Is Mamata the problem or the solution?

It is discomfiting. But left intellectuals and rightwing Hindu nationalists have a common political problem. She is called Mamata Banerjee.

The Communist Party of India (Marxist) [CPI (M)] became the only political party across the opposition spectrum to side with the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in supporting the raid by the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) officials on West Bengal top cop, Rajeev Kumar last week. At least two senior leaders from the Forward Bloc, an alliance partner of the Left Front in Bengal, have joined the Trinamool Congress (TMC) in the last eight months. One of them, Paresh Adhikari, was a minister when the Left Front government was in power in Bengal. He has represented the Mekhliganj constituency in Cooch Behar district four times. Days after that, Mortaza Hossain, another Forward Bloc leader from North 24 Parganas district also joined the TMC. He had contested the 2014 Lok Sabha elections from Barasat. 

It is not just its alliance partners who are defecting to TMC. CPI (M) has lost many of its members  to the party. Tapas Chatterjee was reviled as a ‘contractor’ when he defected: But for the CPI (M) the loss of the old war horse from 24 Parganas was undeniable. That was in 2015. Between then and now, scores of activists — from the panchayat level to the legislative assembly and the Lok Sabha — have changed sides. 

For the BJP too, Banerjee is a challenge. When senior leader and former MP Chandan Mitra — who was trusted by the BJP so much that he was given charge of sorting out the problems between the BJP and the Biju Janata Dal (BJD) in Odisha in 2009 — quit the BJP and joined TMC in 2018, the explanation was that only in the rarest of rare cases does the BJP offer a third consecutive Rajya Sabha term to its MPs (Mitra completed his second term in 2016 and was not offered anything after that. The general belief is that he was punished because he was a supporter of LK Advani. The BJP denies this and says Mitra crossed over because he is hopeful of being offered another upper house term by the TMC). 

It is not as if it is a one-way street. Several TMC leaders have joined the BJP as well — the latest being sitting MP Saumitra Khan and senior IPS officer Bharati Ghosh. The BJP has been predicted that at least six other sitting MPs will cross the floor ahead of the Lok Sabha elections. This could be bravado.

Why are all these upheavals happening? The reason is obvious and clear. TMC virtually swept Bengal in the May 2018 panchayat elections. A very distant second was the BJP. The TMC got upwards of 19,000 seats. The BJP got around 5,000 unseating the Left from its number 2 position. In a breakdown of the numbers, the TMC won 95 per cent of the Zilla Parishad seats, 90 per cent of the panchayat samiti seats and 73 per cent of the gram panchayat seats. 

Panchayat polls are not the only ones TMC has been winning. In 2017, it contested and won four out of seven municipal bodies. The most important victory was in the Gorkha-dominated Darjeeling region: It won Mirik, becoming the first mainstream party in three decades to win from an area that is a fiercely guarded bastion of the Gorkha community.

This has to be Banerjee’s most cherished victory because it crowned her victor in a clash of identities. Like Israelis, Gorkhas in India are a people in search of a land. Their original leader, Gorkha National Liberation Front (GNLF) supremo Subhash Ghisingh, was evicted from power in 2007 by Bimal Gurung who piggybacked Indian Idol III Prashant Tamang, a Kolkata Gorkha policeman and a legend in these parts. He galvanised all Indian Gorkhas to help them to discover their common identity via the Gorkha Janmukti Morcha (GJM). Gurung is currently on the run, suspected to be hiding in Sikkim, on a murder charge.

Indian Gorkhas are distinct from Nepali Gorkhas and are scattered all over the country — J&K, Himachal Pradesh, Uttarakhand, North Bengal Sikkim, Dooars and the North East. The largest concentration of Indian Gorkhas is in North Bengal in the hill district of Darjeeling — Kurseong, Kalimpong and Darjeeling and parts of Dooars. It has a Gorkha population of nearly 22 lakh compared to six lakh in Sikkim which became a state in 1975 following Indian annexation. The region is of great strategic value. The vulnerable Chicken’s Neck or Siliguri Corridor and the National Highway 31 A to Sikkim along with the only road and rail links to the North East along the Tiger and Sevok bridges lie in this area. 

TMC and the Gorkhas have had a bitter relationship, especially lately when TMC tried to break the GJM, taking advantage of a leadership vacuum. But content with her victory, Banerji announced in January that TMC will not attempt to alter or subjugate the Gorkha identity and has even held out hope that some sort of identity-based territorial adjustment might be possible. This has set off a furious debate in the hills of North Bengal about whether TMC is part of the problem or part of the solution. Little wonder then that Mamata Banerji is the undisputed tigress of Bengal — one whose teeth other parties would prefer not to count.

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