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What Rahul's West Bengal visit could mean

Marcus Dam

It is expected to give the much-needed fillip to the Congress party

KOLKATA: More than just providing a sense of purpose to the Congress in West Bengal, All-India Congress Committee general secretary Rahul Gandhi's three-day whirlwind tour of the State from Tuesday is expected to give the much-needed fillip to the party at a time when the critical Assembly polls are due next year.

Mr. Gandhi's plan to rejuvenate the party from the grass-roots level, by laying emphasis on the ongoing membership drive of the Youth Congress which he launched a week ago, is obvious. But his focus on “direct democracy” in the party's youth wing and caution against “nepotism” within a party beleaguered by infighting is a clear indication of the direction he intends to take.

Trinamool alliance

However much the Congress would like everyone to believe that it has a separate political agenda in the State, there is little denying that in recent times the party's fortunes have largely depended on the fate of its electoral alliance with the Trinamool Congress, by far the bigger of the two parties. And it is a point that the latter has seldom hesitated to drive home, much to the chagrin of the other.

Mr. Gandhi is only too well aware, and has made clear his intentions on the matter. At a meeting with senior State leaders during his brief visit here on September 6, he is reported to have said unambiguously that the dignity of the party was non-negotiable and there could not be any alliance at the cost of the Congress's interests.

If it comes to the crunch, is the Congress prepared to go it alone? Is it due to this it now seems imperative that the party widens and strengthens its base as is being propounded by its leadership? And even if the alliance sticks, is the Congress not putting across the message that it is no longer ready to accept its bigger partner riding roughshod over it?

It is against this backdrop that Mr. Gandhi will be visiting West Bengal, and holding meetings with party workers and prospective candidates for the organisational elections across nine districts.

Any effort directed at strengthening the Congress' base in a State where the polity is largely bipolar will impinge on the support base of the Trinamool.

On the face of it, the Trinamool leadership — which is riding high on its recent electoral successes — is not overtly worried. But it would be naïve to assume that given the unmistakable indication that Mr. Gandhi means business, there is no trace of anxiety in the Trinamool camp.

Senior Congress leader and Union Finance Minister Pranab Mukherjee and Mr. Gandhi have pointed out that the Congress was gaining significant ground in Uttar Pradesh. Mr. Gandhi said he could see his party forming the next government there.

The political reality is undeniably different in West Bengal, where the Left Front will be contesting the next Assembly polls with the intent of returning to power for the eighth successive term.

But was there a hint of rancour when Trinamool chief and Railway Minister Mamata Banerjee, at a Ministry event on Monday, said she was not a seasonal bird that “comes and goes.” She also sought “some more of a foothold” for her party in the region.

Saying this at New Jalpaiguri, could Ms. Banerjee have been referring to Mr. Gandhi's proposed hopping visit to Jalpaiguri and other parts of north Bengal on Wednesday? This is a region unlike the better part of West Bengal, where the Congress occupies more of the Opposition's political space than does its ally?

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