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Bengal Congress in crisis as dissension and poaching by Trinamool take toll

Sulagna Sengupta | Updated on: 5 September 2016, 13:00 IST

Riven with dissension and weakened by relentless poaching by the ruling TMC, the Congress in Bengal is starting at disaster.

The internal feuds, exacerbated by the party's decision to ally with the Left Front in the last assembly election, burst into the open over Manas Bhunia's appointment, by the speaker, as chairman of the assembly's Public Accounts Committee. The Congress' leader of the opposition Abdul Mannan apparently wanted CPM's Sujan Chakraborty to hold the post. The party's state chief Adhir Chowdhury has recommended to the central leadership to suspend Manas. The latter isn't taking it lying down, meeting top Congress leaders, including Rahul Gandhi and Digvijaya Singh, to present his side of the story.

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His brother Bikash Bhunia recently joined the TMC and that hasn't helped Manas' case. Bikash took 22 other Congress members of Sabang Panchayat Samiti with him to the ruling party, increasing its representation from 14 to 37 and giving it total control of the 39-seat samiti. Sabang, West Midnapore, is represented in the assembly by Manas.

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Manas appears undeterred, though. A few days ago, he lashed out at both Mannan and Adhir, sarcastically remarking that they should be awarded the Padma Vibhushan for bringing the party feuds out into the open and giving rival parties a reason to point fingers at the Congress. He even accused the state leadership of being in a "secret pact" with the BJP.

As for his appointment as PAC chairman, obviously a generous gift from the ruling party, Manas claimed it was all in the spirit of cooperative federalism. "I support Mamata Banerjee for speaking out against the central government for destroying cooperative federalism. This was the agenda of the Congress, but our leaders in Bengal are now only looking out for their own interests, and are thus entering into secret pacts."

Depleting cadre

If internal dissension wasn't worrying enough, the Congress is reeling from the poaching of its workers and leaders by the TMC. This exodus, in fact, is the reason for the Congress losing several local bodies in Murshidabad and Malda to the ruling party.

In Murshidabad, considered the fief of Adhir, the Congress took 42 seats in the election to the 70-member Murshidabad Zilla Parishad in 2013; the Left Front got 27 seats and the TMC just one. But persistent poaching by the TMC saw the Congress' representation plummet to 19 and the Left's to 22 while the TMC's soared to 29.

To find ways to stop the defections, Adhir recently called a convention, rather appropriately titled 'Save the Congress', in his hometown Berhampur. But in a sign of the troubled times the Congress finds itself in, three MLAs - Rabiul Alam, Mainul Haque and Akhruzzaman - stayed away from the convention, sparking speculation about their possible defection. As if on cue, Rabiul, the legislator from Rejinajar, joined the TMC two days ago.

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Adhir has alleged that the TMC was paying crores of rupees to members of civic bodies run by the Congress in exchange for joining the TMC. And the civil administration, he added, was "hand-in-glove with the ruling party" in making this happen. "We are cornered but we haven't lost hope. I'm holding the ground until my last breath," Adhir declared.

Tottering citadels

In Malda, the citadel of the late Congress stalwart ABA Ghani Khan Choudhury, the opposition party suffered a blow when eight of its Zilla Parishad members, including the Sabhapati, went over to the ruling party. The TMC had won only six seats in the 38-member Malda Zilla Parishad, but now enjoys a majority of 22 after poaching eight members from the Congress, six from the CPI(M) and two from the Samajwadi Party.

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Soumitra Ray, one of the Congress defectors, said they left in protest against the "autocratic and dynastic politics" of the party's MPs Abu Hasem Khan Choudhury and Mausam Noor, brother and niece, respectively, of Gani Khan.

Noor rubbished the allegations. She said, "Those who have left the Congress are traitors. The people of Malda will teach them a lesson as Malda is still the soil of the Congress."

Political analysts such as Prof Amol Mukherjee have, however, pointed out that the capture of the Malda Zilla Parishad has given the TMC a foothold in a region where it failed to win even a single seat in the last assembly election, and the party won't give it up easily. Also Mamata is playing a longer game: she doesn't just want to retain power, she wants to make Bengal "opposition free".

Indeed, the TMC's transport minister Suvendu Adhikary was quite candid in admitting to this "goal" of his party, remarking, "We will grab all seats from the opposition as most workers of the Congress and the CPM are fed up with the autocracy perpetrated on them."

The opposition parties have caught on to the plan, as it were. "The TMC is trying to destroy the basics of our democracy and constitution by harping on an opposition-free Bengal," said MP Md Salim of the CPM.

Abdul Mannan of the Congress said, "We will launch a protest movement against Mamata for her misrule and for bribing our leaders and workers to join TMC. Mamata is trying to destabilise Bengal by indirectly supporting the BJP's plan of Congress-mukht Bharat."

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First published: 3 September 2016, 20:32 IST