Bengal no stranger to Aya Ram, Gaya Ram politics (West Bengal Newsletter)
Snooty politicians from West Bengal have long poured scorn and ridiculed the "Aaya Ram Gaya Ram" culture of the hindi heartland - of political leaders including legislators switching sides at the drop of a hat. But no more. The eastern state now also seems to have fallen in line.
While political heavyweight Somen Mitra, who resigned from the Trinamool Congress to rejoin the Congress, is the latest example of a party hopper, the state has over the past one-and-a-half decades, witnessed a substantial number of leaders switching sides frequently to further their interests.
Before the formation of the Trinamool Congress in 1998, political desertions in the state used to be relatively low, leaving aside splits in outfits like the Communist Party of India (CPI) that led to the formation of the Communist Party of India-Marxist (CPI-M), or those in the Congress, which spawned several offshoots.
But the Trinamool Congress' formation upturned the script.
Between 1998 and 2001, the state assembly was witness to contrary situations of a number of Congress legislators obeying the party whip inside the house but functioning as Trinamool Congress leaders outside. It was a tactic aimed at avoiding diqualifcation under the anti-defection law.
Then chief minister Jyoti Basu time and again made this an issue. "What sort of political ethics is this? Inside they are Congress, and outside they are Trinamool. They are making a mockery of parliamentary democracy," he would say.
But it seems the Aaya Ram Gaya Ram culture - so christened after Haryana legislator Gaya Lal changed party thrice in a fortnight in 1967 - has come to stay in West Bengal.
In fact, Mitra's Congress-Trinamool-Congress journey pales into insignificance when compared to the chequered career of two other political frontliners of the state - Saugata Roy and Subrata Mukherjee.
Renowned for his oratorial prowess, and generally regarded as the best speaker in the opposiiton benches during the Left Front rule, Roy - a product of the student movement of the 1960s - switched allegiance to Banerjee after she formed the Trinamool Congress, but returned to the Congress within a short time.
He even contested the 1998 Lok Sabha polls against Banerjee from the then Calcutta South seat as the Congress nominee - and lost his deposit.
The physics professor went back to the Trinamool Congrress and won the 2001 assembly polls on the party's ticket. Since then, he has stayed in the Trinamool Congress, which made him a union minister in 2009. However, he has never been a part of Banerjee's close group and many feel she never made him the leader of opposition during the LF regime after the 1998 experience.
More interesing is the case of Mukherjee, whose administrative skills have been widely acclaimed.
Though instrumental in Banerjee securing the Congress ticket for the 1984 Lok Sabha elections from Jadavpur - which she won by unseating CPI-M veteran Somnath Chatterjee - Mukherjee became allergic to her as she quickly became popular and rose fast in the party hierarchy.
The dislike soon became mutual. It is believed that Banerjee's oft-repeated remark that a section of the Congress leaders were "tormuj" or watermelons (red or pro CPI-M inside and green or pro-Congress outside) was mainly directed at him.
A wily politician, Mukherjee did a sharp U-turn and left the Congress to pitch his lot with the Trinamool Congress after the Congress' debacles in the state in the 1998 and 1999 Lok Sabha elections.
In 2000, Banerjee made him the mayor of Kolkata (then Calcutta) after the Trinamool Congress snatched the Kolkata Municipal Corporation (KMC) from the Left Front. However, even after being the mayor as a Trinamool Congress leader, he chose not to resign as the Congress member of the legislative assembly.
But days before the next civic polls, Mukherjee resigned from the Trinamool Congress and returned to the Congress. The Left Front regained the board.
Mukherjee again started attacking Banerjee, but mellowed in his criticism as the Left Front began to fast lose its support base, with the Trinamool Congress going from strength to strength.
In 2010, as the state Congress working president, Mukherjee was entrusted by the party to thrash out a honourable seat-sharing arrangement with the Trinamool Congress for the KMC polls. The talks broke down, and within days Mukherjee was back in the Trinamool Congress.
Now, in charge of key portfolios like panchayat and public health engineering, he is one of the key ministers in the Banerjee cabinet.
Besides, over the past two-and-a-half years, there has been a steady stream of Congress leaders - legislators, municipal councillors and panchayat members - who have been crossing over to the ruling Trinamool Congress. The Left Front partners - CPI-M, CPI, Forward Bloc and Revolutioanry Socialist Party - have also seen some desertions from their ranks to the Trinamool Congress, but to a much less extent.
(Sirshendu Panth can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org)
(Posted on 25-01-2014)