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Dhaka Tribune

OP-ED: Should Bangladesh care about Mamata Banerjee’s third win?

Are there any direct consequences at all?

Update : 11 May 2021, 02:54 AM

Mamata Banerjee’s election win was not a nail-biting one, but it has given her Trinamool Congress (TMC) a vigorous shakedown that it had not seen in the years that it has been in power.

The elections may have netted her more legislative seats than in 2016 (213 vs 211), but there were times during the election campaign when it seemed her grip on power was slipping with Narendra Modi rousting up his BJP supporters all over West Bengal.

Modi and his party were so bent on snatching the West Bengal elections that he and his top deputies, including the formidable Home Minister Amit Shah, rallied from one end of the state to another, courting votes for BJP and throwing the dangers of corona infection to the wind.

To BJP and Narendra Modi, Mamata Banerjee was a foe who needed to be weeded out and her grip on West Bengal permanently unclasped by creating fears of unbridled “illegal” immigration from Bangladesh under Mamata Banerjee’s leadership and misrule.

Narendra Modi even travelled to remote villages in Bangladesh to woo a vote bank of Bangladeshi Hindu migrants in West Bengal whose ancestors had migrated from those areas (this vote bank was a counter to the purported Muslim vote bank in West Bengal that supports TMC).

In the end, however, the strident Mamata Banerjee was able to overcome BJP and its all-out effort to dismantle her from her seat. She became the chief minister of West Bengal for the third time around. Her win proved her grit and her invincibility, more precisely her astute politics with which she could deflect her opponents.  

All this is good for Mamata Banerjee and her party. But going forward, can she manage to keep her state’s economy going with a contentious central government that continues to be led by a prime minister who was hell bent to oust her? As it is, her relationship with the BJP led-government has been sour since Modi was installed prime minister.

She has had spats with Modi on many issues, such as central government interference in her administration (CBI investigations of police in West Bengal), her allegations of the central government’s reluctance to help West Bengal economically, opposition to the Modi-initiated Citizenship Act, and many other subjects that Mamata felt undermined West Bengal.

Mamata had risen to power in West Bengal after dismantling 34 years of leftist rule under the Communist Party of India (CPI-Marxist). In doing so, she had shown her adroitness and political skill to muster opposition against a party of formidable strength that had grown roots in all sections of West Bengal society -- rural and urban.

The strategy that Mamata had followed in bringing down CPI rule was not through replacement of CPI cadres with her own TMC acolytes, but through mass rallies in all parts of the state highlighting the misrule of CPI and the highhandedness of the party workers.

Her ability to generate wide-scale opposition to CPI rule garnered support from masses, and she gained popularity as a capable political leader. TMC and its allies sailed through in the elections of 2011 and Mamata became chief minister. In the next elections in 2016, TMC did not have to seek alliance with any other party. With 211 seats, TMC became the single largest party in the assembly.

Mamata Banerjee’s TMC may have gained two seats more than in 2016 (it could even be two more after elections are held in the two constituencies where elections were delayed due to the deaths of candidates). But contrast this with BJP, which won 77 seats, which is a quantum leap from a meagre 3 seats won in 2016. In percentage, this is even more impressive. BJP won 37% compared with 47% secured by TMC. In 2016, BJP had won only 10% of total votes. If BJP can make such a deep inroad in West Bengal in five years, can a takeover in the next elections be ruled out?

For the next five years, Mamata Banerjee’s chief worry should not just be how to manage relationships with the BJP-led centre, but also how to retain her party’s grip in West Bengal politics and prevent further spread of Saffron politics in her state.

Next, let us look at the ramifications of Mamata Banerjee’s election on West Bengal’s neighbour -- Bangladesh. None, in my view. Bangladesh’s relationship with India is on a country-to-country basis, not with West Bengal, which is not a sovereign entity. There cannot be any exclusive relationship of a country with one component of another country.

West Bengal is one of 28 states of India. Any relationship of a state with a foreign country is managed by the Indian government. West Bengal cannot enter into a treaty or agreement with a foreign country no matter how close that country is or how its borders crisscross. Bangladesh’s relationship with West Bengal is through the Indian government.

However, we do care about who governs the neighbouring states since political leadership in that country shapes and governs mutual relationships. There is a human element in every relationship, even between countries. The leaders develop personal relationships which can resolve many disputes without contention.

It is helpful if our neighbouring Indian states have good leaders and are helpful to us even though they have to operate through their central government.

There are many outstanding problems that Bangladesh has with India, including our perennial water-sharing issues that involve West Bengal. Mamata Banerjee may be a well wisher of Bangladesh, and we wish her well too. But as much as we have friendly feelings for each other, her third election win does not solve our problems with India.

Our problems are bilateral, of one sovereign country with another. These have to be resolved by each country’s government on appropriate levels.

Teesta water-sharing is only one of many that we need to resolve. On this, we hope that a newly re-elected Mamata Banerjee will cooperate with her leader at the centre to ratify the water-sharing agreement.

Her election may not bring any direct result in Bangladesh, but we can hope in her new term she will change her stance on this unresolved issue and prove her friendship with Bangladesh.

Ziauddin Choudhury has worked in the higher civil service of Bangladesh early in his career, and later for the World Bank in the US.

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