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Mainstream, Vol XLVI No 11

Padmabibhushan to Pranab Mukherjee and its Effect in West Bengal

Letter From Kolkata

Saturday 1 March 2008, by Amitava Mukherjee

On many counts the Padmabibhushan award to Pranab Mukherjee on the occasion of the last Republic Day is likely to influence the course of politics in West Bengal in the days to come. It is also likely to spike the possibility of any Trinamul Congress-Congress as alliance in the forthcoming all important panchayat elections of the State. Although it is too early to say whether the Pranab Mukherjee issue will cast its shadow on the TMC-Congress relationship at the time of the coming parliamentary elections there is no doubt that the issue will pose a difficulty before Sonia Gandhi who is known to be willing to strike a deal with the TMC without endangering the UPA-Left partnership before the elections.

To Sonia, Mamata Banerjee’s importance has increased after the Congress’ poor performance in Gujarat and Himachal Pradesh. The Congress managers know that next time the task of Ministry formation will be tougher. In Bihar the Rashtriya Janata Dal of Laloo Yadav, an ally of the Congress, is now only a pale shadow of what it used to be earlier due to loss of State power to the Janata Dal(U)-BJP combine. In Tamil Nadu the AIADMK is reportedly on the upswing and in Karnataka the Congress is finding it difficult to project any leader who can be the Chief Minister. Therefore West Bengal, so long considered marginal by the Congress central leadership, has assumed some amount of importance. A line of communication between the TMC and the Congress was opened recently.

Of course, one can ask questions over Pranab Mukherjee’s eligibility for the Padmabibhushan award. Although it is not known whether he really longed for it, it must be admitted at the same time that he never lobbied for any Padma award. What he really wished to have is entirely different—the position of the President of India and he had the wholehearted support of the Left. But his path was blocked by none other than Sonia Gandhi on the argument of Pranab Mukherjee’s indispensability for the UPA Government. However, a certain section in the corridors of power was convinced that the topmost Congress political leadership would never agree to Pranab becoming the President as the Foreign Minister is not regarded as hundred per cent loyal. Moreover the Left’s over-enthusiasm for Pranab’s candidature for the post of President further queered the pitch.

KNOWLEDGEABLE circles believe that the Padmabibhushan award to Pranab Mukherjee is nothing but an attempt to compensate him in some way after his actual desire was spiked some months back. But whatever may be the reason, the Padmabibhushan award has caused some amount of uncomfort for him. The Trinamul Congress has openly challenged the justifiability of the award. Mamata Banerjee thinks that Pranab Mukherjee is not credited with any public service that may entitle him for the honour. Partha Chatterjee, the knowledgeable leader of the Opposition in the West Bengal Assembly, is more trenchment in his criticism: “That man (Pranab Mukherjee) has not done anything for the common people. He even did not bother to go to Nandigram and Singur,” Partha has said.

This is a charge Pranab Mukherjee will find hard to repudiate. Oldtimers of the Congress admit that Pranab Mukherjee’s long silence after the state terrorism in Singur and Nandigram is likely to cause him irreparable political damage. An important leader of the West Bengal Pradesh Congress Committee thinks that Pranab might find it difficult to sail through the troubled waters at the time of the next parliamentary elections even if he gets the support of Adhir Chowdhury, the Murshidabad Congress strongman. It may be mentioned here that Pranab had won from Jangipur in Murshidabad district. But some PCC stalwarts are skeptical this time as Jangipur is numerically dominated by voters of the minority community who are largely aggrieved at the state repression on their brethren in Singur and Nandigram.

It is really unfortunate for India’s External Affairs Minister that he has never been able to grow in political stature in his home State. But for this the policy of the Congress High Command is more responsible than Pranab himself. Undoubtedly his days in the Bangla Congress in the late sixties of the previous century was the brightest chapter in Pranab Mukherjee’s political career. In the seventies he was first dwarfed by the tall presence of Siddhartha Shankar Ray and then in the eighties, was totally overwhelmed by the rustic popularity of A.B.A. Ghani Khan Chowdhury. But he successfully retained his position in Delhi by becoming a docile follower of Indira Gandhi. Naturally he had no other way but to repeatedly get returned to Parliament through the Rajya Sabha.

Without going into the merits and demerits of Trinamul’s vituperative attack on India’s External Affairs Minister, it can safely be said that there are many interesting turns in Pranab Mukherjee’s political career which defy explanations, one of them being his election to the Rajya Sabha from West Bengal when he was able to engineer cross- voting among the Left Front partners. But what has certainly made him unpopular among the non-Left voters of the State is the responsibility he is discharging as the coordinator of the Left on the one side and the UPA constituents on the other.

In the ultimate analysis the Padmabibhushan honour to Pranab Mukherjee will neither benefit him nor the Congress. Prior to the announcement of the award the idea of some kind of political adjustment between the Trinamul and the Congress at the time of the forthcoming panchayat elections was in the air and a Union Minister was hopeful that it would take concrete shape in two or three months. But the sudden announcement of the award has totally jeopardised this process. The CPM is trying to extol the event as a moment of pride for Bengal and Bengalis.

However, Mamata’s and the Trinamul Congress’ reactions could have been more sober and restrained. It goes without saying that Pranab Mukherjee is just an instrument in implementing the overall policy framed by an individual-centric Congress party. Significantly for the first time in her entire political career, Mamata Banerjee has now raised her voice against the domination of a certain space of our political spectrum by the Nehru-Gandhi family. It is now almost certain that the Trinamul Congress is gearing up to fight the coming elections without having any alliance or adjustment with the Congress. This is also bad news for the Congress as without the Trinamul’s support it cannot hope to neutralise even a fraction of the electoral loss it is likely to suffer in States like Bihar, Orissa, Uttar Pradesh and several other regions.

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