin margin of votes, a reduction from the four seats in 2014. The voting percentage in 2019 (5.4per cent) reduced by about 40 per cent from 2014 (9.73 per cent) and about 55 per cent from 2016 (12.7 per cent, assembly elections).
There are several reasons which have put the West Bengal Pradesh Congress Committee (WBPCC) on a wobbly platform, the most important being loss of credibility.
The national party tried to get into an electoral alliance with the Left both in the 2016 state elections and the 2019 Lok Sabha election. Before this, the party aligned with the Trinamool Congress to fight the 2009 Lok Sabha election. The party had won six seats. In 2014 again, there was a move to align with TMC and former state party chief Manas Bhunia had called it a “rational move”.
Such frivolous decisions of a national entity not only put its supporters in a quandary but also made the electorate perturbed about the Congress’s stand. In course of time, voters lost confidence in the party.
The party’s lack of strong leadership that could counter the Trinamool Congress or the BJP was another reason that weakened it from within. Moloy Ghosh, a former district secretary of the party, did not mince his words when he said some of the senior leaders of the Congress had vested interest and did not work for the benefit of the Congress.
“First Adhir Chowdhury was removed (as state Congress president in 2018) that adversely affected the party. Second, several seats in South Bengal were traded. Third, leaders with no credibility are holding the plum posts in the state and not allowing or grooming new and capable leaders… Had an alliance been stitched with the CPM, the Congress might have retained its four seats,” Ghosh said.
Om Prakash Mishra, who resigned as WBPCC vice-president after the 2019 poll debacle, also feels the same.
Mishra, who had been batting for an electoral adjustment with Left parties, said, “The performance of the party was the worst in West Bengal and according to me the reason is that the leadership here deliberately did not get into seat adjustment with the Left till the last minute. This was no innocent step but was meant to directly help the BJP… We won two (Lok Sabha) seats but these are the two constituencies where the Left did not put up their candidates… Both the Congress and the Left experienced sabotage at the highest level.”
Polarisation of votes and weak infrastructure at the grassroots level, as pointed out by WBPCC president Somen Mitra, and the ongoing Modi wave have also affected the party’s chances to a great extent. “Voters thought that the alternative to TMC is BJP and not the Congress,” said Abu Hasem Khan Chowdhury, the MP from Maldah (Dakshin).
Pointing out that the political arena in West Bengal is now divided into BJP and non-BJP, Mishra said the next course of action before the assembly elections in 2021 should be “to have political understanding with the TMC”.
“I am not in favour of any alliance but I think that BJP should be identified as the prime focus of our political campaign… There should be a calibrated understanding with the TMC,” he added.
But both Mitra and Baharampur MP Adhir Choudhury ruled out alliance with the TMC. “Mamata Banerjee should feel threatened by the upsurge of BJP in West Bengal and not us because we have nothing to lose,” said the former WBPCC chief as he outrightly rejected any alliance or understanding with the Trinamool Congress.
Mitra, on the other hand, said the Congress did try to come to an understanding with the TMC but “the Trinamool took advantage of that and weakened our party” by poaching Congress men and there is no way an understanding is possible now.
On how the Congress will plan its strategy before the Assembly elections, Mitra said, “We will go for an understanding with the Left and fight against both TMC and BJP. We will also act to regain voters’ confidence.”
The party needs to increase its visibility and credibility will follow, believes the Baharampur MP. “In politics, you cannot predict anything. True that we are not in a good position at the moment but things can always change. If we don’t increase our credibility voters will not accept us. Nothing will happen if we sit at home,” was Chowdhury’s blunt reply.
The Congress should also strengthen its units at the grassroots level. “The high command should decide what strategy should be followed before 2021. But I feel, the Congress should revive grassroots units to make the party relevant. In some pockets we are strong and we have to do the same in every district, village and booth. Strong local leaders should be groomed… I am positive the Congress can bring about change at all levels and in every sphere. There is always scope and hope to turn around,” said party’s Sujapur MLA Isha Khan Chowdhury.
Political observers say that, to revive the party and increase its visibility, the Congress should start acting on war footing. However, the national leadership is still unsure about who to project as the chief of AICC. Such indecisiveness and leadership crisis will not only impact the party nationally but also affect its state and local units.
Ghosh said many former members of the Congress who switched to the TMC want to come back but they are unsure about the future and leadership.